Proud Flesh: The Allman Brothers Band and Dickey Betts
“ The Great Southern Schism between The Allman Brothers Band and founding member Richard Betts resulted in a fortunate fallout for both ”
I. The Premise
In his review of The Allman Brothers Band's Peakin' at the Beacon for All Music Guide , William Ruhlmann recounts Gregg Allman's abbreviated explanation for founding member Dickey Betts's unceremonious, fax-mediated dismissal from the band as being amply evidenced by the guitarist's allegedly poor performance on that live recording. Ruhlmann appropriately disposes of that sad straw man argument, ultimately giving credit to both Allman Brothers and Richard Betts for being the creative spark for the 35-year old band.
For the record, Betts was fired from the band in May 2001. Betts quoted from a fax he received May 17, 2001 from the band stating, "You have not been performing well and our shows have been repeatedly disappointing to both us and our fans as a result." While band members cited creative differences, a candid Gregg Allman stated in interviews that the guitarist's drinking and drug use and their results led to the firing. The same vices could possibly be said of the other remaining founding band membersbut no matter. One does not live the life of a musician without accumulating scars, and this is not a dissertation on a band's rite of passage. It is immaterial. The ABB and Richard Betts parted ways and both are the better for it.
That was in all in 2001-2002.
The 2003-2004 concert season saw the creation of a new recording phenomenon for the ABB and Richard Betts, based on The Who's practice of releasing all of their 2002 tour appearances individually on compact disc within two months of the performances. I wrote a review on one of these Who performances in the All About Jazz review The Who Encore 2002 SeriesDetroit Michigan 23 August 2002 , recounting the inestimable value of the band and of these concerts in what can only now be called the post-bootleg era.
The ABB and Richard Betts both employed the wares of Instant Live ( instantliveconcerts.com ) to document their more provocative shows of the '03-'04 season. Instant Live is a company who record concerts digitally to computer hard disk as they were being performed (from the sound board), burns them to compact disc on site, and sell them to fans at the end of the just-completed show as well as on the internet. The sonic quality is superb. The only way a listener could detect a difference between and Instant Live recording and something like The Allman Brothers Band: One Way OutLive at the Beacon Theater , is the unedited between-song banter of the classic '70s live recording format. This provides if nothing else 21st Century instant gratification. As a collector of '70s-vintage Rolling Stones bootlegs, these Instant Live Recordings are a slice of aural nectar not unlike a Bombay Sapphire Martini.
If one lives the road life of a Gregg Allman or a Richard Betts for 35 years and are still producing compelling music after all of the history one can accumulate in that amount of time, a certain hard honor is deserved if not demanded. There are plenty of dinosaur rock acts making their wheezing way around county and state fairs, lazily resting on their dusty laurels, ejaculating canned sets steeped in boredom.
Not the ABB and not Richard Betts
Inclusively and exclusively of Richard Betts, this is a group of musicians who perfectly reflect American life between 1970 and 2000. All of the gains and losses, all of the ups and downs, all of the good and bad of simply living are encompassed in the career of this superb American Band and its individual members, past and present.
II. The State of 1970s Popular Music in the (near) 21st Century
I have had the opportunity to experience two popular 1970s bands in both the mid-'70s and again 20 years later in the mid-'90s. The first is the Rolling Stones who I have invested a great deal of time in collecting their 1972 and 1973 tour bootlegs to study and enjoy for their recklessness and quicksilver abandon. I saw the band during their 1995 Tour. The second band was Yes, who I saw in 1972 and again in 1996. Both bands could be defined as hungry and creative artists 30 years ago and the consummate, self-satisfied businessmen today.
The Rolling Stones in 1973 were between Exile on Main Street and the release of Goat's Head Soup. This was the end of the fruitful and most important Mick Taylor period. This was essentially the end of the single most important creative period of any rock band, 1968 to 1972, the period in which the Rolling Stones released Beggar's Banquet , Let it Bleed , Get Yer Ya Yas Out , Sticky Fingers , and Exile on Main Street. The band was ragged as a garage combo, churning out "Gimme Shelter," "All Down the Line," and "Brown Sugar" with that carefree swagger that added to the Stones dangerous reputation during that period.
