Extended Family: Allman Brothers Band is as Influential as Ever as It Celebrates 35 Years Together
By Mitch Myers
Down Beat, 1 October 2004
Volume 71; Issue 10; ISSN: 00125768
In March, the Allman Brothers Band celebrated its 35th anniversary while performing a 10-evening run at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan. The band’s shows at the Beacon are a tradition in itself, as they’ve played the venue every spring since reforming in 1989. The group’s present lineup is as good as it has been in quite some time. Long considered guardians of guitar-based improvisational rock, the Allman Brothers Band (ABB) is an acknowledged and key predecessor to the prevailing jam band phenomenon.
The ABB’s extended performances in conceit have been the stuff of legend for decades and despite numerous personnel changes their trademark sound has managed not just to endure, but thrive. Nowadays they only play a handful of gigs at a time-a far cry from nonstop roadwork they once pursued as youths, traveling from town to town in a van while listening to the John Coltrane Quartet, Miles Davis and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Still, the group continues to observe its summer touring ritual and remain a formidable organization, one that needs to be reconsidered in light of current musical circumstance.
While it’s been more than three decades since founding guitarist Duane Allman and bassist Berry Oakley both died in eerily similar motorcycle accidents, the jamming spirit that these men established has been dutifully maintained by surviving members Gregg Allman, Butch Trucks and Jaimoe. The band’s lineup, two guitarists, two drummers, bass and keyboard has varied slightly over the years but the only real shift in structure these days is the added presence of percussionist Marc Quinones.
The band’s new life also comes from guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks, and bassist Oteil Burbridge. An inspired frontline, the three have taken on the imposing legacy of the ABB and revitalized the group’s classic compositions with their free-flowing musicianship. Each man brings a wealth of different abilities and a strong sense of history to the band. The newer members mesh well with the old-playing with a cooperative fire that hasn’t been heard since the original group recorded albums like At Fillmore East and Eat A Peach. And as each is active in other outlets on the jam band scene, they have heightened the profile of the ABB.
Supporting Gregg Allman’s soulful rebel yell and extending the boundaries of their vintage, southern-tinged blues-rock, the current band shows an improvisational tradition in constant transition. Their patented rhythmic complexity and infectious modal jamming is still present, showcasing elaborate time signatures, swooping guitars, propulsive double-drumming and high-flying solos all around.
“It’s the same feel, the same vibe,” says 24-year-old guitarist Derek Trucks, the nephew of drummer Butch Trucks, who first jammed on-stage with the ABB when he was 11. “It’s almost still Duane’s group. I’ve heard Jaimoe talk about it and whether it’s the Ellington band carrying on down the road or Miles’ groups, it’s always changing and that’s really what it takes. Changing the soloists is just bringing in fresh blood and keeping the fire there. You play with somebody for 30 years and there’s a lot of history, good and bad. That can bog down what you’re trying to do. Look at the Jazz Messengers: Art Blakey’s thing was just like the university for those cats and it’s where they all got their start. You can only learn so much by the book, you have to get out there and do it on the bandstand with musicians that have done it for longer than you’ve been alive.”
The roadwork is obviously ingrained in Derek’s DNA, besides playing with ABB he records and tours with the Derek Trucks Band, which plays about 150 gigs a year.
Although the ABB has endured beyond all expectations, the process has not been without its heavy losses. As a group they’ve survived the deaths of key members, shuffling personnel, drug abuse, police busts, numerous side projects, bad management, breakups, litigation, violent disputes and assorted ego trips associated with having a successful rock group in the 1970s. Ironically, the band’s recent phase of success can in part be traced to the exit of the band’s other founding guitarist, Dickey Betts, who was ousted from the group in 2000. It was a tough and controversial decision at the time but one that has clearly resulted in the band’s current cohesiveness.
To have gotten beyond so much adversity and still keep the ABB songbook fresh is no small feat, but the group has been steadily rising to the occasion. In 2003 they released the studio album Hittin’ The Note (Sanctuary) and DVD Live At The Beacon Theater (Sanctuary). A two-CD set drawn from the same Beacon concerts, One Way Out, was released this year and shows the band at the peak of their new, collective powers. Although they lack Belts’ familiar voice and burning guitar as well as his direct connection to their past, the band has benefited by the return of Haynes. Betts brought Haynes into his own group and then, along with Gregg Allman, invited the talented musician to join the ABB for its “reunion tour” in 1989.
