|A Band With Legs and Heart|
Not many groups have been around as long as The Allman Brothers Band. Of those that have, most have either lapsed into a nostalgia-act coma or withered on a weary vine. If you're talking about a band that has both legs and heart, whose experience feeds an intensity that's rare even among the greenest music newbies, that narrows the field pretty much down to these psychedelic sons of the South.
But passion doesn't come easily, which helps explain why it's taken them so long to record once again. In April 1997, frustrated by tensions within the group that were threatening to slow its creative momentum, Warren Haynes and bassist Allen Woody left to pursue Govt. Mule, and the focus of the group shifted exclusively to live performance. Though they still delivered killer shows, something was missing, and eventually it became clear that the only way to get it back was to make a change in the personnel.
The Brothers had been in this place before; most recently it had expanded its improvisational range by bringing a fresh face, 21-year-old Derek Trucks, into the lineup, with a solo style that mingled elements of Southern rock, bluesy slide guitar, and free-form jazz. In September 2000, after the departure of longtime guitarist Dickey Betts, they reached this time into their past by inviting Haynes to come back. It was a poignant moment for all concerned, as Allen Woody's passing had suddenly put Govt. Mule on hold.
Sitting in with the Allman Brothers Band in 2001, during their annual concert series at New York's Beacon Theatre, Haynes slid easily into his old role, trading licks and cruising through the group's trademark twin-guitar passages, paired for the first time with Trucks. That's all it took to convince the band to start laying down tracks again.
"Everybody was itching to get back into the studio," Haynes says. "We all wanted to break some new ground, and at the same time we wanted to maintain the Allman Brothers Band. Of course, that's not difficult with this band, but with all the new blood and excitement about making a new record, we found ourselves exploring a lot of new territory. The chemistry between me and Derek very quickly reached a telepathic level, and I think Gregg started singing better than he has since the '70s."
More critically, a rush of new songs accelerated the band's momentum. "Gregg and I started writing, and everything fell into place, even more so than in the past," Haynes says. "The first song we wrote this time out was 'Desdemona,' and it was such a high water mark that we were like, 'Okay, now we've got to compete with that in every song we write.'"
They kept to that standard on all the original titles recorded for Hittin' The Note. (The album also includes two covers, Freddy King's "Woman Across the River" and the Rolling Stones' "Heart Of Stone," along with "Rockin' Horse," which Allman, Haynes, Woody, and Jack Pearson co-wrote in 1994.) In settings that range from the intimate acoustic guitar duo "Old Friends" to the turbulent long-form (and Grammy-nominated) jam "Instrumental Illness," Hittin' The Note proves that this band is bigger than any era through which it has passed, as strong as any of the many acts it has inspired, with a lot more history still to be made.
"Things have changed in a good way," Gregg Allman muses. "They say everything happens for the best, and you wonder why at the time, but then in the long run you see why. Someone will go, and that's a real drag, but then somebody else comes in who adds so much more than you even expected. With the people we've got now, as long as we just keep playing without any gimmicks or cutting any corners, I guess we'll be around for a long time more."
|The Story So Far|
Allman knows better than most in this business how long a "long time" can be. In fact, his band, with its mix of down-home groove and instrumental virtuosity, blues-drenched soul and guitar-driven rock, and dedication to all-night jamming, laid the groundwork for what became known as the Southern Rock movement. You can date it from March 1969, when Florida-raised guitarist Duane Allman left Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where he'd established himself as an in-demand session player on recordings by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, King Curtis, and Boz Scaggs, among others. Seeking to form his own dream band, Allman recruited bassist Berry Oakley and guitarist Dickey Betts from a Jacksonville, Florida band called the Second Coming.
He also tapped not one but two drummers: the R&B veteran Jaimoe (then known as Jai Johanny Johanson), who had worked with Otis Redding, Joe Tex, and Percy Sledge, and Butch Trucks, late of a Jacksonville folk-rock group, the 31st Of February. Hammond B-3 organist and lead vocalist Gregg Allman had recorded two albums with brother Duane as part of the L.A.-based Hourglass, and was developing into one of the finest white blues singers of all time.