Likewise for Yesin 1972, I saw the original lineup with Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman just prior to the release to Close to the Edge. A little known band with a single LP release, the Eagles, opened for them in Little Rock Arkansas's Barton Coliseum. This may have been the finest Rock show I have ever seen in my near 50 years of following music. It was 100? F and large stage fans blew an artificial breeze on the performing musicians. Chris Squire's capes flew all around him as Jon Anderson sang? "not fly away?not fly away..."
Breaking 20 years hence, The Stones appeared at Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium for what could only be considered a Las Vegas act taken to the road. I was certainly happy to hear "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Some Girls," but the Glimmer Twins were no longer the strutting, famished artists of yesterday. They are flawless businessmen who knew exactly what the public wanted to consume and provided it to them for millions (and millions) of dollars (what a bunch of sappy soft touches we middle-aged are). Their performance was as slick as Teflon owl shit with nary a smidgen of sincerity or creativity. The band Yes, after several incarnations, decided to pull all of their nine lives together and hit the road in the mid 1990s to hopefully make a pile of money. So, not only was Steve Howe present, but also Trevor Rabin. "'Round About" was trimmed to a slim 5 minutes and "Close to the Edge" was never even considered. The Las Vegas Sands would have never been so happy to have two acts to replace the Rat Pack ( a ring-a-ding-ding? ).
The Rolling Stones and Yes represent one paradigm for sustaining a future for aging rock artists. Another more radical one was created by none other than the Grateful Dead prior to the death of Jerry Garcia. The Dead seized artistic and marketing control of their empire and began to release their recordings themselves as well as marketing the band's merchandise. Relentless touring permitted them to do this and bands such as Widespread Panic, The String Cheese Incident, and Phish followed suite. In this New World, these bands could perform the music they damn well pleased without the corporate suits interfering. Additionally, the Dead began to release shows recorded but never provided the public except by bootleg. What this resulted in was the equivalent of finding the rock music Rosetta Stone and releasing it digitally remastered. Following suite, the ABB is doing the same as well as the newly liberate Dickey Betts.
III. The Phoenix
Following the band's break from Epic Records (the label hosting the band's comeback in the early 1990s) in 2000, the ABB began to release recordings on their own ABB Recording Company and the briskly conceived Sanctuary Records. These recordings took two forms. One, finally, the Brothers were beginning to open their vaults to Duane Allman-era live recordings before and after the fabled Live at Fillmore East recordings. These recordings have been the subject of several tomes by All About Jazz's ABB expert Doug Colette . The second treasure trove was the first studio recording by the band with new material in close to eight years. Hittin' the Note did exactly that and was followed by the equally intriguing The Allman Brothers Band: One Way OutLive at the Beacon Theater . Re-reinvigorated by Derek Trucks and Oteil Burbridge, Gregg Allman actually rose to the occasion, making the most compelling music since the death of his brother thirty years on. Not only was Gregg Allman singing with his old soulful conviction, he is also playing the Hammond B3 with a new conviction. No artist, save for the bitter Chuck Berry, would have had more reason for corrosive cynicism toward his livelihood than Gregg Allman, yet he did not yield.
Additionally, the Brothers began to release live recordings on Instant Live, subverting the bootleg underground. Mr. Betts quickly followed suite. The Brothers have released six live recordings on the label. These recordings are:
- The Allman Brothers BandInstant Live, Indianapolis, IN, 7/25/03
- The Allman Brothers BandInstant Live, Hartford. CT, 8/02/03
- The Allman Brothers BandInstant Live The Meadows, NC, 8/03/03
- The Allman Brothers BandInstant Live, Charlotte, NC, 8/09/03*
- The Allman Brothers BandInstant Live, Raleigh, NC, 8/10/03
- The Allman Brothers BandInstant Live, Mansfield, MA, 8/21/04
An Instant Live Recording with this same date is marketed as having been recorded in Selma, TX. I suspect this is a printing mistake.
Mr. Betts has release a single Instant Live recording, Dickey Betts and Great SouthernInstant Live, The Odeon, Cleveland, OH, 3/09/04. This record and the ABB's Indianapolis and Raleigh shows will be the subject of the remainder of this apology.
