By: Jeff Spevak
Democrat & Chronicle (Rochester, NY)
Butch Trucks’ day is off to a good start. He has just returned from a morning shopping to one of the mega-bookstores near his Manhattan apartment to pick up a DVD of The Lord of the Rings. He has seen the movie 13 times and read the trilogy 10 times.
Middle-earth’s battle between hobbits and the forces of evil is but one of many titanic struggles that intrigue the drummer for the Allman Brothers Band. He’s halfway through Vol. 2 of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War is history. He has plowed through Joseph Campbell’s ruminations on man and heroic myths with Hero With a Thousand Faces.
“I’m getting my college education,” the 54-year-old Trucks says. “I like to think of my brain as heavy duty.”
The Allman Brothers Band, which comes to Darien Lake Performing Arts Center on Saturday, has been a titanic struggle itself for three decades. Three band members have died. Drugs and alcohol have been a disruption. The group has sailed through artistic greatness, stumbled into creative morass and butted heads with record labels. Most recently, founding guitarist Dickey Betts was dismissed, an action that has been working its way through the courts.
But the body of work that has emerged is legendary. “Sweet Melissa” , “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”, “Midnight Rider”, and “Ramblin’ Man” are a unique Southern take on blues, country and – certainly a less-known influence – jazz. “Miles Davis and John Coltrane, that’s all we listened to in the early days,” Trucks says.
Since the band’s inception in 1969, only three original members have survived the tumult: Trucks, percussionist Jaimoe and singer Gregg Allman.
Duane Allman, who had built himself a monster reputation as a studio guitarist, was itching for his own band when he assembled a jam with Trucks, Jaimoe, Betts, bassist Berry Oakley and keyboardist Reese Wynans, who would go on to work with Stevie Ray Vaughan.
“We started playing this shuffle – it lasted three or four hours,” Trucks recalls. “I had chills one minute, tears the next. After we were done, Duane comes over and says, Anybody in this room who does not want to be in my band has to fight their way out.'”
“Duane was like Jesus Christ come to town. And the music that came out that day was the religion.”
All of the pieces were in place. Except a singer. Duane said, `I got a call in to my baby brother.” Trucks recalls. “There was kind of a negative reaction to that, but Duane said, no, Gregg was the only one that can sing in this band. And we all had to agree. A few days later, Gregg was there, and Reese wasn’t.”
The negative reaction?
“I had worked with him in a band before; he had left us holding the bag,” Trucks says. “It was personal differences. But it’s just worked out incredibly well.”
“Alcohol and drug addiction is a pretty heavy-duty thing. Gregg, five years ago, got his life together. I’ve known him 33 years, and in all that time I don’t think we said 10 words to each other until now. He’s gotten away from alcohol, gotten away from drugs. He’s sociable, dependable. He’s a great guy.”
Trucks sees a connection between The Lord of the Rings and the Allman Brothers Band. Perhaps that’s the reason he’s returned to the epic so often.
“The first time I began reading it was the day we started the Allman Brothers , after that first rehearsal,” he says. “It was a magic time.”
“It is such a profound, profound, profound, incredible story. Tolkien grew up in beautiful, idyllic England. He began writing The Lord of the Rings during World War I in the trenches, and he finished the stories in the Underground, when London was being bombed during World War II.”
Darting among those world wars, whose gruesome images fueled The Lord of the Rings, are personal battles. “You have to face your demons,” Trucks says.
Gregg Allman’s demons are well known; Trucks has had his own. “There is a constant battle in me between arrogance and insecurity,” he says. “I’m also in AA myself.”
“You have to understand the personal story of the ring. Each one of us has something we would not like to have. Whatever that weakness is, you maybe live with it, hide it, destroy it. It’s not easy to change something about yourself.”
Jeff Spevak is our staff music critic. Call him at (585) 258-2452 or fax him at (585) 258-2554.