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Duane Allman at 70: A Reflection

Alan Bryson By

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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.





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