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The Allman Brothers Band: 40 Years Out

Alan Bryson By

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As the Allman Brothers Band they collectively began to do what came naturally and this aggregation of the music of the South became their unmistakable sound.
Allman BrothersSo what do Randy Brecker, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White have in common with Kid Rock, Eric Clapton and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top?

All were part of the Allman Brothers Band's three-week musical extravaganza at New York City's Beacon Theater celebrating the band's 40th anniversary. This year's list of surprise guests also included Johnny Winter, Taj Mahal, Sheryl Crow, John Hammond, Boz Scaggs, Chuck Leavell, Levon Helm, Bruce Hornsby, Southside Johnny, The Juke Horns, Buddy Guy, Susan Tedeschi, Bonnie Bramlett, Jimmy Herring, Robert Randolph, Sonny Landreth, Bob Margolin, John Popper, Trey Anastasio, and members of Los Lobos, Cowboy, Wet Willie and The Grateful Dead.

For those who have followed the band from the beginning, this year's Beacon run definitely recaptured some of the magic that surrounded the band when the late Duane Allman was its leader. As a teenager, I saw them in Daytona Beach, Fla., just after Duane Allman had done the first sessions with Clapton in Miami.

No doubt fired up by the imminent release of their second LP, Idlewild South (Capricorn, 1970), and the possibilities that Duane's work with Clapton signaled, Gregg and Duane returned to their hometown as conquering heroes with their mother sitting proudly in the front row.

That night we were treated to new material from Idlewild South, performed in a set that mirrored The Allman Brothers at Fillmore East (Capricorn, 1971) recordings that would be recorded six months later. It's difficult to convey how spellbinding it was to first experience that music live and observe the faces and hands of Duane Allman, Dickey Betts and Berry Oakley on that September night in 1970.

Eric Clapton

Even back in 1970, rumors concerning Clapton and the Allman Brothers Band began circulating. After Duane recorded and did a couple of shows with Clapton, it wasn't uncommon to hear someone say, "Duane's quitting the Allman Brothers and joining Clapton's Derek and the Dominoes." Soon thereafter the next rumor would surface, "Clapton is going to start touring with the Allman Brothers like he did with Delaney and Bonnie."

Then after Duane's death there were persistent rumors that Clapton would be joining the Allman Brothers. Over the years rumors would routinely surface that Clapton would be a guest during their annual Beacon run. But like a The Beatles reunion, it appeared like this would never happen.

This year, given that Derek Trucks Band had been out on tour with Clapton for over a year, it seemed like after four decades it might actually happen. But again the rumors flew, "So-n-so knows Clapton's manager, and he says no way, Eric will be in London during March." So it was truly electrifying to see Clapton walk onto the stage after nearly 40 years. Finally we would learn the answer to the question: "What would it have been like if Eric Clapton had joined the band?" With decades of anticipation, the reality shouldn't have lived up to the fantasy, but the truth is, Clapton demonstrated that he would have been a terrific addition to the band.

He was a very special surprise guest, appearing two nights in a row. The first night went well, but the second night was one of those sets that will no doubt become the stuff of rock music lore.

With the exception of Gregg who was focused and serious, the band seemed relaxed and playful between tunes, and Clapton in particular seemed to relish just being a player doing someone else's music on songs like "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," "Dreams," and "Stormy Monday."

Gregg Allman's illness last year caused the band to miss their annual Beacon run, so he clearly wanted to make up for that. But this year there was more to it than that, this anniversary year was dedicated to his late brother Duane, and their mother and Duane's daughter were seated nearby as images and film from Duane filled the big screen behind the band.

During Clapton's guest appearances, Gregg seemed especially cognizant of the significance of this 40-year milestone. He sang and played with a power and determination that made one recall the days when he and Duane were on stage together. At times he sounded like he was channeling Bobby Blue Bland as he belted out "Stormy Monday," sometimes causing the crowd to roar when he would finish a verse, and he attacked the B3 keyboard with an energy that revealed what this meant to him. Forty years out he occasionally misses a cue or forgets a lyric, but Gregg Allman left no doubt that he is still very much in the game.

To my mind, that set came as close as the Allman Brothers have ever come to recapturing the magic that happened when Duane and Dickey Betts shared the stage. Seeing how Clapton enjoyed himself doing expansive solos on the Allman Brothers material and how well the Allman Brothers backed him up on his songs, one has to wonder if there might be a joint tour someday—so let the next generation of rumors begin.

Another lingering question is what the Allman Brothers might have been like if Duane's interest in jazz had continued to influence the band. In a sense this too was answered when Randy Brecker and Lenny White joined the band on stage for "Dreams," "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," and Miles Davis's "In a Silent Way." White's drumming gave the material an Elvin Jones-feel as Brecker took the music to new and interesting places. (You can watch their backstage video interviews below.)

This year's Beacon run had a new and exciting twist, fans around the world were able to experience the excitement in the comfort of their living rooms. All 15 shows were streamed live to subscribers in HD video. It was clearly geared to serious music lovers with multiple camera angles highlighting tight shots of musicians' hands, facial expressions, and interactions. In a world where file swapping has challenged the music industry's business model, this promising idea (Moogis), the brainchild of drummer Butch Trucks, may prove to be a win-win for artists and fans.

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