When the Allman Brothers play what has become their annual summer ritual at Riverbend on Wednesday, they are continuing a tri-state tradition that goes back over 30 years. The legendary band first played here at the area’s famous hippie rock palace, the Ludlow Garage in Clifton. They were almost the house band for a year at the Garage, then run by Jim Tarbell, now a Cincinnati City Council member (Uno’s Pizza on Ludlow now occupies the building that housed the Ludlow Garage).
It was a time when the Allmans were honing their sound into what would become the quintessential American rock band — mixing jazz, blues and rock, anchored by the guitar work of Duane Allman, who would die in a motorcycle crash in 1971. The band’s sets at the Ludlow Garage were immortalized in 1991 when the Allman Brothers released a vintage recording from its vaults, “Live at the Ludlow” taken from a concert there in 1970.
When asked about the Ludlow Garage days, Greg Allman, now 54, immediately flashes on an odd memory — the furniture.
“Whatever happened to that huge furniture he used to have in there?” Allman asked in a recent phone interview. “Nothing would make me happier than to have one of those rocking chairs for my house.”
Allman was referring to the hippie/chic look in the concert venue where Tarbell had given it a homey feel with old furniture on the stage.
Allman acknowledges rock `n’ rollers have indeed taken some long, strange trips, saying he never expected to still be selling out amphitheaters.
“Not at all. Not in my wildest dreams. It’s like a long-drawn lottery,” he said in his trademark Georgia drawl.
These days the Allman Brothers are not a mere classic rock act, but show a continued resilience and ability to stay fresh. While lineup changes can take the spirit out of most bands, the Allman Brothers sound seems to thrive on the turmoil.
Back with the band this summer is long-time guitarist Warren Haynes who had left several years ago to spend more time on his side project, Gov’t Mule. Four years ago the band added young firebrand guitar phenom Derek Trucks, the nephew of drummer Butch Trucks. Two years ago the group went through its biggest change since the death of Duane Allman when seminal guitarist Dickey Betts was kicked out of the group. That move was never fully explained.
The now clean and sober Greg Allman alludes to the incident by saying, “There’s a certain dark cloud over the band that’s gone now and the best vibes in the world have taken its place. The band has just flourished over it.”
Along the way the Allman Brothers have perfected the art of the jam, perhaps better than the Grateful Dead ever did (the band often had trouble ending a song). The Allman Brothers may go on 20 or 30 minutes, but it somehow seems just right, never self-indulgent.
Allman seems more comfortable with the “jam band” tag than he does with what the band is usually know for — creators of Southern rock.
“We are a band that jams. We are a progressive blues band,” he said. “That’s what my brother and I always called it — progressive blues-jazz-fusion type band. And that’s a band that jams. Before there was ever any Southern rock that’s how we called it.”
As evidence that the band has a renewed spirit, the Allman Brothers have just finished recording an album of new material scheduled for release late this year. To be called “Victory Dance,” it will be their first new studio album in seven years.
“I think it’s the best record we’ve cut since my brother was alive, and that’s a fact,” Allman said. “And it took us not even two weeks to cut the thing. We pretty much use the first takes and on one we used the second just because we thought we should. It’s walk in the studio and zip-bang-boom.”
The band has also announced plans for periodic releases of live material from its extensive archives. Out this summer is the first in the series, “American University 12-13-70.”
The Allman Brothers play Riverbend Music Center at 5 p.m. Wednesday. (Tickets, $50.25, $45.25, $26.25.) Opening act is the Derek Trucks Band. Trucks will return later in the evening to play with the Allmans. Also on the bill is Phil Lesh & Friends. Performing with Lesh, the former Grateful Dead bassist, will be Allman Brothers guitarist Warren Haynes.