Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Thinking about the Allman Brothers

The nonstandard grammar in the Allman Brothers Band singer-organist's autobiography My Cross To Bear (thanks, Big Mike!) puts me in mind of the '71 Rolling Stone profile by Grover Lewis that was my introduction to the band. Lewis painted them as ignorant rubes, and the band hated the piece. But Allman's My Cross To Bear, cowritten with Allen Light, is an honest, plain spoken, and engaging read that does a good job of capturing the triumphs and tragedies of a roller coaster career.

The story of the Allman Brothers is the story of the pure joy of playing music, destroyed with astonishing rapidity by narcotics, alcohol, and the trappings of success. Formed in Florida in 1969 from the ashes of a commercialized blues band (Hour Glass), a psychedelic band (Second Coming), and a folk-rock outfit (31st of February), they peaked two years later with At Fillmore East, maybe the greatest live rock album of all ti-i-ime. Their music featured twin lead guitars: Gregg's brother, Duane Allman, and Dickey Betts trading solos and playing harmonized lines that suffused their sound with golden warmth -- a quality I miss in rock music today, when all I hear is craft. (My fault or the music's? You decide!) For me, melodic rock soloing begins there.

The guitarists' blues-based and modal improvs floated, jazz-like, over a rhythm section (with two drummers!) that actually possessed some subtlety and swing. (Gregg writes that Duane could easily have made a power trio with bassist Berry Oakley and drummer Butch Trucks, but he was looking for something different, inspired by influences as disparate as Curtis Mayfield, King Curtis, Miles Davis and John Coltrane.) Golden-locked Gregg, who claims Little Milton Campbell as a primary influence, sang with the rasp of Ray Charles and the roar of Bobby Bland; it was no wonder Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler dug the Allmans.

As pure and beautiful as they sounded, though, the band members were strung out to a man on cocaine and heroin. Gregg recounts an episode where Ertegun and Wexler confronted him and his brother on their addictions, and the band's initial attempts to clean up. The wheels came flying off, though, with the motorcycle accident deaths of Duane in 1971, and Oakley the following year. The band regrouped and scored their greatest commercial success in 1973 with the album Brothers and Sisters, with Dickey Betts, previously eclipsed by Duane and Gregg, writing the bulk of the material and assuming de facto leadership. The drug-riddled band stumbled on through the '70s, dissolving and regrouping before folding the tent in '82.

They came back strong in '89 in a lineup built around guitarist Warren Haynes and bassist Allen Woody, who both departed in '94 to form Gov't Mule. Butch Trucks' nephew Derek Trucks, a slide virtuoso from the same mold as Duane, joined in '99. Dickey Betts, who penned many of the band's most popular songs but whom Gregg describes as an increasingly unreliable and abrasive bully, was replaced in 2000, the same year Allen Woody died of a drug overdose. Warren Haynes resumed touring with the ABB that year, and the version of the band with him, Derek Trucks, and bassist Oteil Burbridge in the front line is the strongest since the original lineup.

I was vaguely familiar with the Allmans via radio exposure (including the FM radio simulcast of the closing of the Fillmore East, which they headlined) when I was supposed to go see them play at the 1973 Watkins Glen festival and wound up spending the weekend at some kid's house instead, where my best buddy from junior high and I had access to large quantities of some drug and some musical equipment, and wound up jamming all weekend rather than attending the concert. (I've always said I'd rather play than watch anybody. Twenty-five years later, however, I was actually in a band that played "Liz Reed" for a minute. Hooray!)

At Fillmore East was inescapable at the "party house" where I hung out through high school (the cat that lived there had lost his mom the year before, and his dad was the night custodian at our school). As a result, the Fillmore versions of "You Don't Love Me," "Elizabeth Reed," and "Whipping Post" are indelibly etched on my synapses. It's still a record to conjure with, whether you prefer the original vinyl or the double CD Fillmore Concerts, which includes all the live stuff from Eat A Peach but, maddeningly, uses different versions of "One Way Out" and "Elizabeth Reed" than the originally released ones.

Gregg points out that "Southern rock" was a misnomer: the blues-based but improv-prone Allmans were as different from the Marshall Tucker Band ("country") as both of those bands were from Wet Willie ("R&B") and all of the above were from Lynyrd Skynyrd (the real American Rolling Stones -- forget Aerosmith and GnR). I remember seeing Marshall Tucker in Albany once, and the most memorable part of the show was the tiny, four-foot-something girl who danced vigorously through their entahr set, every part of her body in violent motion while this stoned-out dude sat right behind her, his nose three inches from her ass, nodding his head the whole time. As for the band's performance, it had an air of minstrelsy about it that was absent from the ABB.

While I hadn't thought about the Brothers in years, in the early '90s, I dug Col. Bruce Hampton's Aquarium Rescue Unit, an ABB-inspahrd outfit led by the Beefheartian frontman from Atlanta dadaists the Hampton Grease Band, whose 1971 double LP Music to Eat is reputedly the worst-selling album in the history of Columbia Records. Hampton went on to play a bit part in Sling Blade, while a couple of his musos -- guitarist Jimmy Herring and the aforementioned bassist Burbridge -- went on to play in the ABB itself.

In '99, I took my guitar-slinging oldest daughter to see the ABB at what was then Starplex in Dallas. Gregg was a muted presence, but within ten seconds of Derek Trucks' first solo, the entire crowd was on its feet, screaming. Then poor old Dickey still had to follow him in the same way as he'd had to follow Duane. Young Trucks was quite formidable, and not just "for his age." His eponymous debut solo album -- released when he was all of 18 -- blew my face off with Indian-sounding microtonal slide wonderment on tunes by Coltrane, Miles, and Wayne Shorter. (Gregg notes the eerie similarity between the young guitarist's physical presence and his late brother's.)

I tried hard to like Warren Haynes' Gov't Mule, but while I'm a sucker for power trios and appreciated that their range encompassed everything from Coltrane to Neil Young to Black Sabbath, their music impressed, but didn't move me. But when Haynes re-upped with the ABB in the Oughts, he produced 2003's Hittin' the Note, which a lot of people (Gregg included) will tell you is their best post-Duane album. That same year, they released a live DVD that was filmed during one of their epic stands at New York's Beacon Theater.

While people who care about such things might say that Herring, Derek Trucks, and Haynes are all technically superior to Duane -- particularly Haynes, who's an all-rounder, singing and writing as well as playing -- they're all still following a map that Duane drew. It seems a sad waste that his career trajectory (excluding the obscure early stuff) lasted only two years -- even shorter than Hendrix's -- and ended when he was just 25. Now, I want to go listen to "Mountain Jam" again...


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