The Allman Brothers Band's sonic trademarks were all in place by the time their self-titled debut album was released in 1969 (see discography below). Driven by the relentless propulsion of Jaimoe and Butch, Gregg's bluesy keyboard comping, and Berry's deep, melodic bass lines, Duane Allman and Dickey Betts crafted a unique twin lead guitar approach that took its cues from jazz horn players (particularly Miles Davis and John Coltrane) as well as the harmonized fiddle lines of Western swing and bluegrass. Together, they rewrote the rulebook on how rock guitarists could play together, and paved the way for every two- and even three-guitar band that would follow their path.
"Most fans had never heard anything quite like the mercurial solos and meticulous counterpoint effortlessly unreeled by Duane Allman and Betts," wrote author Joe Nick Patoski in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll (1992, Random House). "In many respects, indeed, the Allman Brothers Band had become one of the most impressive bands in the country."
On their first four recordings -- The Allman Brothers Band, Idlewild South, At The Fillmore East, and Eat A Peach -- the ABB perfected a sound that effortlessly combined rock, blues, country, and jazz on such unforgettable original tunes as "Dreams," "Revival," "Midnight Rider," "Melissa," and "In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed." By 1971, they were poised for superstardom. Even the tragic deaths of both Duane Allman (on October 29, 1971) and bassist Berry Oakley (on November 11, 1972) in eerily similar motorcycle accidents couldn't stop the band's upward trajectory.
The success of the No. 2 Pop single "Ramblin' Man" triggered a mid-Seventies run (with the four surviving original members joined by bassist Lamar Williams and keyboardist Chuck Leavell) that ended only when internal conflicts sundered the group in 1976. A third incarnation of the ABB was formed in 1978 for the album Enlightened Rogues, but after two further albums, the group disbanded once again.
Yet the pull of their roots proved too strong for the Brothers to remain apart. In the summer of 1989, the Allman Brothers Band launched a 20th Anniversary Tour with Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts, Butch Trucks, and Jaimoe, complemented by slide guitarist Warren Haynes and bassist Allen Woody. (Percussionist Marc Quiñones joined in 1991.) Signed to Epic Records, the new lineup returned to the recording studio with producer Tom Dowd for three studio albums and two live sets. (Dowd, a legendary producer and engineer, manned the controls for Idlewild South, At Fillmore East, Eat A Peach, and Enlightened Rogues.) Of the ABB's Epic label debut Seven Turns, The New Yorker wrote, "The Brothers play with the energy of teenagers and the ornery wildness of veteran blues men."
In an increasingly predictable world of prefabricated pop, the ABB's peerless musicianship and extravagant flights of improvisation earned the group a new audience--one that transcended generational and regional boundaries. In October 1989, the Allman Brothers Band headlined the Beacon Theater in New York City for four nights, inaugurating a live performance tradition of multi-night stands that persists to the present. Their lengthy annual tours grew to include long stops in major cities, featuring ever-changing set lists: six shows at New York's Radio City Music Hall and five nights at the Tower Theater in Philadelphia, as well as multiple nights at the Wiltern in Los Angeles, the Warfield in San Francisco, Fillmore Auditorium in Denver, the Orpheum in Boston and the Fox Theater in Atlanta, among others.
Nineteen ninety-four was a banner year, though not an untypical one, in the recent history of the Allman Brothers Band. The group made five live network television appearances; played 90 live dates, including the H.O.R.D.E tour, which they headlined; turned in one of the best, most exciting sets of Woodstock '94; and was voted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility. "In terms of sheer creativity, they're experiencing the strongest second wind of any act," noted The New York Daily News. "For sheer soloing ability, not only do the Allman Brothers run circles around anyone of the present generation, they outperform anyone of their own. … Their road deserves to go on forever."
