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The Allman Brothers Band at the Beacon Theatre: Preview 2004

By Published: February 17, 2004
The Allman Brothers have always been fearless and throughout their 35 plus year career it has both blessed them and cursed them. The same courage that lent itself to the exploration of a marriage of blues, rock and jazz also caused, at least in part, the deaths of two founding members of the band. The resolute unwillingness to let the name lie dormant for too very long has brought about more regroupings and splits than any other rock and roll band in history has endured and right now, it is neither implausible or hyperbole to say the lineup as constituted in 2005 meets and exceeds the standards set by ABB at any other high points of their time together, either in the original sextet including Duane Allman and Berry Oakley or the single-guitar alignment within which pianist Chuck Leavell played so prominent a role. At this point, The Allmans' artistic integrity is virtually matched by its popular acclaim, while their commercial savvy grows in direct proportion to the group's increasing level of activity as 2005 progresses.

There has never been another band that sounded quite like the Allman Brothers Band. Even when Dixie rock was all the rage in rock during the Seventies, and every other band in existence seemed to emanate from below the Mason/Dixon line, no group managed to fuse electric blues, hard rock by way of England and the genuine jazz aesthetic of open-ended improvisation like ABB. There was a sense of abandon and adventure in their musicianship that could conjure up music in turn utterly divine and downright dirty.

It's probably better left to an insider with more perspective than you can get in early 2005—perhaps see ex-roadie Willie Perkins' recently published book No Saints No Saviors—to document the true history ofThe Allman Brothers Band. Let it be said right now though, that the story of this seminal southern bandcontains all the lore of true rock and roll mythology, containing as it does the tragedy of death, themelodrama of violent intra-band discord as well as the soap opera of romance, all within the de rigueurcomings and goings of a successful band including musical conflicts and business dealings. Aprospective movie script recounting these goings-on might be rejected for being implausible.

What's most remarkable of all is, on the eve of the group''s 35th anniversary, is that after all the sideroads , regressions and breakups, the newly-reconstituted band finds itself quite literally back where it all began. Comprised of a potent lineup of musicians, inspired by each other to pursue the collective adventure of being on stage together, meanwhile savoring a personal camaraderie that fosters the composition of new original material, refined studio work and the practical necessities of touring together, all the while allowing time for the individuals to pursue their respective interests. While perhaps not intending to, since in most cases, the decisions have been made based on its pure survival, The Allman Brothers Band have become a prototype of the fluid unit that thrives on flexibility at every level.

Who could've imagined there would be an ABB at the time of Duane Allman's untimely death in late 1971?'On the verge of a breakthrough to the masses based on grueling roadwork and the seminal live document of their shows Live at Fillmore East , the band minus its figurehead hardly faltered, playing at his funeral as a quintet, then trudging right back to the studio to complete the Eat A Peach album begun earlier that year. As a quintet, the group healed itself and bonded to fill the void left by their leader, finding its profile elevated by the death of the Skydog; the group had begun to regain its momentum when original bassist Berry Oakley, reportedly traumatized in the year following Duane's death, succumbed to a fatal motorcycle accident in eerily similar circumstances.

Having kept working during all this time, the decimated Allmans realigned themselves in multiple ways. Dickey Betts having become frontman by default as the remaining guitarist, he now became as prominent a songwriter for the group as sibling Gregg, proffering a country-tinged style that hit the chord of commercial prosperity with "Ramblin' Man." Quite unlike the Latin-tinged instrumentals he had previously written, such as "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," this tune, as well as a new signature song "Jessica," featured the tradeoffs between Betts and newly recruited pianist Chuck Leavell, whose sparkling playing rekindled much of the inspirational spark from the original lineup, albeit with a wholly different texture. Further augmented by the enlistment of bassist Lamar Williams, whose dark r&B lines underscored and contrasted the brighter tones of Betts and Leavell, ABB in 1973 completed a remarkable reinvention of themselves and the masses recognized it with prodigious sales of Brothers and Sisters

