The Allman Brothers Band hit a creative peak in 2003 with their first studio album in nine years, the splendid Hittin' the Note
, and a spectacular extended run at The Beacon Theater in New York City. Culminating in September of 2004 with a brilliant three- night stay at the Fox Theatre, back home in Georgia, the next year's worth of tours found ABB offering constant surprise in the form of songs choices, guest musicians and a connection to the band's collective past that invigorated the entire group.
Yet you could sense this wave of inspiration cresting during last spring's appearances at the Beacon and while many of the shows of summer 2005 tour were memorable in their own way, there is now a palpable sense ABB stands at yet another crossroads in a storied career. The highpoints of last tour's roadwork, however, suggest The Brothers are more than up to the daunting task of reinventing themselves yet again.
But it will take some courage, arguably to an extent similar to that which the group has summoned in the past to confront the personal tragedy that have befallen them as well as artistic obstacles that have confronted them (see ABB @ Nassau elsewhere @ AAJ). As they begin their year, The Allman Brothers Band needs to take stock of what has allowed them to persevere, against the odds, for thirty-seven plus years (2006 is the seventeenth run at the off-Broadway theatre they regard as a home away from home). Specifically, they must choose not to play it safe and as they did early in this decade return to the roots of their success, albeit in a way that allows them fresh perspective on themselves and their music.
Whether or not The Allmans have new material to debut this spring, they need to go back to Hittin' the Note and play the best of that album as it fits in their well-honed style. It's not just "Desdemona that allows the jazzy underpinnings of their roots to come to the fore, it's "High Cost of Low Living. Just as the group retrieved the hard rocking likes of "Every Hungry Woman from their old repertoire, so should hey reinstate "Firing Line, for its stormy, blues-rooted guitar work. And "Egypt, the new instrumental debuted a year ago, should become a staple of their setlists: by the time ABB appeared at the Tweeter Center late last August, Oteil Burbridge's composition had taken on an explosive majesty.
Such numbers should be additions to the repertoire as the group expands beyond signature songs such as "Ain't Wastin' Time No More. In fact, The Brothers should seriously consider retiring, at least temporarily, some of their most famous numbers including "Midnight Rider, "Melissa and even perhaps "Whipping Post. "Old Before My Time, "Don't Keep Me Wonderin' and "Hot 'Lanta would equally well serve the current lineup as means of expression, both as vehicles for Gregg's singing and the instrumental firepower at their command.
It's perhaps appropriate only for the relative intimacy of a theater such as the Beacon, but ABB might want to consider acoustic-mini sets on a regular basis as they initiate their summer tour. Allman at the piano singing "Oncoming Traffic could mesmerize even an audience at a shed. A two-or-three tune blues et from Warren and Derek would conceivably be a crowd pleaser too and reinforce the roots of the Allmans music, not to mention add tremendously to the dynamics of the show.
What The Allman Brothers Band excelled at during their best years, including the last three, is an element of unpredictability, based on their collective instincts as well as a the selection of material that carried its own sense of improvisation. At this point in their career, they are too professional to be anything less than excellent, but, like any musical unit worth its integritynot to mention, in ABB case, a loyalty to their legacythey need to push themselves to become every bit the band they are capable of being.
Perhaps more than a little noteworthy is the word is already out The Allmans will curtail their workload this year (notwithstanding a longer Beacon run than 2005). Gregg did not put together a group of Friends to hit the road this winter, but Oteil remains committed to his Peacemakers, no less so than Derek Trucks to his band or Warren Haynes to Gov't Mule. But while the former recorded a new studio album over the last few months, and the latter, having finished a push on their own previous release (the likes of which DTB is about to embark upon) completed yet another set of sessions, it may be pure speculation whether The Allman Brothers received all the attention in the last fifteen months they received in the previous eighteen.
moe. opened the second stage of ABB summer 2005 tour bringing into their audience a large segment of new listeners familiar perhaps only with the Allman history on the surface. Yet the same enthusiasm the 'moe.-rons' (sic) brought to hearing their band transferred to the Brothers' set, suggesting that, in a another form of initiativereaching outward as well as reaching inwardthe Allmans would do well to invite younger likeminded bands to accompany them on the road.
Just as it's true the intimacy of the Beacon heightens the reciprocal energy between audience and band during a performance, so it's true that same dynamic is heightened in the open-air venues, in a way it otherwise is not, when the interaction between the performers and the listeners turns into a combination of introduction and mutual admiration society: the group wants to play for new ears, while the attendees want to learn what's so great about this band they've heard so much about. And neither has to resort to relying on just the tried and true, resting on their respective laurels or stock responses.
The Allman Brothers Band have never allowed themselves to just go through the motions and in 2006, as Van Morrison once sang (and Warren Haynes still likes to during "Into the Mystic ), " it's too late to stop now.