By: Jimmy Leslie
For: Gig Magazine 1 May 2003
The Allman Brothers Band is still one of the top attractions in the live concert industry after over 30 years of touring. Like the Grateful Dead, they’ve always been a draw regardless of whether the new album went gold or not. In fact, a new album hasn’t been necessary to the public for a long time. It has now been nine years since the last album of Allman Brothers Band studio material was released, but that run is about to end with they unleash their powerful new record, Hittin’ The Note [Sanctuary].
A lot of things have changed since 1994’s Where It All Begins-namely, the guitarists. Warren Haynes, who revived the band after a dormant period in the ’80s, left in 1997 to concentrate on Gov’t Mule. First, Jack Pearson and then Derek Trucks-who is drummer Butch Trucks’ nephew-succeeded Haynes. Then founding member Dickey Betts was “relieved of duty” by the band in 2000. He was replaced temporarily by current Dead guitarist Jimmy Herring before Haynes returned to the fold in 2001. Where it all ends is that the band now features Trucks and Haynes on dual lead guitars, Marc Quinones on percussion, Oteil Burbridge on bass, founding fathers Jaimoe Johanny Johanson and Butch Trucks on drums, and namesake Gregg Allman on vocals and
JL: You’ve had to replace band members about as many times as anyone and have been successful. What’s most important when it comes to finding a good replacement for a band that tours as much as yours does?
GA: As a rule we haven’t done much auditioning. We have just been blessed with
another player coming along. We held an audition when Woody (Allan, bassist
from 1989-1997) came with us. Maybe that was the only one. I’ll never
forget that day. We played the same three songs from about eleven in the
morning until about five or six at night. All of the bass players were good-
there wasn’t a bad one in the bunch-but Woody just had that charisma.
JL: Everybody else was someone you knew or came along by recommendation?
GA: Yeah, it’s funny how a band gets together. I tell you-it’ll make you
believe that what’s supposed to happen, happens. It’s really odd that all
of us are back together again. It’s a very long, drawn out story, man, but
if you step back and look, it all kind of happens for the best. We’re just
having the time of our lives now.
JL: Why so long with no new studio material?
GA: Well, I don’t believe in putting something together just to have something
to put out. That’s one thing that we have never even given a thought too.
JL: Warren is back to help do that, and I’m sure he brings a lot to the table.
Dickey Betts used to bring a lot of material the band, as well. What made
the Allman Brothers decide to suspend Betts before the summer 2000 tour?
GA: Well, there never were any rules. I know other bands that have them printed
out and everything [laughs]. Nobody in this band can point the finger at
anybody else considering what’s happened through the years. We’re in our
50s for God’s sake. I don’t know. It started to be a dictatorship, and
that’s one thing we’ve never had. We’ve never had one person stand out-it’s
the Allman Brothers Band. It’s not so and so, and his help that he’s had
for 32 years.
JL: So it’s all about keeping a balance?
GA: Yeah, we’ve all been here and we’ve all seen who everybody was before it
started and we can all see who everybody is now. For the most part, every
one of us is the same ol’ boy he used to be, and that’s good, man, because
that’s hard to do.
I find myself saying sometimes, “If I play another concert I’ll go nuts.”
That usually happens towards the end of the tour. And I have to say to
myself, “That’s a normal feeling-it’ll pass.” But no more do I go out and
get all liquored up and wind up showing my ass. I always showed up, I was
just bombed. I sang and it sounded like I had two tongues in my mouth. And
at the time you’re doing it, inebriated on the stuff, you think that you
are just kicking mucho ass. I recorded one gig when I did drink, and one
when I didn’t, and the music was about the same, but, boy, the vocals! I
was just skipping every other word and trailing off at the end instead of
finishing the line-stuff like that. It would seem that hearing something
like that would make you stop, right? No. It’s a disease.
JL: So everybody is back to being healthy and working hard now?
