By Gregg Kot
The late legendary guitarist Duane Allman had a simple answer for those who asked why the Allman Brothers required two drummers: He wanted to feel the “freight train” behind him.
Duane Allman died nearly 31 years ago, but the train rolls on, and it roared through the Chicago Theatre for the first of three concerts Wednesday. (Tickets remain for Saturday’s final show.) Butch Trucks and Jaimoe, a.k.a. Jai Johanny Johanson, have been shoveling coal in the Allman Brothers’ engine room since the ’60s, and they played with a seen-it-all swagger and drive, daring the relative newcomers on the front line to keep up with them or get out of the way.
This is a band that has never tolerated raging egos or grandstanding solos for very long. The guitarists often take flight for minutes at a time, but the freight train is always at their backs, pushing them to crescendo after crescendo, cutting no slack and demanding none in return. When everyone got on board, the septet proved the glory years aren’t all in the past. After a few years of stasis, holding on to the mantle of jam-band royalty more by default than merit, the Allmans demonstrated in a three-hour concert that a combination of fresh blood and that fanny-kicking rhythm section has made them a formidable live act once again.
Trucks rocked the beat and Jaimoe danced around it, while Marc Quinones snaked in between with Latin-accented percussion. Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks–Butch’s nephew–traded slide-guitar incisions. Their styles contrasted sonically and visually: Trucks slender and boyish, striking a meditative posture as he quietly built bonfires with surgical precision; Haynes gruff and grizzly enough to qualify for Black Sabbath, attacking his instrument with a grimace, bending the strings until they cried.
Flanking them was Oteil Burbridge, whose bass functioned as a third guitar, and it swung mightily. If anything, the band missed the lighter, jazzier feel of guitarist Dickey Betts, who was ousted two years ago. But the weight of the blues was even more pronounced in this latest incarnation, and the gravelly growl of Gregg Allman was right at home in this house of pain.
After perfunctory versions of “Midnight Rider” and Muddy Waters’ “Trouble No More,” Allman slipped into the simmering Hammond-organ ballad “Desdemona,” one of several new songs he’s written with Haynes. It shifted into a long, swinging midsection, with Derek Trucks and Haynes trading savage solos. Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues,” another Allmans warhorse, sounded fresher than it has in years, with vicious cymbal accents from Butch Trucks and Allman’s syncopated piano fills. Haynes’ dramatic reading of Otis Redding’s demanding soul landmark “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” raised the bar for the rest of the evening, and the band was up to the challenge, responding instantly with a ferocious three-guitar rave-up that included guest Larry McCray, a Michigan blues veteran.
Anticipation was high as the second set began, with Derek Trucks and Haynes taking the classic “Dreams” for a 15-minute ride that blew away the cobwebs of nostalgia. Hard-time blues dominated until Haynes’ “Soulshine” washed over everything like a cleansing rain, Allman’s organ a balm straight out of church in the Deep South. The set closed with a 30-minute instrumental that indulged lengthy solos from all three percussionists; it was a ’70s cliche on par with the vibrating amoebas and magic mushrooms that served as a visual backdrop for a few songs.
Otherwise the Allmans gave every indication that they are once again the quintessential jam band. This is a septet that not only listens to but pushes one another, like a freight train.