By: John Petrick
For The North Jersey Bergen Record
After 35 years of life, death, booze, and scandal, a mellower Gregg Allman still keeps his mind on the road.
“I’m looking out at my back yard right now, watching a river go by,” says a gravel-voiced Allman from his Savannah, Ga., home. “I’m down here in paradise. And yet I’m aching right now to get to New York to go play.”
He won’t have to wait much longer. The Allman Brothers Band – which has undergone a number of reformations through its long and sometimes turbulent history – will continue an annual tradition started 15 years ago when it appears for a string of March dates at Manhattan’s Beacon Theatre. Beginning Thursday, the shows coincide with the release of the band’s new CD, “One Way Out,” featuring live performances from last year’s “March Madness” run at the Beacon.
The band has a sentimental attachment to the venue, Allman says. The relatively intimate house in many ways evokes memories of Bill Graham’s legendary Fillmore East. The revitalized movie palace hosted up-and-coming big-name bands during the late Sixties and early Seventies before the demise of the East Village theater and its sister venue, Fillmore West, in California in 1971.
“The Fillmore always sounded so good. It was just shaped right. Most of those places were built in the Twenties and Thirties. The roaring days. … We wanted to find a place that sounded and felt like the Fillmore. And though this place has one more balcony, it just feels like the Fillmore East. It really does,” he says. “And now that we’ve played it so many times, we know how loud or how soft we have to be. We have it down after playing it this long.”
Formed in Macon, Ga., in 1969 with a lineup that included brothers Gregg and Duane, the Allman Brothers established themselves as a popular live attraction. Their first two albums, “The Allman Brothers Band” and “Idlewild South,” featured strong blues-based roots and a vibrant rhythmic drive. But it was their two-album set, “Live at the Fillmore East,” that showed off the band’s stagecraft. The 22-minute “Whipping Post” is considered one of rock music’s most memorable improvisational performances.
Duane made a reputation for himself as a skillful slide guitarist, also playing on such classics as “Layla” from the Derek and the Dominos album. But in what would be the start of a series of dark episodes in the band’s long career, tragedy struck on Oct. 29, 1971, when Duane was killed in a motorcycle accident.
The remaining members went on to create more mellow material such as the hit single “Ramblin’ Man.” Just as they were getting back up to speed, tragedy struck again when band member Berry Oakley was killed in a 1972 accident eerily similar to Duane’s. From there were a series of ups and downs in the band’s career, with several breakups and reunions – not to mention side shows.
Greg would go on to marry Cher – twice. And in 1976, the band broke up after a notorious drug trial in which Allman testified against a former road manager. Bandmates vowed never to work with him again, but a reconstituted 1978 lineup emerged that included Allman.
More reorganizations would occur between then and now. But Allman says adding new, younger blood has infused the band with the energy that keeps it going. “One night I looked down the line and I thought, ‘Wow, there are no original brothers here.’ I had to look behind me for one. But it didn’t bother me, because these guys grew up with our music. That’s what they studied.”
The years brought not only lineup changes but lifestyle changes, too. While heroin was the demon of some other band members, Allman’s was primarily alcohol. “We all messed with heroin and got rid of it. But I just traded one off for another,” he says.
Sober now for seven years, he says live performing is much different now.
“First of all, it’s effortless. And you rarely go for a note that you don’t hit. You can hear. … When you’re drunk, you think you’re out there kicking some [butt]. Then you listen to it the next day, and it sounds like you have two tongues in your mouth. It’s like someone with too many drinks in them. Nobody wants to listen to what they have to say,” he says.
The deciding event to get sober happened with the woman he lives with today. “I met this girl from Mississippi. She was like no other girl I ever met. And she left. She said, ‘Man, I just can’t stay here and watch you killing yourself, little by little.’ So she split, and I went and checked myself in … and I detoxed from booze. Then I got a plane for Mississippi, and went and got her. … Now, I don’t even think about it. I have to make myself think back on it,” he adds.
“I just don’t waste my time on stuff I don’t care about anymore. Life is so precious and special. And I was blessed to get together with some guys, play music, make them feel good, and that’s a high.”
When he was a young man, the band would play 300 shows a year. Now that he’s 56, his schedule is down to about 100 shows annually. But that doesn’t mean it’s harder to do, he says.
“There are no rigors in playing. It’s the same amount of energy. Nothing has changed. Playing is about the passion and love and why you’re there. It’s getting … there that’s hard,” he says of the incessant traveling. “I’ve had a bellyful of that. … But putting on a suit and going to the office at 6 in the morning? It beats the hell out of that. I say a prayer every day that I’m not in the white suit army. … If you played the same thing over and over, like these flash-in-the-pans do, same set, same order, God, that would be almost a job. But we change. We never play the same set every night.”
Will there ever come a time to retire from live performing?
“I can’t tell the future. But I know it will slow down to a stop. It won’t just stop,” he says. “I love to play. But if I have to be helped onto a stage. …” He stops himself, thinking. “Well, hell, I still would.”
The Allman Brothers Band will perform at the Beacon Theatre, 2124 Broadway, Manhattan, 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and March 22, 23, 25, 26, 27, and 28. Tickets are $49.99 to $74.99 and can be purchased through the Beacon Theatre Box Office, (212) 496-7070, or ticketmaster.com.