BACKBITING, BICKERING AND BROTHERHOOD: Members have come and gone, but Gregg Allman’s soulful baritone survives
For the San Diego Union-Tribune
It was just the way people thought in the open-mindedness of the late ’60s, but Gregg Allman wasn’t totally prepared to buy in.
“I was always kind of a doubting Thomas,” he says. “When I found out the band was gonna have two drummers, I thought, ‘Oh, no, this is gonna be a train wreck.'”
Then, the first album by the Allman Brothers Band flopped. The second didn’t do so well either.
“I don’t ever recall thinking about the future with the band,” Allman says. “I just thought I’d go along with this until I could do my own thing.”
Thirty-four years later, there have been some pileups for the Allman Brothers. There has been back-biting, open bickering, jail time and tragedy involving various members of the band’s entourage, but there also has been a brotherhood that has spanned 34 years and accounts for some of the most inventive and dynamic blues-rock ever.
“It just goes to show you what can happen if you stay around long enough,” the singer-keyboard player says. “You just can’t plan on anything, because you never know what’s going to happen.”
What’s happening today is that the Allman Brothers are riding a crest. The band, which has a headlining role at Saturday’s Street Scene, has released its first studio album of new material in nine years, “Hittin’ the Note,” and has a double-CD out from its seminal live set at the 1970 Atlanta Pop Festival. Martin Scorsese’s Year of the Blues video and music tribute features an entire CD devoted to the Allmans.
Allman can be forgiven for his expression of “wow.” He has seen the ups and downs of a rock band that few other have witnessed, or survived.
There are only three remaining members of the original six Allman Brothers: Allman and drummers Butch Trucks and Jaimoe. Gone are vaunted twin-lead guitarists Duane Allman (killed in a 1971 motorcycle accident); Dickey Betts (kicked out of the band in 1999 for, well, for being Dickey Betts); and monster bassist Berry Oakley (killed in a 1972 motorcycle accident). Others have come and gone as well.
“Just about every change was caused by tragedy,” Allman says. “And then there was spell a couple of years ago when we just seemed to be really bogged down. But we fixed the situation.”
The “situation” that was fixed was sending Betts packing. The brilliant, melodic guitarist had teamed with Duane Allman to forge a new way of two guitarists playing off and around each other. He was an integral part of the band’s sound, but always seemed to be quibbling with other band members until they simply had had enough.
That created an opening for former Allman guitarist Warren Haynes, who returned from his Gov’t Mule band after co-founder Allen Woody died unexpectedly. Haynes joined a lineup that included another slide guitarist, Derek Trucks, bassist Oteil Burbridge, Marc Quinones and the three original members.
“Did I worry about how Warren and Derek would fit?” Allman says. “Well, it’s the first time we ever had two slide players at the same time, but I really didn’t worry about it. Derek (nephew of drummer Butch) had been playing with us for a while and Warren used to be in the band. I knew they would figure it out.”
The Allmans aren’t the only band to have two lead guitarists, but the ensemble sound and the band’s mixture of blues, rock, soul, jazz and gospel influences remains distinct from its competitors.
“Everything’s a lot more open-minded now,” Allman says. “We’ll do an acoustic part of the show as well as electric … we’re doing some Otis Redding and some Howlin’ Wolf. This is stuff I’ve been wanting to do.”
Allman also has recaptured his voice since he got sober in the mid-1990s. His soulful baritone returned and he’s found renewed enthusiasm for the business.
He and Haynes were the primary writers on the band’s new studio album, and delighted in the experience.
“I’m just so thankful I’m still here to be able to make music,” the 55-year-old Allman says. “Warren and I wrote ‘Desdemona’ for the album, and we knew right away that we were doing the right thing. I’m really proud of the record.”
He’s also grateful for being able to perform for people who want to still hear the Allman sound.
“I’ve got this thing now that I do,” he says. “I get up there on stage and I say a prayer. I’ve been through a lot and it really does please me that I’m still doing this. I go up there and play like it’s the last time I’m gonna play. I do that because you just never know.”
Yet the band’s doubting Thomas still has his days. He remembers when percussionist Quinones joined up in 1991.
“I thought, ‘Oh, no, how are we gonna have three drummers that don’t sound like a train wreck? Aw, this ain’t gonna work’. But it sure did. It just gelled. I don’t know how, but it did.”
It’s enough to give Allman faith in the future. Well, maybe just a little bit.