By: Ed Masley
For The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
One day, Gregg Allman says, he woke up and his eyes were orange.
“That’s kind of a wake-up call there, isn’t it?”
The legendary voice behind such classic Allman Brothers Band performances as “Midnight Rider” and “It’s Not My Cross to Bear” is approaching his seventh year of being sober and says he hardly even thinks about it anymore.
In fact, the smell of cigarettes and liquor is enough to make him sick.
“It’s like it never happened, you know?”
Then, with a laugh, he adds, “It did, though.”
And he’s still got all the aches and pains to prove it.
Being sober, Allman freely admits, has enabled him to turn in his strongest performance in decades on “Hittin’ the Note,” the band’s first studio release in nine years.
There’s another reason he considers the album the best the band has done since “Eat a Peach” back in ’72.
And Allman would just as soon not talk about it anymore, although he will make several passing references to how much better things are now that founding member Dickey Betts is gone — at one point stopping in his tracks and saying, “I don’t want to talk about this. And I certainly don’t want you to write about it.”
The return to form the band captured on “Hittin’ the Note,” he says, is “probably because the vibes were so very good on this record. … We were finally into it. And I guess we have had a personnel change lately and that was a major reason. As it happens, I don’t want to say anything positive or negative or anything about it — other than what I’ve already said.”
Either way, the positive vibrations made it possible for Allman to be in and out of the studio in 10 days, although he says, “I don’t stay for the mixdown. They mix it and send it to me and I either OK or don’t. It’s better not to have too many cooks in the kitchen when you’re trying to mix a record.”
There are two first takes on the album, including an epic old-school Allman jam on “Instrumental Illness.”
“It was amazing, I’ll tell you,” he says. “We had a lot of fun doing it, too. And that, my friend, is the way it’s supposed to be. You should love the work you do. How these people trudge up and down that damn freeway in rush hour, God! You have got to be into your job or it’s just drudgery.”
And exactly what the Allman Brothers Band had become for both Allman and original drummer Butch Trucks, who complained last summer that it had gotten to the point where they would play “the same song followed by the same song. Every night, the same show.”
It had gotten to the point, in fact, where when asked if the band’s new album would have been as good without the personnel change, Allman fires back, “What are you talkin’ about, man? I already had my damn resignation filled out. There would be no band now. Trucks had his filled out. His wife was talkin’ to mine, and he calls me and I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve had it. I’m not gonna subject myself to this.’ ”
They parted ways with Betts three years ago. And now, where once you would have found “the same song followed by the same song” every night, you’re more likely to find the band, for example, surprising a crowd in Boston by taking the stage and launching into “Layla” (by an Eric Clapton supergroup called Derek and the Dominoes with whom Allman’s late great brother Duane once cut an album).
They’ve also been dusting off “Into the Mystic” and “A Change is Gonna Come.”
Just don’t tell Gregg Allman, “So, I hear you’ve been doing some interesting covers.”
“Covers?!” he chortles. “We’ve been doing our version of them.”
A cover, he continues, laughing, is something you play in a club where “you’ve gotta make it sound just like the record.”
Then, he laughs even harder and says, “But to answer your question, ‘Yes.’ “
Some nights, he says, the place just looks like it could use an extra jolt. And anyhow, it keeps the drudgery at bay.
“It’s always good to have new songs. If you don’t have new songs, that just creates boredom within. It would eventually become a damn job if you played the same songs, same arrangements, every night, night after night. It would get real old.”
It wouldn’t get as old as traveling, though.
“I don’t like traveling,” Allman says. And this from a man whose own back catalog admits, “The Road Goes on Forever.”
The only way he likes to travel anymore, he says, is on his motorcycle or behind the wheel of his Corvette.
“When you get up to 55 years old,” he says, “and you’ve been doing it since you were 17, traveling, boy, let me tell you, traveling to me, that is the work. As much as I love to play music is as much as I hate to travel. I’ve taken so many airplanes they should probably give me one of the damn things, right?”
There is an upside, though, to traveling with this latest version of the Allman Brothers.
“Once you get on stage,” he says, “it’s just ecstasy. I love it, especially nowadays. Nowadays, the band is just peaking. We’ve discovered a whole new way of communicating. It’s great.”