After eight years of touring and recording Haynes left the ABB-along with the late bassist Allen Woody-to concentrate full time on the power-trio Gov’t Mule. Following their departures, the ABB went through several different guitar combinations. According to percussionist Quinones, who’s been with the band since 1991, the return of Haynes to the frontline with Trucks and Burbridge has provided both stability and inspiration. “This incarnation is by far one of the better ones,” Quinones says. “With Derek, Warren and Oteil there’s a lot more communication musically onstage.”
Haynes is a versatile music veteran and particularly hardworking. He’s reconstituted Gov’t Mule as a quartet since Woody’s death and the band continues to record and tour, having just released Déjà Voodoo on ATO Records. Haynes rejoined the ABB in 2000 and promptly co-produced Hittin’ The Note, the group’s first studio album in nine years. Haynes has also been a member of Phil Lesh and Friends and recently joined The Dead-a relationship that grew out of his rapport with Lesh and fellow Friend/Dead guitarist Jimmy Herring. Haynes has also just released the CD Live At Bonnaroo (ATO).
While he can fit into numerous settings, Haynes’ approach is made to order for the ABB. Singing, playing lead and slide guitar and writing songs, Haynes brings a harder, blues-rock edge back to the band. “There’s a lot of places where Warren fits in well,” Butch Trucks says. “Wan-en’s been leading the band on-stage for quite some time. He can start and count the song off, end the song and give cues. That’s a big point-to do that without stepping on anybody’s toes. Gregg, Jaimoe and I have been doing this for 35 years, and Warren has the right personality where he can do it and everyone’s glad to let him. He’s got such a feel for what music does and where it is supposed to go. He’s diplomatic and an exceptional musician. You put all of those things together and it’s exactly what we needed at the time that we needed it and pulled everything together.”
Derek Trucks agrees with his uncle on Haynes’ steadying influence within the band. “Warren and Gregg have a great thing in their songwriting together,” Trucks says. “Where Oteil and I are coming from is a little too different and Warren is somewhere in the middle. Age-wise and musically he’s coming from a place closer to Gregg than we are. He’s bridging the esthetics.”
Not surprisingly, Haynes and Trucks are often compared to the band’s original guitar tandem-Allman and Betts-two men who made music history together at a young age. Their innovative, twin-guitar attack resonated through countless other groups including Derek and the Dominos, which pitted Duane’s own slide work against Eric Clapton. As a group the ABB were youthful innovators who developed their sound during a time of great freedom and wide-open experimentation.
For Haynes and Trucks to enliven rockimprov vehicles like “Dreams” or “Whipping Post” is an ongoing challenge, one that requires more than technical skill. Fortunately, both were raised on the ABB’s early albums and have a shared insight into the group’s musical formula. “It’s a weird, unique position that Derek and I have found ourselves in,” Haynes says. “We have a similar amount of reverence for what the Duane/Dickey relationship was and what it meant to us. The fact that there even is an Allman Brothers Band without those two guys is incredible, and if I were on the outside, I’d have to be convinced that it was worthy of keeping the name. Having said that, when I hear the band and how great it sounds, I think it is. Derek has a similar background with this music to mine. I try not to think too much about the fact that both of the guitar players in the Allman Brothers Band aren’t original members but it’s about the music.”
Burbridge inhabits a similar position in the band as Haynes and Trucks. Still a relative newcomer, Burbridge has been with the ABB since Woody left in 1997. Before that time, he played countless road gigs alongside Herring in the proto-jam band Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit. Nowadays, Burbridge leads his own band, Oteil & The Peacemakers, which tours when he’s off duty from the ABB. Burbridge is a virtuoso on his chosen instrument, and while his superlative playing style isn’t exactly reminiscent of original bassist Oakley or even Woody, his adventurous spirit is right in line and he adds another formidable voice to the group’s improvisations.
“Oteil is a freak of nature,” Quinones says. “He’s one of these bass players who can play anything for you. To top it off he’s a phenomenal drummer, he started out playing drums and that’s where he gets a lot of the rhythmic stuff he applies to the bass. Oteil adds another dimension to the Allman Brothers Band’s sound-he’s got to keep true to the foundation and he does but then he takes it a little left, comes back, takes it left some more, and keeps the whole thing flowing.”
“It’s just about staying in the moment,” Burbridge says. “Time marches on and the best thing you can do is live in the moment and to get the most out of what you’re doing right then. It’s the nature of playing improvisational music, which is a given in jazz but not in rock and roll so it seems like a huge diversion in that context. The curse of the Allman Brothers Band is trying to get a consensus. There are lots of things that I wish were different, about playing live, the album, everything.”