The struggles to that end took their toll on the bandmembers, particularly Gregg. Receding into the background as Dicky's star ascended, carrying the Allman name wasn't enough to give the keyboardist/vocalist/composer enough direction even though he worked regularly on his own live and in the studio. While fighting the demons of alcohol and drugs to a draw, Gregg wandered into an absurd liaison with Cher, all the while trying to maintain his physical health and mental equilibrium. Not surprisingly, these factors contributed to the Allmans studio work( Win Lose or Draw )turning as piecemeal as their live shows had turned erratic and, in the wake of a brutally ugly trial in which Gregg was cornered into testifying against one of the group's own personnel in order to save himself, The Allman Brothers Band dissolved in the midst of threats to never work together again.

In retrospect, then, it seems all the more remarkable the group built itself back together again and it's a testament to the power of music and the fraternal bonds of musicians it happened. But it took some fifteen years for the reconstruction of this southern band to be complete and it was a fitful process beginning in 1979 when Gregg, the rhythm section and members of Betts' own band Great Southern adopted the Allman name and recorded Enlightened Rogues (a phrase coined by Duane). Less than stellar material and a certain lack of chemistry plagued the recording itself, even though Tom Dowd, producer of their best early albums, was in the production booth. When legal issues effectively dissolved Capricorn Records, a label effectively built on ABB's success, the band moved to the Arista label where the valiant effort the group was displaying in concert was lost in unsympathetic production on two albums, the second of which found the sextet missing Jaimoe, one of the instrumental lynchpins of the band from its inception..

The Eighties then saw little of the Allman Brothers, but when in one of the few kind turns done the group by their label, the box set Dreams was released, the band regrouped, again including members of Dickey's current group, namely guitarist Warren Haynes and bassist Allen Woody. Two fine studio efforts for Sony ( Seven Turns and Shades of Two Worlds ) raised the band's cache and their profile, so that regular touring, including spring runs at the Beacon in New York and occasional stops in Boston's Orpheum and Chicago's Wiltern, plus regular summer jaunts brought out fans who were (re)discovering the Allman Brothers. The jamband scene was in its earliest stages and more importantly, the commercial breakthrough of the Grateful Dead helped ABB bask in their glow, but the important factor was that the band had its bearings again, if not all its spirit of adventure.

That's apparent on the live Evening with... albums at the time where the septet, now including percussionist Marc Quinones, does yeoman work to climb the heights of the original group, using both old and new material. Yet the relationship between the guitarists left Haynes only as Betts's prot'g', even as the entire group's star ascended with a new audience as they headlined the 1994 lineup of the HORDE tour. All of which constituted important steps for the group nonetheless, because the sound they developed at this stage hearkened back to the raw bluesy attack of the group's earliest recordings. Nevertheless, with Woody as kindred spirit, Warren left to develop the side project known as Gov'tMule(perhaps in part for the purpose of more open-ended improvisation); elevating tension between the band and their current label was only mirrored in the revival of Capricorn for reissuing of much of the group's early recordings and when Mule opted to work for the Phil Walden label, their leaders were asked to leave the Allman Brothers.

By this time, recurring instances of Betts' self-destructive behavior kept him from some concert appearances and gave birth to some internal strife that was muffled by the first injection of fresh new blood into the band in the person of bassist extraordinaire Oteil Burbridge. Last of Bruce Hampton's Aquarium Rescue Unit, his fluid playing brought a distinct jazz feel to the music. Jack Pearson who had written and played with Gregg in his own band was tapped to take the second guitar spot, during which time relations with Sony/Epic deteriorated further (as did, in hindsight, Dickey's relationship with the rest of the group), resulting in just one more studio project, Where It All Begins , like its two predecessors, produced by old friend Tom Dowd from a soundstage set to capture the live feel of the band at its best. The enlistment of the precocious Derek Trucks, Butch's nephew, as lead and slide guitarist in place of Pearson, was the second crucial personnel move to happen, as he consolidated the jazz influence of Burbridge and added the unique tonalities of his own eclectic tastes, including Indian music