GA: Yes. It’s really fun. The vibes are there-and if the vibes ain’t there,
then you better find out why, and get them back. If you don’t find yourself
happy on the way to rehearsal, then you have a bad problem. It’s all about
passion-just like in a relationship. If the passion goes, the relationship
goes. It’s terrible, and I’ve had that feeling in this band before.
JL: How did you get your passion back?
GA: It really helped when I would write a new piece. When the band first got
together, I wrote most of the songs. In fact, I’m not sure if Dickey even
wrote or not. I think he did because I remember him always having a bunch
of papers in his guitar case, but he didn’t show anything to anybody.
Writing a new song is just a good way. It gives you a real useful feeling.
It also gives you a hopeful feeling when things are lopsided-like they can
easily get in a band.
The main thing is to get to the root of the problem. I never really thought
about signing papers and stuff like that, but, man, you pretty much have
to. Even if you’ve got a little thing together, you ought to have some kind
of paper, because nothing that can’t be seen matters in court. You can talk
until you’re blue in the face, but if you don’t have something down on a
piece of paper, they don’t want to hear about it.
JL: So you’re talking about a partnership agreement?
JL: When did you first get one of those pieces of paper together for the Allman
GA: We didn’t have one for a long time. Consequently, the mushroom-our logo-and
everything floated around out there for about ten years. It could have been
anybody’s-all they had to do was go the patent office.
JL: But nobody picked it up?
GA: Nobody knew, I guess. This was during the 80s. Then when I got together
with my new accountant, he said, “Man, do you realize?” Of course, the band
wasn’t together during that time, but it’s little things like that, if not
taken care of in the beginning, that can reach out and bite you on the ass
in later life.
JL: Who owns the name “The Allman Brothers Band?”
GA: Me and Jaimoe and Butch.
JL: Does the buck basically end with you, or could you see the name being used
by the others to carry it on if, heaven forbid, something happened to you,
or if you decided to retire?
GA: Well, it would be up to them. I think that would be wonderful. Yes, they
would have to throw an audition. I never really thought about it, but I
don’t see why the buck should stop with me, as you put it. I don’t know how
the people would feel. It might work. We’re all kind of pencilled in, bro!
JL: There have been lots of solo projects and spin-offs that have grown out of
the Allman Brothers Band. How do you allow room for these things without
hurting the mother entity?
GA: I tell you what-sometimes it gets a little tight. The Allman Brothers Band
is like the main basin of the river, and then you have little tributaries
running off it. I don’t know how it got like that, but it did, and it’s all
working out wonderfully.
JL: The new record is really good. I especially like “Desdemona.”
GA: Thank you. We worked hard. It didn’t take long to record it, because we
took it out and played it on the road-just like we used to. By the time we
got into the studio, hell, we’d know the tune except for maybe a little nip
and a tuck. That’s the best way to do it.
JL: Let’s talk about the songwriting for a moment. Where do you write most of
GA: I write some on the road, but I write mostly at home. Warren came down to
my house, and we spent about a week writing. We got a lot of stuff done.
That’s when we wrote “Desdemona.”
JL: So you scheduled time specifically to write songs?
GA:I invited Warren down to Georgia, picked him up at the airport, and brought
him back to my house. He probably caught up on some of the best sleep he
ever got. I live way out in the country on this little bayou. It’s a really
beautiful place with moss hanging off big, huge oak trees that are 300
years old. It’s the deep, deep South. We got together and started writing,
and there it came.
JL: You co-wrote everything on the record?
GA: Yeah. He might have a lick, and I might have a phrase or vise versa. Where
one gets hung up, the other one grabs the ball and keeps going. That’s the
real magic that goes on between us.
JL: What is the revision process?
GA: I’ve found, as the saying goes, that the first cut is the deepest. I
usually stick to the original idea unless there’s something just honky, or
something used intentionally as filler-like how Paul McCartney
used “Scrambled Eggs” as the fill-in chorus to “Yesterday.”
