By Jeff Johnson, Staff Writer
Chicago Sun Times
“The road goes on forever,” Allman Brothers vocalist-keyboardist Gregg Allman sang during “Midnight Rider,” the band’s opening number Wednesday night at the Chicago Theatre.
A few years ago, that lament might have summed up the attitude of Allman and the whole band, as well as countless other groups whose commercial zeniths came 30 years ago and who stay together just to make a buck. Then the Allmans played their last silver dollar and dumped the popular but disruptive Dickey Betts.
The early returns were decidedly mixed for the new seven-piece lineup that incorporated former vocalist-guitarist Warren Haynes from Gov’t Mule and whiz-kid guitarist Derek Trucks, the nephew of Butch Trucks, one of the group’s three (count ’em–three) drummers. When the Allmans came through last August, Haynes was struggling to hold down his share of the vocal duties and Derek Trucks was being treated as a junior member, both in terms of solo time and in the sound mix.
But it’s all coming together now for the group, which led its devoted (though not sold-out) following on a 3-1/2-hour musical joy ride Wednesday. The trip was fueled by hard-edged renditions of blues standards, enough classic hits to satisfy the nostalgia-oriented and the kind of twin-guitar interplay that made the classic lineup of the late Duane Allman and Betts the standard for countless imitators.
The band purred with precision during the first of its three shows over a four-night span at the venue. The three-drummer format, coupled with the rock-solid bass fretwork of Oteil Burbridge, laid down a beat strong enough to support a thousand solos.
Haynes and Trucks, who just turned 23, are a formidable guitar tandem these days. They trade slide guitar duties on a nightly basis, with Trucks doing most of the honors Wednesday. While Haynes is not the fluid, syrupy-smooth player that Betts is, his biting riffs are more in tune with the band’s roots in the blues.
As a vocalist, Haynes sounded more self-assured and polished than last time through. While his rendition of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” won’t make anybody forget Otis Redding, he sounded strong and soulful on the upbeat “Soulshine,” “Woman Across the River” and “Rocking Horse,” his new showpiece number.
And in this home of the blues, the band rolled out Muddy Waters’ “Trouble No More,” which Allman sang early in the show, when his gravelly voice sounded particularly fit. While some people think of the blues as being sorrowful and self-pitying, songs like the Waters number; Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues,” a longtime Allman staple, and Elmore James’ and Sonny Boy Williamson’s “One Way Out” are full of mischief and a blatant sensuality. Allman’s bluesier compositions, by comparison, often express a helpless yearning.
Along with the band’s blues and Southern rock roots, the Allmans venture into several extended jams during every show these days. The tie-dyed masses who otherwise await the reincarnation of Captain Trips have become loyal fans, grooving to the elaborate light shows and magic-mushroom motifs that are part of the Allman experience. There’s even a 12-minute “drums in space”-like section during the band’s new untitled instrumental, followed by a gorgeous solo by Burbridge on his six-string bass.
Wednesday’s set was purged of nearly all vestiges of the country-rock-leaning Betts; “Ramblin’ Man” and “Blue Sky” are missing in action on this tour. Only a scorching “Southbound,” with Michigan bluesman Larry McCray sitting in and proving a worthy jamming partner, served as a reminder of the exiled co-founder.
And while songs that Betts wrote and-or sang aren’t high on the set lists these days, the Allman Brothers have enough quality material that they could easily do three shows without repeating themselves if they so chose. The depth of their catalog makes it easier to follow their preferred format of playing multiple nights in one city at comfortable, acoustically superior converted movie houses, rather than toiling for 25,000 detached souls at some outdoor shed.
It’s always tricky business, though, mixing vocals, guitars and keyboards so that they’ll stand out above the crescendo from the rhythm section. When four-sevenths of your firepower is concentrated on the bottom end, there are bound to be times, such as during “Southbound,” when the melody becomes slave to the beat. Most of the time, though, it all worked out better than the band had a right to expect.