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Duane Allman at 70: A Reflection

Alan Bryson By

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There were obvious similarities between the original Santana Band and the Allman Brothers Band: Duane Allman and Carlos Santana were exceptional guitarist whose playing seemed preternaturally inspired, each had an impressive and unmistakable sound, spot-on tone, and a compelling musical vision. Each band had multiple drummers, and a Hammond B3 player who sang lead vocals. Decades later I would learn they had even more in common—both had been heavily influenced by Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

In 1997 Robert Palmer, saxophonist and music critic, wrote the liner notes to the Legacy/ re-release of Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. To demonstrate its impact and influence on the music world, he used the example of Duane Allman. Anyone who does not understand why Duane Allman has been covered so extensively on All About Jazz can read it for an answer. Palmer had met him in New York City in 1965 when Duane was there with the Hourglass. He had played John Coltrane's Olé for Duane and noted that he had been fascinated by it.

Five years passed and now Palmer was also playing gigs at the Fillmore East, and was thus able to get backstage and see shows even when they were sold out. He wrote that when he was in town he never missed seeing the Allman Brothers. Once after a show in which he had experienced Duane "soaring for hours on wings of lyrical song," Duane told him that kind of playing came from listening to Miles and Coltrane, especially Kind of Blue. Duane told him that for the past couple of years he had hardly listened to anything else.

In his liner note Palmer wrote, "I heard a musician who'd grown in ways I never could have imagined. It's rare to see a musician grow that spectacularly, that fast; I'm not sure there's any guitarist who's come along since Duane's early death on the highway who has been able to sustain improvisation of such lyric beauty and epic expanse."

To return to the similarities between the Allman Brothers and Santana Bands, it was Jaimoe who guided Duane on his path of musical discovery that led to Miles and Coltrane, and it was drummer Michael Shrieve, who turned Carlos Santana on to Miles and Coltrane. Carlos Santana in his own words:

"I owe Michael a lot; He's the one who turned me onto John Coltrane and Miles Davis. I just wanted to play blues until Michael came. He opened my eyes and my ears and my heart to a lot of things. Some drummers only have chops, but Michael Shrieve has vision. Michael is like a box of crayons; he has all the colors."

In a 2006 interview with ModernGuitars Santana said:

"Well, you know, out of the original band he and I were kindred spirits. He and I wanted the multi-dimensional thing more than the drugs and the women and all the other stuff that came in with being so young and so naïve. He and I used to lock ourselves in a room and go through Miles [Davis] and [John] Coltrane and whatever was available to us—soundtracks from Fellini movies or whatever. Michael and I were always exploring. How do we express that and make it into our own? So, that's why after all these years we have a beautiful relationship, because we're hungry for new colors, new expression, new feelings, constantly."

This was a key to unlocking the secret of why these two band had affected me so dramatically, though it would take decades for me to truly understand it. Eventually it became clear to me that they had internalized the essence of many of my favorite musicians from the golden age of jazz and blues and fused that with the spirit of the times and the energy of youth culture—and each, in an unmistakable way, had made it his own.

How different the day after the concert would have been if there had been an Internet in 1970: I would have searched for the Allman Brothers tour schedule, and then seen every show I possibly could. But it was a different time, and it wasn't easy to get that kind of information. It was word-of-mouth, or you needed to either see a poster, an ad in a newspaper, or hear a radio ad. Instead I messed around with my guitar and tried to figure out a few things I remembered from the night before, and I listened to their debut album again with fresh ears.

The very next day, September 18, 1970 my newfound musical euphoria took a major hit. It was announced on the radio and the TV network news that Jimi Hendrix had died. Decades later I would learn that the last time he appeared on stage was September 16, 1970 when he sat in with Eric Burdon and War at Ronnie Scott's club in London—the same night I had seen Duane Allman.

On September 23, 1970 the Allman Brothers released their second album, Idlewild South. This was a welcome relief after the shock of Jimi Hendrix's death. With their live performance still fresh in my mind, the 30 minute album paled in comparison. Vinyl at that time had the capacity of 26 minutes of music on each side, so given what I had just witnessed I couldn't understand why Tom Dowd hadn't used more of the 52 minutes available to him. It would have allowed the band to stretch things out a bit so people could hear what they were about—at least on those songs that had no chance of being played on AM radio.