JL: How do you decide which ideas are poor, which are filler, and which are
GA: It’s kind of how it phrases. There’s a fine line between scrutinizing and
nitpicking. If you want to find something wrong with it, man, you will.
It’s good to set the lyrics to the music and see if something is sticking
out. On one of my solo records, for example, I was writing with a guy named
Tony Colton. We were working on a song called, “Oceans Awash the Gun
Whale,” and he had the word “paramedics” in it. I said, “Man, there are
certain words like “garbage truck” and “paramedic” that just don’t flow off
the tongue-I don’t care how you use them!” So we locked him out of the
studio, and went ahead and recorded!
JL: What cover versions of your songs have you heard that you really liked?
GA: Willie Nelson and Stephen Stills did good versions of “Midnight Rider,” and
Frank Zappa did a kick ass version of “Whipping Post.”
JL: What instruments are you putting on stage these days?
GA: My rig is still what it has always been-a stock 122 RV Leslie, and either a
1969, ’70, or ’71 Hammond B3. It’s totally stock. On the Leslies, I
position two Neumann mics to capture bass and mids, and for the highs, I
have some real good Shure mics almost touching the horn. It really works
well. You get the right bass response, and you don’t have to turn it up too
much-which is good, because you’ll get feedback through the bottom part of
the Leslie just as you do through a bass drum. And if the two instruments
are too close to each other-oh, boy. There’s a real meticulous way that we
go about miking those things.
JL: Do you ever get stage fright?
GA: Oh God, yes. Everybody does, but it’s only a few of us who admit it. Stage
fright is a very strange syndrome because it starts at different times, but
it definitely starts when you have to wait. So I like to get there with
enough time to say “Hi” to a couple of people, say “Hi” to the guys in the
band, take off my coat, put on my other shirt, and walk on stage. In a
perfect world, I’d get there 15 to 20 minutes before we play. I’ve almost
gotten it down to that. But if you get there and the other band is playing,
and you have to sit there for an hour under those lights…
JL: The stage fright starts to build at that point?
GA: Oh, yeah. But then you get on stage, and you feel the warmth from the
crowd. The first count- off comes, and after the first two or three bars,
JL: What is the first thing you do when you step on stage?
GA: I look the people right in the eye, and go out there and say, “Hello.”
JL: You have a pretty gritty voice and you’ve sung an awful lot of shows-do you
do anything to keep it in shape?
GA: I drink a lot of Gatorade, and that helps. I don’t drink anything with fizz
in it. If I’ve got a real tired throat, I’ll drink tea with a lemon and a
lot of honey in it. And I mean a lot of honey-like maybe two-and-a-half
tablespoons full. Other than that, I don’t do any screaming.
JL: What do you perceive about the audience that has changed over the years?
GA: They seem to get looser. I guess it’s because, back then, they had more
cops and more rules-you know, “Don’t let them hippies get too riled up when
they’re in a bunch.” That sort of stuff has eased up, and there used to be
a whole lot of it, actually. You don’t see as many cops come and snatch
somebody up and bang them in the head with a stick. It’ll piss you off to
see a girl get hit. The bullets flew right up next to me on stage once. But
people don’t come to fight. Music is supposed to soothe the savage beast.
JL: You don’t do too much talking during the show.
GA: No. I can sing to them, but I can’t talk to them. I talk as much as I can,
but I’m not going to try and put anything on. I’m no Johnny Carson. I come
to play songs.
JL: You’ve been doing this for so many years. Are there any survival tips
you’ve learned along the way that you want to pass on?
GA: Man, leave the damn drugs alone! Alcohol and cigarettes are just as bad-
probably worse, because they’ll scar you right off. They’ll take away your
passion is what they’ll do. And unless you have a big net to catch you-like
I did-if you don’t kill yourself, you’ll kill your passion, which is worse.
JL: Is there anything you pack in your gig bag that is a real lifesaver?
