By: Dave Hoekstra
For The Chicago Sun Times
With sunken cheeks and his hair tied back into a braided ponytail, Gregg Allman now carries the cool aura of Chet Baker. Allman Brothers twin guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks play with improvisational adventure, echoing single-line tones of hard bopster Grant Green.
So maybe it wasn’t so surprising that midway through the Allmans’ cover of Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” Tuesday night at the Chicago Theatre, the band broke into a looping riff of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.”
These are not your father’s Allman Brothers.
The Allman Brothers rolled into town for a compelling 2-1/2-hour show (they also appeared at the Chicago Theatre on Wednesday), and it was the first time I’d seen the brothers since guitarist Dickey Betts was placed on waivers in 2000. They’ve morphed into more of a jazz-blues ensemble than a Southern rock band.
The band had issues with Betts, notably his affinity for taking more chances off the stage than on the stage. (Betts appears with his own band Aug. 13 at the Abbey Pub.) Betts was replaced by Haynes, who played with the brothers from 1989-97. He departed with late bassist Allen Woody to form Gov’t Mule. Haynes cited lack of new material as one reason for leaving the Allman Brothers. That isn’t a problem anymore.
Haynes sang lead on “Into the Mystic” with subtle, exploratory tones as Trucks’ slide guitar covered for the saxophone parts on the original Morrison track. The band delivered the Allman-Haynes composition “Firing Line” with a progressive rock beat. “Firing Line” is from the band’s latest album, “Hittin’ the Note,” the Allmans’ first new studio project in nine years.
Even the standards were rearranged. Willie Dixon’s “The Same Thing” was slowed down with an acid jazz groove featuring guest saxophonist Karl Denson, who opened the show with his band Tiny Universe. And the last time I heard the Allmans cover “Stormy Monday” was in 1996 at the Riviera Theatre. On Tuesday, the song was played with more space, which created a nice vehicle for Allman’s B-3 organ.
Warhorse numbers like “Whipping Post”–the Allman Brothers’ cross to bear, much in the same way “Free Bird” defined Lynyrd Skynyrd–were rejuked. Conga player Marc Quinones led twin drummers Butch Trucks and Jaimoe in a ferocious backbeat that gave “Whipping Post” a Santana feel. “No One to Run With,” co-written by Betts, was done with a mix of soul and jazz as a montage of dearly departed faces such as Duane Allman and bassist Berry Oakley appeared behind the band on a spiritual video montage.
But good things come to those who wait. Those of us who were still hanging around in a sea of smoke and home taping microphone stands got a treat when the Allmans encored with “Mountain Jam.” The band traded solos, but the real kicker came when Haynes took off on an instrumental version of “Blue Sky.” Haynes began aping Betts’ lyrical chord progressions with glorious intensity. The Allmans rarely cover Betts songs, especially those he sang (“Ramblin’ Man, “Southbound”). But this was a night that found the Allman Brothers in rare form.