In any case, I was thrilled to have "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" on an album, and truth be told, I almost wore that album out. Although short and restrained, it was certainly a very good album. Reviews were good, not great, but initially the album was yet another commercial disappointment for their label. Things were, however, still moving in the right direction.

Fortuitously, on the same day Idlewild South was released, the Allman Brothers were at the Fillmore East playing a show that was filmed for National Education Television. N.E.T. would eventually morph into P.B.S. Bill Graham had assembled several groups who each played a short set as part of a program entitled, "Welcome to the Fillmore East." On October 10, 1970 it was broadcast on local television in New York City. At that time there was no such thing as stereo sound on television, so the audio was simulcast on a local FM radio station.

Unfortunately, the original Allman Brothers Band's television debut was marred by a major technical glitch. As a result, Gregg's vocals were barely audible for most of the first half of their short set. Moreover, the camera work, for me at least, is equally as frustrating. In general, the camera operators seemed to have been utterly oblivious about what was happening on stage, as if they had not understood the concept of a solo. It is particularly vexing with respect to Duane Allman; it almost seems as if they were purposefully avoiding close-ups of Duane's playing. During his solos there are often long distance shots of the band, tight facial close-ups of the band, and even tights shots of Dickey's hands playing rhythm guitar as Duane was soloing.

Nonetheless, this rare footage was an unexpected treasure that, thanks to the Internet, resurfaced in the early 2000s. For me it was an especially exciting development because it documents the band less than a week after I had seen them in Daytona Beach. It allowed me to compare this resurfaced video with my decades old memory of the band. Visually it is spot-on and captures the band as I remember them on stage. Actually, for the me the odd camera views, while frustrating, were also interesting because they showed extremely tight facial close-ups I couldn't have seen from a dozen rows back, and it showcased the skill of the drummers, who are more often than not relegated to the background.

With respect to the music, even though the sound quality isn't bad, it does not come close to capturing the experience of hearing them live with good acoustics. How would I compare it to being there? It is very difficult to find an analogy that combines the visual and auditory experience, so I'll just give you a visual analogy and note that the same degree of difference would also hold true for the sound.

Imagine if that same film crew had filmed the Grand Canyon in 1970. If you then compared that film to the experience of actually being at the Grand Canyon—that is the way I would describe the difference. The film is wonderful to have, but no substitute for the real thing. Nonetheless, thanks to the visual imagery it provides, if you use your imagination and shut your eyes in a dark room while listening to Tom Dowd's Fillmore recordings, that's about as close to the experience of being there as you can get.

A final thought about the video. Broadcast quality video footage of Duane is exceedingly rare; as far as I know, this is the only such visual recording of him playing an entire song. Given that, it's also worth mentioning that I remember him being much looser on stage and his playing seemed more fluid. To me he seems tense on the Fillmore video. Despite very marginal quality, the YouTube clips of him in Central Park and at Love Valley are much closer to my memory of him on stage.

Most of us know the feeling of driving when you notice a police car in the rear-view mirror; suddenly natural and routine actions are replaced by the conscious act of trying to steer perfectly, stay in the middle of the lane, and not exceed the speed limit. Did the prospect of the television appearance, the short set, drugs, or something else bother him? Of course I might be completely wrong in my assessment, but if you watch the Fillmore video closely, after 18 minutes you'll notice he misses a cue and is clearly lost during Whipping Post —a very rare occurrence indeed. Nonetheless, even on an off night Duane Allman is still Duane Allman.

There was another big surprise later that week, Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett released a new album, To Bonnie from Delaney. To my astonishment, this time it wasn't Eric Clapton or George Harrison guesting on guitar, it was Duane Allman! I rushed home with this one to listen to it. Delaney's vocals never quite did it for me, but Bonnie had always knocked me out. "Lay My Burden Down," the "Come On Into My Kitchen" medley, and Duane's slide on "Living on the Open Road" became instant favorites in my music collection.
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