GA: I have a thing that my brother wrote that I take with me. I read a little
bit of Kahil Gibran’s The Prophet. And I have a blue rabbit’s foot. I’ve
always had it.
JL: When you rehearse, is a lot of the improvisation left out, or is there even
more of it?
WH: We don’t jam as much at rehearsal as we do on stage. We don’t want to give
the energy, passion, and emotion away.
JL: Do you do exercises to help the unit act as a collective?
WH: No. Sometimes we just jam. Somebody will start a motif, and we’ll just take
off and see what happens. We usually do that either before, or at the end
of rehearsal. It’s good to do it before before rehearsal to get everybody
warmed up, and at the end to get all the musical information out of
JL: What’s the trick to getting a bunch of musicians to think collectively on
the spot and avoid that one-chord-jam-with-stock-licks dilemma?
WH: The right chemistry is really the biggest ingredient. Somebody asked me
what determines whether a solo is going to be long or short, and my
response was that if you’re playing with the right people at the right
time, you can play forever, but if you’re playing with the wrong people,
you’re gonna end it pretty quickly. It’s just about everybody listening and
having the same mindset, which is trying to capture and create an overall
sound that’s more important than a solo and people backing the soloist.
JL: How you do you get from one chord to another without telepathy?
WH: It can vary. Sometimes, there are little signals on stage. There are some
songs, like “Rockin’ Horse,” where the jam will start with one chord, and
then it’ll turn to two chords, and we just kind of look at each other when
it’s time to turn it into two chords. In Gov’t Mule, which is easier
because it’s a small band, I would just look over at Allen Woody and yell
out a key to change to. Not yell it out vocally, but mouth the words. And
we got so used to reading each other’s thoughts that we could communicate
on stage like that. In the case of the Allman Brothers, it’s just a matter
of listening. If somebody goes to a different chord, you follow him.
JL: What are three things that separate a great improviser from a lesser
WH: Listening first and foremost, then dynamics, and rhythmic challenge. That
means not just playing eighth, sixteenth, quarter, half, or whole notes,
but breaking up the rhythm, playing triplets, taking in a breath, and
coming in on the upbeat. Most of the players I really admire, if you took
what they’re playing as soloists and broke it down to just percussion-no
notes-it would still be interesting.
JL: Who makes the set list?
WH: They have entrusted the set list to me recently, and Gregg has veto power.
If he doesn’t want to do a certain song, he’ll change it to a different
song. We put the set together a few hours before the show, and I’ll take it
to him and say, “What do you think?” He’ll go, “This is great, but what if
we did this instead of that and that instead of this?” Sometimes it’s based
on how his voice feels, or if he doesn’t feel like singing a certain song
that night. But everyone has equal input. I usually try to get Derek to
help me put the set list together if he’s available.
JL: So how much thought do you give to what songs belong as openers, middle
songs, and closers?
WH: It’s trial and error. Certain songs are great openers and certain songs are
great closers. You want to keep the pace building like a roller coaster-not
too many slow songs, and not too many mid-tempo songs. And keep songs in
the same key signature away from each other.
JL: Do you treat the first set differently from the second?
WH: Some songs are interchangeable. A lot of the long jams tend to be better in
the second set because the band is more warmed up. But we always need at
least one good long jam in the first set as well.
JL: What song would you always play in the second set?
WH: “Whipping Post” or “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” One time, we opened up
with “Whipping Post” in Boston just to see the reaction, and people loved
it. But the thing the band realized was that we weren’t warmed up enough to
tackle it. I mean, it was good, but it wasn’t as good as it would have been
JL: Do you approach the set list differently when you play many nights in a row
at one venue like the Beacon, as opposed to if you’re going to be in a
different town each night?
WH: Absolutely. At the Beacon, we try to have each set list not exactly like
another one, use as many different openers as possible, and so on. Whereas
on the road, we may go, “The other night when we were in such and such
town, that first three-song thing worked great. Why don’t we do that
again?” This year it will be more broken up because the repertoire we’re
choosing from is growing.
