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Duane Allman at 70: A Reflection

Alan Bryson By

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Nonetheless, even on straight ahead blues I recognized that compared to the slide I'd heard before, Duane was more fluid and lyrical, and his tone was unusually warm. With natural ease he played notes higher on the neck than a conventional guitarist could —so it didn't take long before his intensity began to capture my attention. Also, you didn't need an expert to explain to you that his slide sound had a lot in common with a blues harp. But it was on songs like "Dreams" that he took the slide to places it had not gone before—there it had more in common with a horn than a blues harp.

In terms of style, as the night progressed there was no doubt that the Allman Brothers had their own unique sound. They are widely credited with being the originators of "Southern Rock," but I've always spurned that label. There was plenty of rock energy, and certainly a solid blues foundation, with a tinge of gospel and country twang, but also unmistakable elements of jazz. When I interviewed Jaimoe, he dismissed labels and spoke of "improvised American music," and that is an apt description.

Musically there were some life-changing moments for me during the concert. The most powerful and lasting memory was when I heard "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" for the very first time. The opening was so beautiful, the dual guitar harmonies with the B3 were so compelling, the great bass lines, the dual drums—it was absolutely magical. Several minutes in, just after Gregg finished a well constructed, tasteful and pace-changing Hammond B3 solo, Duane played a conventional lead guitar solo and tapped into something other-worldly.

It was like the back wall of the auditorium had become a canvas, and Duane Allman used his guitar as a paint brush. His eyes were shut tightly and his mouth was wide open as he filled the hall with colors. Visually and acoustically it was so highly charged that you could almost imagine he was plugged into an electric outlet. As he played I kept going back and forth between him and Berry Oakley, whose playing was also so compelling. They were completely in sync—at times the band seemed like a group of motorcycles racing down the highway, weaving in and out around each other, on a journey you hoped would never end. The closest analogy I can find to convey what that was like, is something you might recognize if you've ever been in a automobile accident. That sensation when you see the inevitable coming, time slows down to a crawl, and you are completely focused and in the moment like never before. That's what it was like.

Watching and listening to Duane Allman that night was a spellbinding experience that affected me profoundly. Color and form are powerful tools in the hand of an artist, but that night I realized that sound and rhythm are truly magical. Music, speaking for myself, is the acme of artistic expression. It wasn't just Duane's tone and melodic choices, his approach to time was almost as important. That's perhaps one of the reasons why he would not have been an outstanding power trio guitarist—he wasn't a driving, steady, lick specialist. He was a tour guide who used time in a very unusual way. The band would be roaring along, and suddenly it was like he rode his bike up a ramp and was hanging in thin air, sustaining a note, motionless, yet somehow still traveling with the band. Then he would land and seamlessly transition to a whole new emotional soundscape and the band would follow.

Another extremely powerful memory was their cover of Willie Cobbs' "You Don't Love Me." By 1970 this song had been covered several times, but the Allman Brothers turned it into something epic. During this song the secret of their unique appeal became easier to perceive. The song began with a single guitar playing the familiar riff. Gradually rest of the band joined in, until it became a powerful locomotive. While this was happening you began to realize that the two drummers, Jaimoe and Butch Trucks, were fundamentally different. Their contrasting temperaments and approaches could have been a real problem, but somehow these two jagged pieces of the puzzle fit together perfectly. Butch Trucks was the steam in this engine who could really put the pedal to the floor and sustain a high level of energy, while Jaimoe improvised within that framework to accentuate what the rest of band was doing.

"You Don't Love Me" began as an inventive blues cover of a classic tune, but after a few minutes it took off in a completely unexpected direction. The locomotive stopped and each of the guitarists took turns playing essentially alone. Unconstrained by the rest of the band, they went where the mood took them. Playing in isolation gave the audience a unique chance to experience each guitarist's style, expression, technique, and tone. It wasn't self indulgent noodling, it was riveting. Finally they cued the locomotive and the train began roaring down the tracks again, with the guitars doing a long series of calls and responses. There was no sense of one trying to cut the other, it was joyful.

It also became clearer how different these two guitarists were, and why this worked so well. A band with two lead guitarists easily could have become an egotistical nightmare—a danger Duane and Dickey were well aware of, and had discussed. Duane and Dickey's innate and unmistakable musical differences allowed them to keep things interesting by giving them the freedom to explore and express themselves without stepping on each others toes, and to appreciate each other without feeling jealous or threatened.

