By: Chris Cooper
For: The Smoky Mountain News
So, answer me this: how many people, artists especially, can maintain a vital career for 38 years and counting? Musically speaking, how many of them could possibly continue performing material from their first few albums and still manage to find new places to go with it, new colors and interpretations even after countless lineup changes, deaths, drug debacles and all manner of inner turmoil, let alone the multitude of cultural climate shifts that inevitably come with doing anything for nearly 40 years?
OK, before you guys engage in hours of pointless bickering over these questions, here’s the answer we’re looking for — the Allman Brothers Band. Lauded (blamed?) as the creators of “southern rock,” inspiration to countless Les Paul wielding, slide-bearing noodlers, keepers of the “10-minute guitar solos really ARE cool as long as they go somewhere” flame. Gregg Allman and band have staked a claim so deep into the heart of southern consciousness that I’d bet some of us were born with the melody to “Jessica” flitting around in our minds. Either that or we were merely subjected to copious amounts of classic rock radio in our formative years. Probably both.
So on the hottest day of the year — or what felt like it — I hitched a ride to Verizon Amphitheater in Charlotte for the first of a little two-night caravan to catch the Brothers live and up close. At least, as up close as lawn seats will allow. Stumbling tie-dyed college kids, aging hippies with little soon-to-be hippies in tow, yuppies and rednecks were all well represented — a veritable cornucopia of down-home culture.
Expensive beer, sweltering heat and bad fried foods are all good reasons to stay away from summer shows like this, I know. But since it had been nearly nine years since I witnessed the band, combined with the fact that all those reasons mentioned above could be construed as good things with a little nudging (an ice cream sandwich, a funnel cake and a giant vat of Sierra Nevada for $20? Sounds like a deal to me!), I was more than happy to make my way through the dusty parking lot, the giant inflatable WRFX fox and overzealous ticket checkers to find a nice spot in the grass for a few hours.
Having seen the Allmans three times in the mid- to late-90’s, it wasn’t until now that it became clear just what a shaky period it must’ve been for the band. One year had original member Dickey Betts joined by Warren Haynes, with Allen Woody on bass. The next time Haynes was noticeably absent, replaced by Jack Pearson. Bass wonder Oteil Burbridge took permanent residence on the low end after the death of Woody, but then the next year had Betts (soon to be ousted for good) sharing the stage with a fire-breathing young slide virtuoso named Derek Trucks, who wasted no time in revitalizing the guitar section with revelatory slide playing second to only one person — Duane Allman.
This little history lesson has a point: the band was obviously going through some serious changes, and though the performances were often stunning, the future was a tad fuzzy for many fans, and possibly the group itself.
No longer. Haynes and Trucks now have control over the jams, the rhythm section is solid and Gregg Allman actually seems to be having a good time, with a voice that easily gives away his years, but in a good, good way. The Charlotte show, though still early in the summer tour itinerary, could be summed up in one word: furious. I dare any musician to leave a show like this in any state but a little stunned and immensely inspired. Haynes and Trucks have the uncanny ability to ignite a conflagration of six-stringed lunacy at the drop of a hat, both are immediately identifiable soloists in their own right, and they know how to raise the intensity level even when, as a listener, you’re sure it just couldn’t possibly get any more… well, intense.
Sharing vocal duties with Allman, Haynes positively ripped a new hole in “Rocking Horse,” and “I Walk On Gilded Splinters” rocked with a funk and swagger that can only come from a band that knows itself inside and out. Haynes especially upped his personal ante time and again, singing and playing with deep soul and a gorgeous tone on every tune, sometimes even out-shining the always-striking fretboard histrionics of Derek Trucks — no easy feat.
And yes, the Drive By Truckers opened both shows. That’s all I really have to say about that.
With temperatures a good 15 degrees cooler than the previous night’s, the concert at Walnut Creek Amphitheater in Raleigh was much calmer overall, possibly because of a rather subdued audience and the fact that you just can’t play with the abandon of Charlotte’s performance every single night. This time Trucks grabbed the wheel for the most part, and took songs like “Dreams” and “Mountain Jam” to the kinds of places only he can go. Summoning equal parts Duane, Coltrane and India into his soloing, Trucks has crafted one of the most singular and powerful new voices in slide guitar — and the guy’s only 28 years old.
Even the prerequisite guests invited to “sit in” sometimes had a hard time figuring out how to add to the situation, as evidenced by JJ Grey’s gracious and head-shaking stage exit in “Smokestack Lightning” when he realized Trucks and Haynes both stomped the song’s gas pedal halfway through and were fearlessly heading into parts known only by their fingers, hearts and ears.
The rhythm section? Brilliant. The song choices? Great — and you’ve got to expect them to launch into a few staples every now and again, like “Midnight Rider” and “Melissa,” even if only to appease fans whose heads they flew over with the meltdown level jams that made up the larger part of the set. The venues? Well, they’re big. Yep.
But the music? I don’t want to hear any whining … and I know what kind it will be. “Oh, those tunes are old and so is the band,” or “Aaaargh! Southern rock! Oh, the agony of it all!” and so on. Bull. You can’t blame the Allman Brothers for Lynyrd Skynyrd, .38 Special and the rest of the classic rock dreck polluting the airwaves out there. From the start, the Allmans put the music at the forefront with impeccably crafted dual guitar harmonies, expansive arrangements and deep roots in the best parts of southern music — be it blues, N’awlins strut, country tinged balladry or straight from the gut rock and roll. And all these years later these are the elements that keep fans coming back and continue turning new ears by the minute, not nostalgia or the milking of the “reunion tour” cow — because these guys never went away.
So you’ll have to pardon me while I go dig out a copy of Live At Fillmore East and enjoy it with freshly inspired (though still gently ringing) ears. I’d encourage you all to do the same.
(Chris Cooper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)