The Allman Brothers Band: 40 Years Out
Throughout the Allman Brothers Band's 40 years there has been one true constant, Butch Trucks, who jokingly refers to himself as the Cal Ripken of the music business. He hasn't missed a single performance in four decades with the band, and along with Gregg Allman he is the only member of the band to have appeared on all of their albums. His connection to Gregg and Duane Allman goes back to the their early years of struggling on the club and lounge circuit in Florida. Over the years no one has done more to champion the memory of Duane Allman than Butch Trucks, and even after four decades he speaks openly of the transformational impact Duane Allman had on his life.
When I interviewed Derek Trucks in February 2009 I asked him if he could go back in time and witness one event in rock music what would it be. His response was the Allman Brothers in their heydays when Duane Allman was alive. He thought that would have been life-changing, and it's little wonder. Chris Trucks, Derek's father and Butch's younger brother, caught the Allman Brothers many times in concert, and while he did not become a professional musician, the experience did have a lasting impact on himand eventually on the Allman Brothers Band itself.
It's no coincidence that Chris Trucks has a son named Duane and another named Derek, after Clapton's "Derek and the Dominoes." Duane Allman's music was the soundtrack of Derek's early childhood. At the age of nine, Derek Trucks took up guitar and proved to be a natural, quickly mastering the slide, listening primarily to Duane Allman and Elmore James recordings for direction. His musical gifts and family heritage seem like serendipity to the nth degree, almost as if fate had set about to revive the Allman Brothers Band.
Derek's progress was so extraordinarily swift that Chris Trucks realized he needed to nurture his son's unmistakable talent. So he began what must have been a very daunting endeavor, showing up at local bars and clubs in Jacksonville, Fla., and asking ambitious and image-conscious bands if his reticent little 9-year-old in a baseball cap could sit in. Eventually he asked Ace Moreland who, after learning from a band member that Chris Trucks was Butch's brother, agreed. Derek blew everyone away and he became a regular with them, appearing at the end of each show to do three numbers, and eventually touring with the band. Within a few years he would sit in with the Allman Brothers Band.
Derek's precociousness and affinity for the slide guitar, coupled with his impeccable tone, and, thanks to his father, his admiration of Duane Allman, allowed him start out at a very young age where his idol had left off. By his early teens he was already heavily into Coltrane, Miles Davis, Roland Kirk, Sun Ra, Wayne Shorter, Mahalia Jackson, and scores of others. In the process he developed his own unique musical voice which also draws heavily from his early fascination with oriental sarod players. Exposed at a early age to the ravages of drug abuse in rock music, he avoided the pitfalls that have plagued so many rock musicians. He is not a tortured artist, rather he seems to possess the enviable ability to draw his creative impulses from a stable and positive place. In terms of personality, temperament, and lifestyle he is nearly the polar opposite of Duane, but with respect to talent, tone, proficiency, and the love of music, they are kindred spirits.
In the movie "Groundhog Day," every morning Bill Murray woke up to "Midnight Rider" (okay, actually it was a song by Sonny Bono, Cher's first husband, "I Got You Babe.") In any case, this groundhog day sensation is a trade-off for many performers who draw mass audiences. A significant segment of the audience wants to hear what they know (again and again, year after year.) That's the nature of mass appeal, it's why Ray Charles couldn't get away from "Hit the Road Jack" and "Georgia on my Mind," and according to press reports it's why Carlos Santana is now contractually committed to playing his hits during his two year "Journey through the hits" engagement in Las Vegas.
Serious fans might be happy to hear an artist perform new material, but generally speaking, serious fans don't fill large venues. The situation with the Allman Brothers is perhaps more pronounced because their history of breaking up and reforming means that the setlist played during Duane Allman's brief tenure with the band represents a substantial part of their repertoire.
It's actually not such a problem for a concert goer, a bit of nostalgia once a year can be very enjoyable. It's really only a problem for the musicianimagine playing "One Way Out" 5,000 times, perhaps it's the price of packing 5,000 people into a venue. Although, in the case of the Allman Brothers Beacon run, having so many guest artists sit in on Allman Brothers songs, or perform their own material with the band, helps to keep things fresh and exciting.
Nonetheless, for Warren Haynes (lead and slide guitar) and Derek Trucks (slide and lead guitar) it even goes beyond the mere repetition of the songs, they also feel somewhat obliged to remain relatively true to the solos on the original live recordings. Considering that both of them seem to prefer Duane Allman's parts, one must assume that makes the situation even less satisfying. Thus it is understandable that Derek Trucks and Haynes place their primary emphasis on their own bands and projects.
Dicky Betts and Duane Allman had the advantage of simply being themselves, two guitarists with very different styles experimenting with new things. This is surely the reason that Chuck Leavell was able join the band and have such a dramatic impact on their sound and direction during his years with the band. He too had the luxury of just being himself and allowing his creativity to flow. It's a testament to Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes that they've kept this level of energy and commitment alive for so long.