By: Doug Collette
For: All About Jazz
Skeptics may wonder why there’s any need for another live Allman Brothers album, but they’d no doubt be part of the same group unaware of the miraculous rejuvenation of this seminal Southern rock band over the last few years. One Way Out (Peach/Sanctuary), due out March 23rd in the middle of the band’s annual stint at the Beacon Theatre in New York, may not constitute as significant a cultural milestone as Live at Fillmore East, but it is without doubt the document of a truly great rock and roll ensemble playing with as much fire as finesse.
Not surprisingly, much of the two-cd set is comprised of staples in the ABB repertoire, but such selections are invariably arranged with a new twist on them. Take the de rigueur opener, “Statesboro Blues,’ where young Derek Trucks plays a slide guitar both savage and sweet, while Gregg Allman belts out the lyrics as if the proverbial hellhound is on his trail, all the while adding a barrelhouse piano to distinguish it from the familiar version. “Wasted Words” is given an even more ingenious reworking, as it’s taken at a jaunty gait, through which a Latin undercurrent percolates, a motif that’s become something of a trademark in the new ABB songbook.
No one member of the current septet of Brothers is the star: the music takes precedence over personality, notwithstanding the history of the band. After his wailing tandem work with Trucks on “Don’t Keep me Wonderin’,” Warren Haynes flashes a jagged solo as Butch Trucks, Jaimoe and percussionist Marc Quinones pump like pistons underneath. Meanwhile, Oteil Burbridge throws thunder with his bass, all the pasts of which come through perfectly clearly as if in a studio recording thanks to the impeccable production mix by Haynes and Michael Barbiero.
These two were also teamed at the board on the 2003 Allman studio set Hittin’ The Note. Well-versed in the axiom of less is more in those environs, when the group is embellishing a track such the new warhorse “Instrumental Illness” in open-ended improvisation, it’s even more noticeable how each member of the unit imbues the music with his own personality. The precocious Trucks, for instance, has an ever-so-light touch on the guitar that nevertheless allows him to play with all the ferocity of his fretboard forebear the late Duane Allman. For his part, Burbridge, late of Bruce Hampton’s Aquarium Rescue Unit, offers all the mobility of original bassist Berry Oakley, yet uses a funkier insistent attack..
Newer material included on One Way Out, such as Warren’s “Rockin’ Horse,” is of a piece with ABB standards such as “Midnight Rider,” because it’s cut from the same cloth of blues and British hard rock interwoven with r&b and jazz elements to provide nuance. The utter perfection of the arrangement on the latter tune remains virtually untouched and is all the better for it, while a new number, destined to become as much of a standard, is “Desdemona,” where the world-weary vocals of Gregg’s give way to an guitar tradeoffs between Haynes and Trucks that build to a fierce intensity: this is the stuff of which the Allman Brothers have always excelled and here placed in a brand new context.
This song is one of the highlights of the band’s performances these days and understandably so, because it features sterling singing as well as a potent demonstration of the instrumental firepower at the group’s command. As namesake of the band and its figurehead, Gregg Allman’s stance has been reflected in the whole group’s status, so it’s no coincidence that at this time of renewal, he has never sounded better. Whether wailing out “Trouble No More,” demonstrating a jocular independence on “Come and Go blues” or exhibiting the calm reserve of “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More, ” the subtlety of his phrasing is on par with the strength of his vocals. His participation on new material, as both composer and performer, is equally inspired, as his gruff voice radiates a knowing air throughout “High Cost of Low Living,” then virtually whispers what is perhaps the best song he has ever written, “Old Before My Time,” where the hard-won wisdom of the years is softly blessed then savored.
At the time these performances were recorded, in March of 2003 at the annual ABB run at the Beacon Theatre in New York City, it appeared the band was about to peak in its process of revitalization. But as summer concert appearances proved, The one-two punch that closes this disc two, “Dreams” and “Whipping Post” are now extended even further in both the ferocity and sophistication Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes bring to their solos, not to mention the intricacy of the rhythm section or the soulful passion in Gregg’s vocals. The Allman Brothers Band has many more songs they play than are contained on these two cd’s, plus which the group is continually finding new ways of interpreting them. As a result, One Way Out constitutes an object lesson in improvisation in the broadest possible definition of the word, brilliant work on the part of a band that has learned how to thrive on change in whatever form it takes.