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Duane Allman at 70: A Reflection

Alan Bryson By

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Whitlock recalled Duane soloing with his eyes closed. When he opened them, he looked down, made eye contact with Clapton, and immediately froze. Dickey Betts then looked over to see why Duane had stopped, then looked down and saw Clapton, and he stopped too. After the concert the band was invited back to the studio where they jammed all night long, and thankfully the tapes were rolling. It took decades, but eventually these jam sessions were officially released.

There was an instant chemistry and musical kinship between Duane Allman and Eric Clapton. Duane's ease in the studio, soulful playing, warm tone, and Southern drawl completely charmed Clapton—in an interview he admitted to being captivated by Duane Allman, both by his playing and his personality. As a result, Clapton asked him to stay on and finish the album with him.

With the exception of a five day break because of concerts dates, Duane was in the studio with Clapton from August 27 until September 10, 1970. From his daughter Galadrielle Allman's excellent book we learn that on September 5th he wrote to his wife from his hotel room in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that Clapton had actually asked him to join his band. It would mean a house in England, five thousand dollars a week, and twenty percent of tour receipts which he assured her would be phenomenal. He cautioned her to keep that secret. Even today, $5000 a week is serious money, but adjusted for inflation that would be over $30,000 a week in today's money—stardom was no longer a dream, he only had to say "yes."

Less than a week later, on September 16th, Duane Allman was back in Daytona Beach for a concert. Mentally he must have been in an unimaginably euphoric place—he and Clapton, his former idol, had bonded musically. Clapton thought of him as the brother he never had, as a peer and musical equal, and he had made him a spectacular offer. Duane knew the album they had just recorded was excellent, and regardless of what he decided, that would give his career a major boost.

That night the Allman Brothers would be playing at the Peabody Auditorium, just off Main Street. It was the premier venue in Daytona Beach. elvis, Frank Sinatra, Itzhak Perlman, Dave Brubeck, Ray Charles, and scores of others had played there. Peabody Auditorium seats about 2500 people and is known for its exceptionally good acoustics, easily the equal of the Fillmore in New York.

Just a few months earlier the Allman Brothers had played at Duane's former high school, and as mentioned above, Clapton had just seen them perform on a truck trailer—so clearly things were looking up. It must have seemed a bit surreal to Duane, the Peabody is within walking distance of the pier where he and Gregg performed as teenagers, and just around the corner from the pool hall where he had regularly hung out when he skipped school.

Being home this time must have been a very different experience, and no doubt he was fired up with the Clapton experience still fresh in his mind. Given such a life changing decision, it seems likely he would have been eager to compare that with playing in front of a home town crowd with his own band. He could say "yes" to Clapton and achieve something he'd always dreamed of, and in so doing destroy the hopes and dreams of his brother and band mates; or he could say "no" and return to touring in a low-rent Winnebago and hope their future albums would do a hell of a lot better than the one they had released a year earlier.

The rest of the band must have been excited by the possibilities that would result from Duane appearing on Clapton's next album. On the other hand, even if they didn't know of Clapton's offer to Duane, on some level they also must have sensed that his interest in Duane represented a risk to their own future. Would his loyalty to them withstand such temptation? Considering all that, it is easy to imagine that they too were fired up and had something to prove, to each other, and especially to Duane. There was also one other bit of excitement in the works. In exactly one week, on September 23rd, their second album, Idlewild South, would be released.

Of course at that time I didn't have a clue about any of this. The Allman Brothers had become a minor blip on my musical radar. It had been almost a year since I bought their debut album, and other than a few album reviews, there was little indication in the national rock press that they even existed, let alone any mention of them making any significant impact on the music scene. In a couple of months Duane would be turning 24, and returning to my opening theme, he was far from famous.

September 16th, 1970 was a typical Wednesday in Daytona Beach—temperatures in the high 80s and tolerably muggy. That night's concert had slipped my mind, but luckily over on the mainland I bumped into a guy from high school I hadn't seen in over a year. He needed a lift back to the beach side so we decided to hang out and catch up. By the time we crossed the Silver Beach Bridge I had agreed that I "had to" see this amazing band that night. I did my best to keep my teenage snobbery in check as I listened. After graduation I had spent the summer in England and hitch-hiked around Europe, and I had seen several impressive groups live: Taste with Rory Gallagher, Fleetwood Mac with Peter Green, Led Zeppelin with Jimmy Page, John Myall, Savoy Brown with Kim Simmonds, Chicken Shack with Stan Webb, and The Nice with Keith Emmerson.

