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Duane Allman at 70: A Reflection

Alan Bryson By

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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.

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.





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