By Jim Lundstrom, Post-Crescent staff writer
15 July 2004 — The Post-Crescent
It was good to hear Gregg Allman laugh. The first laugh came upon mention that people are saying the current two-guitar lineup seems to be approaching the greatness of the original band.
Allman let a good-ole laugh roll out and said, “People are sure enough guitar crazy, ain’t they.”
After all the stories about drugs, booze, women and Cher, you almost know too much about Gregg Allman’s private life.
The fact that he may be the greatest white blues singer fronting one of rock’s greatest and most enduring bands makes you feel somewhat protective.
So it was good to hear him laugh.
The 56-year-old leader of the Allman Brothers Band, talking by telephone from his home in Savannah, Ga., sounds like he has made peace with himself when he talked recently about the summer tour that brings the legendary band to Appleton Saturday night.
“I love playing places we haven’t played previously,” he said of the band’s headlining role in the Pierce Great Fox Cities Celebration at Fox Cities Stadium, with opening act Chris Robinson and New Earth Mud.
Allman said the band is at a peak.
“Well, hell, I’ve been blessed, blessed with finding the right players,” he said. “We sure have lost a few. The way the band is now, I tell ya, everybody gets along really well. Good vibe, lots of laughter. That’s the way it should be.
“The band is at an all-time high spiritually,” he continued. “Everyone feels good. I haven’t had a drink or dope going on eight years. I feel good.”
Only Allman and drummers Jaimoe and Butch Trucks remain from the original lineup that was formed in 1969.
Founder and slide guitar genius Duane Allman, Gregg’s older brother, died in a motorcycle accident in 1971. Original bass player Berry Oakley died in a cycle crash near the same intersection as Duane almost a year later, which tagged the band as cursed for a time.
Original lead guitarist Dickey Betts was booted from the band in 2000.
Today, the seven-piece band has been playing to sold-out houses and earning rave reviews with a lineup that includes 24-year-old Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes, who also plays in his own band, Govt. Mule, as well as with The Dead and Phil Lesh & Friends.
Haynes hooks up with The Dead July 23 for a few weeks before returning to the Allman Brothers in late August. The Dead play Alpine Valley on the 24th (and rumors abound that some members of The Dead will be at Saturday’s show).
Allman understands why people are impressed by the current guitar duo.
“Both of them are really accomplished,” he said. “Derek, I can’t believe him. He’s not even 25. I first played with him when he was 10 years old down in South Miami Beach. They wouldn’t let him stay in the club between sets, so he’d go outside and throw a baseball with his little brother.”
The band has been garnering rave reviews for “One Way Out,” its new live, double-disc CD, recorded during the band’s annual multi-week March stand at the Beacon Theater in New York.
Many of those reviews have also pointed out that Allman’s gritty voice sounds in fine form, which, again, he attributes to the current band.
“I tell ya, it’s hard to sing when you know the band is just trying to get by,” he said, alluding to past incarnations of the band. “But when everybody is charging from the gate, that’s what makes for good singing. When you’ve got a dedicated bunch of guys playing, they know all the dynamics and everything. Nobody’s running over anybody else. All that takes time’s polish.”
Earlier this year, Allman won his first JAMMY Award (the jam band version of the Grammies) for song of the year, “Old Before My Time,” which he co-wrote with Haynes and appears both on the studio release “Hittin’ the Note” and “One Way Out.”
But don’t call ABB a jam band.
“We’re not a jam band, that’s for damn sure,” he said. “We’re a band that jams. Jam bands, that’s pretty much all they do.”
Allman said his band jams in the sense that it never approaches a song in the same way.
“If you play the same song the same way ever night, it would rapidly become a job, and we couldn’t have that,” he said, laughing again.
That sense of musical adventure was there from the beginning, he said, and developed from the various musical interests the original lineup brought to the table.
“We all came from different places,” he said. “Butch Trucks, he came from a three-piece band that did Byrds-type stuff, Dylan stuff. It wasn’t a folk band, but it wasn’t Hank Ballard and the Midnighters either.
“Jaimoe, he played with Clifton Chenier and Percy Sledge and, oh, god, Otis (Redding). He played with him for a long time. That’s about where I came from, rhythm and blues. My brother came from about the same place, except he had discovered the slide guitar. At the time I joined the band — I was the last to join — I had been away from my brother for about 11 months. During that time, he learned to play slide. He was fiddling around with it last time I saw him. But he was really playing it when I saw him again.”
Without mentioning his name, Allman then refers to the departed Betts.
“There was one country person in there and he’s not with us anymore,” he said. “That’s where the country flavor came from. He liked rockabilly. He wasn’t that wild about country music, but I think he was just so far from deep in the country, you can take the boy out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the boy.”
Once on the bus, Allman said the band devoured jazz and blues.
“We’ve always listened to jazz, Miles Davis or Coltrane,” he said. “And part of us were blues, so there was Muddy or Howling Wolf or Otis Rush. Name it.”
Allman said in the beginning he was the doubting Thomas of the group.
“I never thought we’d make enough to pay the rent doing this,” he said. “I was plenty surprised. Still am. I’m thankful every day. Every time I walk on stage and sit behind the piano, I play like it’s my last one, ’cause it just might very well be. Never know. I hope not, but I think that’s just the way everybody in this band goes about it.”
(c) Copyright 2004, The Post-Crescent, Appleton. All Rights Reserved.