There was certainly no reason to expect that I would see something extraordinary that evening. Friends up North I shared the Allman Brothers Band debut album with hadn't become instant fans. I knew little about them other than what was in the album note, and the studio versions of seven songs: "Don't Want You No More," "It's Not My Cross to Bear," "Black Hearted Woman," "Trouble No More," "Every Hungry Woman," "Dreams," and "Whipping Post." Inside there was of course the photo of six full grown men hanging out nude in a creek in the Georgia woods, which might have been better suited as an alternative cover for James Dickey's 1970 novel Deliverance. It's not that I didn't want to see the Allman Brothers, but my expectations were modest.

As we approached the Peabody Auditorium it was twilight and the heat had dissipated. We were immediately approached by hippy girls panhandling for money to buy a ticket, and there was a palpable sense of excitement in the air. We bought our tickets at the box office without any difficulty and got seats about a dozen rows back.

Over the years I've had a chance to hear most of the recorded shows from the Duane Allman era that are in circulation in the fan community. It is fascinating to hear the band grow tighter, and you can also hear them growing as musicians. Yet for various reasons, few of these recordings convey how extraordinary this band was live. Those recordings, interesting as they are, are so different from the musical experience emblazoned in my mind that they hardly seem real. The only recording that truly captured their magic as I remember it, was their breakout album The Allman Brothers Band At Fillmore East. As I sat waiting for the concert to begin, that album's release would be ten months in the future. Little did I suspect what an improbable bit of serendipity was at play.

Looking back at that concert now, what more could an Allman Brothers fan hope for: headlining without an opening act, an ideal venue with near perfect acoustics, Duane Allman in an incredibly good place, and the band motivated to really bring it. Add to all that, the element of utter surprise. At that time, I remember the typical question you asked someone who went to a rock concert was: "Were they as good as the record?" Generally speaking, that was as good as it got, and in my experience that was rarely the case. My expectation for the Allman Brothers was that they might be almost as good as their first album.

As the house lights went down, my buddy's wide-eyed enthusiasm and imploring grim seemed way over the top, but I was about to be served a huge slice of humble pie. I would soon learn there was indeed a band that was not only better than their album, they were remarkably better. No studio could capture that magic, and no vinyl disk or home sound system could do it justice. This was a band that had to be seen live in order to be fully appreciated.

I'm so grateful that I hadn't heard Idlewild South or The Allman Brothers Band At Fillmore East prior to seeing them live. Listening to their live album on a great sound system is an excellent way to be introduced to the original band, but imagine seeing them live and hearing that very same music for the first time in a venue with ideal acoustics. No need to debate the superiority of vinyl compared to digital, this was Duane Allman's warm tone coming directly from his amp—not only could you see what he was doing, you could hear it, and thanks to the loud-but-clear volume, feel it.

When they took the stage they got a warm and enthusiastic hometown reception. Luckily we had taken seats on the left side of the room, so we had a particularly good view of Gregg and Duane, but the entire band was clearly visible. They were dressed in typical hippy street clothes of the day, and there were no theatrics or stage antics. They opened with a driving version of Taj Mahal's great cover of Blind Wille McTell's "Statesboro Blues."

It was when Dickey Betts took the night's first solo that I had my first holy crap moment—he was on fire. I'd seen lots of great rock guitarists by this time, but for me Dickey Betts embodied a whole new level of honesty and intensity. His sound and musical choices were completely original. It was as if he were solving tricky musical equations with an onslaught of blisteringly fast serrated loops, or stitching the complex pattern of a musical kaleidoscope with his guitar. I distinctly remember thinking to myself: "Why in the world would they need two lead guitarists? This guy is fantastic!"

The set list was such that it took a while before I had a chance to experience Duane Allman as a lead guitarist. Initially it seemed like, "oh, now I get it, Dickey plays lead guitar, and Duane plays slide," and at that time I had a fairly limited appreciation of slide guitar. I'd seen Peter Green masterfully recreate Elmore James' signature licks and sound, and on record I'd heard Johnny Winter tap into the authentic sound and technique of the blues masters. So at first I just soaked in this new sound and approach. Duane's blues slide was interesting and exotic, but Dickey's playing was something I could readily appreciate.
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