The Instant Live recordings of the ABB and Dickey Betts illustrate dramatically that change can be a very good thing indeed. Both artists are writing new music that is light years from the bathetic compositions made by the artists during those lean years in the 1980s. The ABB has expanded their canon with Hittin' The Note while sharing performance rights to several songs with Betts, who, for his part has written some provocative new songs. This performance sharing has led to an interesting contrast in styles and approaches to like songs. Listening to the ABB and Betts Instant Live recordings enables listeners to not only understand the original role of Betts in the ABB but also Duane Allman's dual lead (non-slide) guitar role 30 years ago.
The ABB has gone through two printings of all of the Instant Live recordings from 2003 and is now starting on the 2004 tour. Ebay has been populated with these Instant collectors' items and for good reason. The ABB is making more excellent music today than any band its age and most contemporary bands. This has to be the success story of Rock music as popular fare. The 2003 Instant Live sets are quantitatively integrated with one another, but qualitatively have their differences. For the present discussion, I have chosen two sets that differ greatly enough to show the contrast between Allman shows. Thirty years has provided the ABB with a cornucopia of concert material from which the band has judiciously selected. The result is little enough overlap between shows to make purchasing the entire 2003 Instant Live tour set.
V. Instant LiveThe Allman Brothers Band, Murat Centre, Indianapolis, IN 7/25/03
Two words should aptly describe an informed listener's reaction to this show Holy Shit. The show kicks off with an incendiary reading of the earliest Allman Recorded canonthe first two cuts from1969's The Allman Brothers Band "Don't Want You No More / It's Not My Cross to Bear." Guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks fire the first shots before Gregg Allman enters with his most intense B3 break in 20 years. The band performs perfectly. Haynes solos before Trucks, then the pair spin out the dual lead guitar passages the band is noted for, with two different guitarists. It is a forgivable magic. This is not the original band and it makes no difference, it is just the music. Like Holy Scripture, Gregg Allman's "It's Not My Cross to Bear" follows "...No More" with Allman throwing his full weight into singing the song. Derek Trucks adds a virtuoso slide guitar that eclipses that of his teacher (but without that teacher would have never existed). The brilliant coda, with the dual drumming of Jaimoe and Butch Trucks propels the medley to its crystalline introductory conclusion.
"Ain't Wastin' Time No More" is played straight off of the Duane Allman love fest Eat a Peach. Haynes and Trucks both play slide guitar each soloing. Allman's vocals remain strong and dedicated. This trend continues through the old tunes, ... Fillmore 's "Hot 'Lanta," and Brothers and Sisters "Come and Go Blues" and "Wasted Words," the latter dramatically updated and sporting Allman fluffing the first verse, but? so what ? The new Allman sound, the tight "Rockin' Horse" and "High Cost of Low Living" both with hooking '70s chord progressions that add that one element of expectation to the songs that makes them so compelling. These are songs that provide jam rhythm just as "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" did in the old days. The band resurrects the blues standard. "The Same Thing," providing bassist Oteil Burbridge ample space to show off his chops as well as Karls Denson's Tiny Universe Karl Denson to show off on the tenor saxophone. Two of Dennison's band mates, trumpeter Chris Littlefield and guitarist jam with the Brothers on Dickey Betts's "Southbound," in a rendering that is light years better than that provided by Betts himself on his Instant Live offering. "Instrumental Illness" serves as an alternate jam vehicle to the time-tested "Mountain Jam." Here the jazz inflected tune allows the dual drummers to explore and extend the language of Tony Williams by way of Mickey Hart. The disc closes with the Dickey Betts composition "Revival" from Idlewild South. Crisp and tight, this is as fine a live recording as one could hope for from a vintage cum renewed band.
VI. Instant LiveThe Allman Brothers Band, Alltel Pavilion at Walnut Creek
Raleigh, NC, IN 8/10/03
Seventeen days later, The Allman Brothers Band open in Raleigh in much the same way they did in Indianapolis, with three early songs polished to a high shine. Derek Trucks hits his solo dead on in "Don't Keep Me Wonderin' as Warren Haynes does on "Done Somebody Wrong." Trucks and Haynes together carefully convolute the introduction to Brothers and Sisters' "Come and Go Blues." Approaching a high simmer, the band heads to Hittin' The Note for the new concert staple "Woman Across the River" where Gregg Allman blows out some of his most inspired singing. The Band's 1990 album, Seven Turns , provides a soulful "Gambler's Roll" followed by Warren Haynes's most significant contribution to the ABB Book, Where it All Begins ' "Soulshine," which serves both the guitarist in his solo settings and the Band in their performances.
