By: Steve Knopper
If anybody in rock deserves to sing the line “now all the things that used to mean so much to me/Have made me old before my time,” it’s Gregg Allman. Since he and his brother, Duane, founded the Allman Brothers Band 34 years ago, the singer-keyboardist has had to cope with deaths in the family, heroin and alcohol abuse, marriage and divorce with Cher, band breakups and reunions and the endless grind of life on the road.
“Old Before My Time,” a wistful folk-rock song on the Allman Brothers Band’s first studio album in nine years, captures these travails in a weary, nostalgic way. Although the Southern-rock collective is best known these days as a grandfatherly fixture on the jam-band concert circuit, “Hittin’ the Note,” due March 18, shows off Allman’s under-recognized talents as a singer, songwriter and organist.
“This is a point in time where we all kind of stop and look back and see what the effect all this has had on us. And that seemed to come out on this record,” says Allman, whose band plays the second of 13 concerts Friday night at the Beacon Theatre. “‘Old Before My Time’ isn’t necessarily bad — you lived hard and loved it.”
“Hittin’ the Note” won’t surprise any Allman Brothers fan. Steeped in blues and jazz, as usual, the Southern-rock CD jumps from the laid-back “Whipping Post”-style anthem “Firing Line” to a slow cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Heart of Stone” to the 12-minute jam “Instrumental Illness.” The band has played exactly like this for decades, with a revolving door of guitarists complementing Allman and drummer Butch Trucks.
Some would say, however, that the Allmans haven’t been the same since talented guitarist Duane Allman died in a motorcycle crash in 1971. Gregg Allman soldiered on, making solo albums, starring in the film “Rush” and eventually returning to the endless tour.
Since the group re-formed in 1989 after a seven-year absence, its lineup has been more or less stable — until 2000, when it sacked original guitarist Dickey Betts, reportedly via fax. Two years ago, Warren Haynes (of Gov’t Mule) rejoined, joining one-time teen phenom Derek Trucks on guitar. “Let’s face it, we’ve had so many changes in this damn band the last few years. It’s quite a bit like — and don’t get the wrong idea — a relationship. You’ve got to learn everybody’s little idiosyncrasies,” Allman says.
Abruptly, he brings up the simmering subject of Betts’ departure: “We’re not the kind of people who’d be on the phone with each other and hang up. I’ve never hung up on another Allman Brother except on one occasion, and I don’t want to talk about that.” When was that? “If we can get through this whole thing without talking about Dickey, it’ll be just fine,” Allman snaps. “That’s not what you wanted to talk about, right?”
But, overall, Allman is friendly in a laid-back way. Auditioning new guitarists for the Allman Brothers, he acknowledges, is a challenging process. “A lot of people will play just what they want you to hear — then, after they’re in for a while, they’ll just start buzzing somewhere else. You have to kind of get them into your own brood, you know?” he says. “Like, ‘Yeah, man, keep playing your style — but we’re playing Allman Brothers music.'”
Steve Knopper is a freelance writer.
WHERE & WHEN The Allman Brothers Band, 8 p.m. Friday night, Saturday, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, March 21, March 22, March 25, March 26, March 28, March 29 and March 30 at the Beacon Theatre, Broadway at 74th Street. Tickets are $45.99 and $65.99. Call Ticketmaster at631-888-9000 or go to www.ticketmaster.com.