When the song "Whipping Post" began, it was something I immediately recognized from their first album, and I thought I knew what to expect. It was another aspect of why the band had initially impressed me; the song had blues roots, but it also had an intro with an 11/4 time signature, and a vintage sound without any cheesy effects. But this was not the straight five minute studio version I knew, it might have been three or four times that long. It was transformed into another epic soundscape, an odyssey with slow foreboding interludes that would gradually build and speed up until they reached astounding crescendos. It was an unlikely brew with some serious mojo: a big dose of Sonny Boy Williamson, with some John Coltrane and Richard Wagner mixed in.

There is one more distinct and vivid memory to share, the song "Hoochie Coochie Man." It was emblematic of all the blues classics they covered. The Model T Ford was still recognizable, but it was now a bad ass hot rod with their unmistakable styling and power upgrades, yet somehow tasteful and respectful of the original.

"Hoochie Coochie Man" was essentially the same as the studio version I knew, yet so different because of the intensity, volume, and live energy. It was about as different as the experience of seeing a hot rod on television, compared to riding around in one. In the studio mix I hadn't really appreciated the power of the gradual build up of the introduction, followed by explosive drum rolls and the dual lead guitars playing the signature Allman Brothers style riffs. It was also especially memorable because Berry Oakley sang, and in contrast to the mournful or heavy nature of the songs Gregg sang, this was light and fun.

Although Duane wasn't presented as the leader of the band, somehow there was no doubt that he was in charge. I can't really explain why, but that was my clear sense. He introduced the songs, but, as far as I remember, he hardly interacted with the audience. Although Gregg sang, he rarely spoke. Berry Oakley, however, was quite animated and did interact with the audience at times. At one point, he pointed out Duane and Gregg's mother in the front row and asked the crowd to give her a big hand, which we willingly did—I think he called her Mama Allman.

Those are my distinct memories of that night. Other than that, much of the concert is fused into a shadowy composite of impressions. I remember how they looked on stage, how they behaved, how they sounded, and strangely how it felt—by that I mean feeling the power of the sound vibrations, a sensation that is beyond my ability to describe. I wish I could replay those solos in my mind, but they are by nature spontaneous and ephemeral. It is like waking up and trying desperately to recall details of a vivid dream. They are there, but frustratingly just beyond reach. Yet in a strange way, I'm glad this was prior to the invention of cell phone video and YouTube. There is simply no substitute for experiencing music live, and you can't capture that kind of magic. Moreover, there is a danger that with time the limited inferior copy will gradually replace the actual memory. That memory might be incomplete, but I cherish it.

Because I didn't know all the music prior to the concert, I can't be sure of every song they played that night, but of these I am sure: "Statesboro Blues," "Done Somebody Wrong," "Trouble No More," "You Don't Love Me," "In Memory of Elisabeth Reed," "Don't Keep Me Wondering," "Dreams," "Stormy Monday," "Hoochie Coochie Man," and "Whipping Post." There were a few more, and from old set lists I could probably guess which they were, but it would only be a guess.

When the house lights came back up, the dreamlike atmosphere vanished as the audience made its way to the exits. The concert had been an overwhelming experience that I couldn't quite process. I had considered the Allman Brothers Band just another local band that had managed to cut an album —I wasn't even aware of their local hero status in Georgia, or that they were gaining fans in several major metropolitan areas. Yet my ordered musical universe had been thrown into chaos. This wasn't simply a matter of adding a new band to my list of favorites, it was instead the realization that in terms of rock music, I had just experienced something that was markedly superior to anything I had ever experienced—with one possible exception.

My buddy smiled and tapped me on the arm, "Didn't I tell you!?!" Indeed he had, and as I agreed with him, I heard my own voice as if someone else were talking—empty platitudes were all I could muster. I didn't want to wake up from this dream like state, so I begged off and drove down South Atlantic Avenue and parked at the first motel that afforded a view of the ocean. I watched the waves come in with "Liz Reed" and "You Don't Love Me" replaying in my mind.

As I thought about it, the only other experience that had come close to this was seeing Santana perform "Soul Sacrifice" on the big screen in the Woodstock documentary film. When I saw the film, they too were complete unknowns to me, but their soulful honesty, intensity, infectious rhythm, unique sound, inspired playing, and obvious dedication to the music set them apart, and they blew me away.
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