While the newer members of the ABB provide much of the instrumental excitement, the group still revolves around the fundamental presence of Gregg Allman. Allman was another key architect of the band’s trailblazing sound and his compositions are a cornerstone of the band’s timeless repertoire. He still possesses one of the all-time great singing voices, and his work on the Hammond B-3 (inspired by Jimmy Smith) is the instrumental glue that holds the band together. Road-weary, humbled by years of substance abuse but now clean and proud, Allman reclaimed the ABB after he and his bandmates had reached an impasse with Betts.
Allman admits that he’s been slowing down but the current band’s vitality has kept him from throwing in the towel. “The dark cloud has passed,” Allman says. “Everything is back like it used to be, spiritually. Music is about love and bringing people together. It sure doesn’t mix with violence and bullying. That’s gone now, and thank God, because it could all be over. I was ready to leave and Butch approached me and said, ‘Wait a minute, why are we going to let this one guy run us all off?’ But I wasn’t through. I had to think about it to see if I had anything else to contribute to the Brothers and I do. I’ve got some more.”
“Gregg, in many ways, is at the heart of everything,” Butch Trucks says. “All the songs he’s written, his voice, nobody sings the blues like Gregg does-at least not with blond hair. Look, you have songs like ‘Whipping Post’ and ‘Melissa’ that are absolutely integral to the rock & roll canon. What he adds is just essential.”
And of course, veterans Trucks and Jaimoe keep things running smooth in the engine room. Along with Allman, the drummers are charter members and the three men have equal say in what goes on with the group. Other than Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann of the Grateful Dead, no other drum team in rock (or jazz) has endured for so long together. Trucks is the freight train, rolling straightahead and keeping the beat while Jaimoe is the dyed-in-the-wool jazzman (bred on Cozy Cole and Gene Krupa), working syncopated patterns all around Trucks’ walloping pulse. Together they put out an incredible amount of energy that elevates the band. With Quinones now making their percussion discussion a three-way conversation, the ABB have one of the most dynamic rhythm sections working today.
Trucks looks back at his 35 years of double drumming with some amazement. “Jaimoe and I both started out playing in high school,” Trucks says. “I went more in a rock & roll direction and he went toward jazz. We developed our own styles and for some reason the two of us can play together. We seem to complement each other.”
Haynes observes the combination of the two drummers as virtually telepathic. “The thing that Butch and Jaimoe have together is the unspoken chemistry that you could never expect,” Haynes says. “Those guys wouldn’t even know each other were it not for music. That’s partially why they sound so great playing together because they’re the yin and yang of each other. What they create is such a unique sound and this platform to play on top of-it changes the way any soloist plays. You have to play with more authority and more power when you’re playing on top of that rhythm section because otherwise it will engulf you, it will diminish what you’re doing and take over.”
When Butch Trucks first witnessed Quinones playing with the fusion group Spyro Gyra and approached him about playing with the ABB, the Bronx-born percussionist had never even heard of the Allman Brothers Band. Now he’s been with the group for 13 years and is an indispensable part of their rhythmic thrust. “When we were first doing ‘In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed,’ we wanted a Latin percussionist,” Trucks says, “someone who could complement what Jaimoe and I were doing. We looked for years and used a couple of guys on different sessions but they couldn’t play with enough power to perform with us live. Marc just stepped right in.”
“At first I didn’t think it was going to work because of the two drummers,” says Quinones, who besides playing with the ABB, continues to do session work in Manhattan. “One drummer is enough, having two drummers is a little crazy, then you throw me into the mix and it gets even crazier. It’s hard to explain what we do because it’s pretty much off the cuff.”
While the ABB is a living symbol of improvisational rock’s distinguished history the band is equally well-established within contemporary music trends. During the course of their recent run at the Beacon, the ABB was joined on stage by Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes, Rob Barraco, Derek’s wife, Susan Tedeschi, the horn section of Deep Banana Blackout, Phish bassist Mike Gordon, drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, bluesman Hubert Sumlin, guitarist Lee Roy Parnell and others. Archetypal tunes like “Mountain Jam” took on fresh dimensions alongside newer compositions like “Instrumental Illness” and Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue.” Multiple performances of the classic “Dreams” continue to reveal the band’s true depth. “It’s my favorite tune to play with the band,” Derek Trucks says. “It’s just a variation on ‘All Blues.'”
The seven men that make up the Allman Brothers Band may have other projects and concerns, but when they’re performing together there are few distractions. The music and the magic that the ABB create onstage always takes on the highest priority. “That’s it,” says Gregg Allman. “That’s what fixes it all-right there. It’s like having a real ***** for a girlfriend but boy, is she hell in bed.”
Copyright Maher Publications Division Oct 2004