At the 38th Annual Grammy Awards, held in February 1996, the Allman Brothers Band won the first Grammy in its 27-year history: Best Rock Instrumental Performance, for "Jessica," a track from the acclaimed live album 2nd Set. This 16-minute improvisation may be the longest single non-classical performance ever to win a Grammy. (Another track from 2nd Set, "In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed," was also nominated in the Pop Instrumental category.)
In the spring of 1997, when Haynes and Woody left to pursue Gov't Mule, they were replaced by Oteil Burbridge on bass and Jack Pearson on guitar. Acclaimed by critics and fans alike as the rising star of electric bass, Burbridge also performs with his own band, the Peacemakers, and on occasional reunion shows by his former group, Aquarium Rescue Unit. (In September 2000, weeks after Woody's death at age 44, the Brothers organized and performed "One For Woody," an all-star benefit concert at Roseland Ballroom in New York. The evening featured more than five hours of music by the Allman Brothers Band, Phil Lesh & Friends, the Black Crowes, Warren and Matt of Gov.t Mule, and friends Little Milton, Leslie West, and Edwin McCain.)
In June 1998, Epic Records released Mycology: An Anthology, featuring eight tracks culled from the Brothers' Epic catalog: "Good Clean Fun" and "Seven Turns" from Seven Turns; "End Of the Line" and "Get On With Your Life" from Shades Of Two Worlds (1991); "Nobody Knows" from An Evening With The Allman Brothers Band (1992); "Sailin' Cross The Devil's Sea" from 2nd Set (1995); and "No One To Run With" and "Back Where It All Begins," from Where It All Begins (released 1994, certified gold in November 1997). In addition, Mycology includes two bonus tracks: a live acoustic version of "Midnight Rider" from the limited-edition benefit CD for the Rhett's Syndrome Foundation; and a previously unreleased version of "Every Hungry Woman," recorded live at the 1970 Atlanta Pop Festival by the original lineup of the Allman Brothers Band.
In June of 1999 Derek Trucks made his debut on guitar, replacing Jack Pearson as co-lead and slide guitarist. Just 21 years old at the time, the gifted young player is the nephew of drummer and founding band member Butch Trucks. When not on the road with the ABB, he tours tirelessly with his own Derek Trucks band, which has released four albums (The Derek Trucks Band, Out Of The Madness, Joyful Noise and Soul Serenade). He has also toured as a member of Phil Lesh & Friends and recorded with Gregg Allman, Gatemouth Brown, Johnny Copeland, and Junior Wells. Onstage, he's sat in with Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, and Susan Tedeschi, to name a few. Derek Trucks' epochal debut with the band was captured on Peakin' At The Beacon, a live set released by Epic in 2001.
That same year, the Brothers announced that guitarist Dickey Betts would be replaced by Jimmy Herring for the remainder of their 2000 season. With Haynes' return to the group, the seed was planted for the band's triumphant return to the studio for the Hittin' The Note sessions.
Since 1989 the Brothers have toured nationally every year, averaging more than 60 live shows per year. The tradition continues in 2004, with nine nights of "March Madness" from March 18 through 28, all of which leaves little unsaid about this incomparable band. Leave it to another transcendent artist, Willie Nelson, to wrap up the essence of the Allman Brothers Band, as he did while presiding over their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame:
"The Allman Brothers Band took what moved them and merged it into something unique that audiences love: a sound that redefined the direction of rock & roll, and opened the doors to a spirit of experimentation that continues in today's music.
"The Allman Brothers Band were and still are one of the most exciting live bands ever to hit the stage. They became road warriors with a vengeance and left devoted fans wherever they went…[The ABB is] a band that reflects so many of my sentiments about music: originality, a determination not to be confined musically or stylistically, but instead to forge your own way and make music that moves you, a devotion to the road, and understanding that beyond pleasing yourself as an artist, the only other consideration should be the people, the fans who come to hear you.
"And so, with pleasure, I give you rock & roll's greatest jammin' blues band, the Allman Brothers Band!"