JL: What do you do to keep old tunes fresh?
WH: Sometimes giving a song a rest is the best thing for it. If we get tired of
playing it, and we don’t play it for a little while, then, when we start
playing it again, it feels fresh. Sometimes we’ll rearrange them, take a
different approach to the instrumental sections and stuff like that, or
sometimes we’ll even try them at different tempos.
JL: Does the band have a way of communicating on stage so that the audience is
not aware of it?
WH: Not audibly. In Phil Lesh’s band, he would step on a button and talk
through a mic that would only come through the monitors-the audience
couldn’t hear it. But in the Allman Brothers Band, there’s nothing like
that. It’s much more old school-although, I do have a mic to talk to Butch
because Butch wears headphones. Gregg and I both have a microphone that we
can turn around and speak into that comes through Butch’s headphones, so he
can hear what we’re talking about in-between songs. So if I turn around to
Butch and speak into this particular mic, he reaches over to his mixing
console and turns that mic on, and, all of a sudden, he can hear me
say, “We decided we’re gonna swap this song out with that song.”
JL: And when you’re on stage, what are you listening to mainly besides
WH: I want to be able to hear everybody on the stage. If I can hear someone
without having it come through a monitor, that’s great. But if I don’t hear
enough of someone, then I’ll reinforce it by having them put in my monitor.
JL: As a singer, what kind of vocal mic do you prefer live?
WH: I like the Shure Beta 57 or Beta 58, or the SM57 or SM58. All of those are
good vocal mics for me.
JL: Do you have a standard dynamic effect preference for your voice, as far as,
say, compression or limiting?
WH: I’m not much on compression. And I don’t want any reverb or anything. I
just want a dry signal. Sometimes compressors can be cool, but if they are
set up wrong, they can do more harm than good as far as the singer being
able to manipulate his or her voice to what they’re hearing.
JL: How do you sing so hard so much and still maintain your voice?
WH: Just years of beating it up. I used to lose my voice a lot more often then
I do now. Through the years, it just gets used to the wear and tear. You’re
strengthening it like a muscle. If you don’t sing for a long time, and then
you try, you can lose your voice quick.
JL: To get the voice that I know from the Gov’t Mule records, are you pushing
that in a way similar to an overdrive?
WH: I guess it kind of is. Your voice is like any other instrument. When you’ve
got a guitar and you’re running through a tube amp, and you hit the guitar
really hard, it distorts. But if you hit it really soft, it doesn’t. My
voice is kind of the same way. I have this clear voice that people haven’t
heard as much, but I’m utilizing more now than I used to. In the old days,
I was less comfortable with it because I didn’t think I could control it as
well. But, you know, all my favorite singers were the ones that pushed
hard, like Otis Redding, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, and Levi Stubbs from
the Four Tops.
JL: Was Gregg Allman an influence? You sound like him.
WH: No question, he was a big influence.
JL: That’s the one thing that’s really different about Hittin’ The Note.
Without Dickey’s voice, and you singing instead, it’s practically like
having another Gregg Allman voice on the record.
WH: Our voices are definitely more similar to each other than Dickey and
Gregg’s voices. But I think if you listen to us side by side, there are
some pretty obvious differences. The thing is that we’re both drawn to the
same type of songs-the more bluesy soul songs.
JL: You seem like such a nice guy, but you’ve got kind of a menacing stage
presence. Where did you pick that up?
WH: The type of stuff that we do, if you’re getting emotionally involved in it,
you make these grimacing sort of painful faces. I don’t like to look at
myself. People bring up pictures for me to sign, and they go, “I love this
picture.” But I look at it and go, “Ugh, that’s terrible!” Unfortunately,
that’s the way I look when I’m playing or singing. It’s not something I
have a lot of control over.