The inherent possibilities of this alignment seemed somewhat stunted when in spring of 2000 founder guitarist Dickey Betts was asked to leave the group on the eve of its annual summer tour. The final Epic release, Peakin' at the Beacon, was ostensibly released without the group's consent, but it nevertheless set the stage for the radical events that were about to speed up the rejuvenation of the band in ways even they could not imagine. It was probably no accident most of the material was original material of Gregg's from the first through third albums'

Serendipity brought more to the Allmans than possibly any amount of strategizing could could. Jimmy Herring, who had played in the ARU with Oteil, took over guitar and brought a wholly fresh perspective to the band's native resources, helping reintroduce material to the repertoire they hadn't played in years, most conspicuously "Mountain Jam" which the group had been only teasing during its extended sets. The accidental death of Allen Woody closed down some avenues for Warren Haynes, but opened him up to the possibility of rejoining the Allmans when Herring decided he couldn't take Betts' place permanently.

So it was that as a special guest Warren Haynes played with the Allmans during their Beacon run of 2001 and found everyone in the band, from the namesake to newest recruit, playing with fire and purpose. The rest is history'in the making. The prominent role Haynes has assumed for The Allman Brothers is indispensable: not only does he sing and play for the band (and has developed an unnaturally sympathetic relationship as a guitarist with Derek that he never had with Dickey), but he helped co-produce a superb studio album for the group, Hittin' the Note , for which he also composed, often in tandem with Gregg, the bulk of the material. The unity of the band has solidified personally and musically so that, with no self-consciousness to speak of except that of their own self-awareness of their history, The Allman Brothers Band has indeed gotten back to where it all begins, with the added wisdom of those years of hard luck and perseverance that has finally begun to reward them with the self-satisfaction of music well-played and the recognition they deserve for it. Even irony has turned favorable for ABB as past record companies scrambled to capitalize on the band's ascent and actually did them favors; the vaults of Sony Music gave forth the two disc document of their 1970 appearance at the Atlanta Pop festival in late 2003, reaffirming the invention and power of the band months before the Fillmore recordings(which were themselves repackaged for consumption by new legions of Peach-heads late in 2003 as well).

But the 35th Allman anniversary began in 2004 with dates at the Beacon to coincide with the release of a double audio cd One Way Out, recorded during the 2003 run where, as evidenced by the DVD recorded during that same period, the group's stretched itself in ways they might not have imagined even at their beginnings, bringing passion and commitment to a legacy that once again seems worthy of legend. The ensuing months saw an elevation of activity for The Brothers that has carried over into 2005. For all intents and purposes, Allmans activity never really ceased as the summer tour stetched into the autumn and the band reconvened in late fall to perform the Eat A Peach song cycle broadcast, in its entirety on XM satellite radio, in December.

For a group that's faced down its demons as often and effectively as ABB, this constituted a confrontation with its most recent ghost in the form of departed guitarist Dickey Betts, whose songs on this classic album'""Blue Sky,'? "Les Brers in A Minor'?— are arguably at the very heart of the work; having performed those tunes for the first time since his departure in 2000 during the Fox Theatre run in September of last year, The Allman Brothers Band circa 2005 are once again reclaiming a piece of their history to which they are, rightly or wrongly, fully due.(The 2004 archival release of a 1972 performance commandeered by Betts in the wake of Duane Allman's death is a fittingly gracious acknowledgment of the guitarist's profound contributions to the group). It's a measure of their collective bravery they do so, but then, as stated at the outset of this piece, courage is at the very foundaton of The Allmans' music and has been so since the band began: it is that daring which drives their improvisations as well as the refinement of a self-styled standard repertoire to which they bring authentic emotion and fresh interpretation on a regular basis. All of what this band called The Allman Brothers has ever done has been grounded in their music and it's for that very reason they have survived so long and continue to prosper today, in as many ways as they now do, heading with fully justified confidence as well as valor, toward their next anniversary.

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