Like the addition of Willie Dixon's "Same Thing" before the exit of Betts, the band takes on Sonny Boy Williamson's "Who's Been Talkin'" in grand style, giving the minor key blues a slick exterior, buffered by Warren Haynes caustic vocals. The song is infused with loud jazz, propelled by Butch Trucks and Jaimoe. Derek Trucks performs a blistering, virtuosic slide guitar solo as the climax of the piece. The ABB brings on the surprises with Susan Tedeschi addressing the lyrics of Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice" with the early morning sardonic regret of life on the road. Derek Trucks lends his superb slide guitar to the piece, accentuating the country roots of the song.
"Instrumental Illness" again plays the part of the extended jam on this Instant Live and again featuring a fiery Karl Denson. "Illness" is followed by a Southern Soulful reading of Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic." The end of the concert features Branford Marsalis on "Dreams" and "Whipping Post." His contribution to the former songs is a bit more compelling than to the latter, but both performances are very good. The addition of a horn or two to the mix is reminiscent of Little Feat adding Lenny Pickett to the mix on their monumental live recording, Waiting for Columbus. "Dreams" has always been a remnant of psychedelia since its original recording and the band allows that patina to remain as evidenced by Derek Truck's extra-temporal slide guitar and Warren Haynes's Southern fried tribute to Jerry Garcia.
"Whipping Post" remains the standard bearing composition for the Allman Brothers Band. Its performance here does not change this perception. It, like "Dreams," In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," "Mountain Jam," and "Instrumental Illness" provided outlets for improvisation, collective and individual. Marsalis turns in a superb solo, one completely in keeping with the monolithic stature of the song. The guitar interplay is tight and well captured. The set closes with what I consider the trickiest of all Allman performances. Sonny Boy Williamson's "One Way Out" as originally released on Eat A Peach , represents the perfect electric blues performance. Duane Allman and Dickey Betts share such a perfect empathy that their respective solos marry in an explosive blues-rock meltdown never to be repeated. Instead of trying to approximate this original recorded performance, Trucks and Haynes make this one their own, generating a velocity that Gregg Allman could only respond to with his best singing of the concert. This is a fine shoe, indeed.
VII. Instant LiveDickey Betts and Great Southern, The Odeon
Cleveland, OH 3/09/04
Of these three Instant Live sets, I spent the most time listening to Dickey Betts's performances. I did this necessarily to see if the recording grew on me, revealed new things on repeated listening. His old band mates for the original Great Southern join Betts for what can only be described as a band that took to the road with too little rehearsal time. Betts leads off the festivities with the disclaimer that he and the band had been off for the Winter and that he and the band were going to do several new songs and he (Betts) hoped the audience understood. Mr. Betts makes this appeal for good reason. The apparent lack of practice manifests as sloppy performances that sophistically could (and probably should) be framed as free and rollicking parties as Bob Weir once termed Grateful Dead performances as opposed to poor playing. It is, in fact, both perceptions that should be considered while listening to this recording.
The allusion to the Grateful Dead is not an inappropriate one. Betts begins the show with a newly arranged, electric "Little Martha" that in places sounds as if Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir were at the helm. Betts guitar soloing is not as sweet as Brothers and Sisters and beyond nor as driven as the Fillmore shows. His slide guitar on "Steady Rollin' Man," "Change My Way," and "Come on in My Kitchen" is tasty but not as compelling as on the newly released Allman Brothers Band, Macon City Auditorium, Macon, GA 2/11/72 . He is not in the best voice and is most effective on the blues tunes. "Blue Sky" is newly arranged, as is "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed." Both remain interesting and I suspect will have developed nicely by the end of the tour. "Southbound," which is shared by both bands is a poor imitation of what the ABB provided and bears no more discussion. Keyboard player Michael Kach is standout and along with Betts in his better moments and Dangerous Dan Toler on Guitar. The majority of Allman material used came from the recent Epic period and included the Betts compositions "Where It All Begins," "No One To Run With," and "Seven Turns."
My disappointment in the Betts set is less about a slipshod performance and more about timing. Betts should have been recorded later in the tour. That would have undoubtedly resulted in completely different and better performances. The Allman Brothers offerings are perfect and disciplined and the Betts show could have been also. All of the sets are required listening for ABB aficionados.