By: Ed Masley
Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic
Friday, August 16, 2002
Two years ago, the Allman Brothers parted ways with founding member Dickey Betts.
Today, it’s like a new band — one with more than 30 years experience, a Hall of Fame induction and such jam-rock classics as “At Fillmore East” and “Eat a Peach” to its credit.
Things are so good now, in fact, that founding member Butch Trucks says, “I haven’t had this much fun playing since Duane died.”
Now, for those who haven’t memorized their Allman Brothers history, Duane Allman (Gregg’s brother) was killed in a motorcycle accident in Macon, Ga., in October of ’71, a year before the band lost bassist Berry Oakley in a motorcycle accident remarkably close to where the greatest slide guitarist rock ‘n’ roll will ever know had crashed his bike.
But back to why the band is doing well today, the drummer explains, “There’s a lot of experimentation. A lot of playing around. A lot of give and take. A lot of mutual respect.”
A lot of things they didn’t have with Betts around their neck.
“After Duane died, Dickey pretty much took over,” Trucks says. “And when he’d get out there, I mean, he would be right in your face. And there was no way around it. It made it impossible to play a show. We couldn’t jam. We couldn’t do songs. We couldn’t do much of anything. It really did get difficult to the point of where we really had to do something about it. We’d been through this with him before a couple times. And, you know, he would go get help, he’d say, ‘You’re right, I’ve got a problem with alcohol and I can’t drink.’ This time, we told him to go get help and we were gonna do the summer without him and he came back with ‘[Expletive] you all’ and hired lawyers. So it’s tragic. It’s a shame. But it is what it is.”
And if they hadn’t acted on the situation when they did, he says, “There would be no more Allman Brothers. I’m 55 years old right now. I’ve been down the road with this band for 33 years and if it’s not fun anymore, there’s really no point in doing it. There’s no point in busting our asses and doing what we’re doing night after night if it’s not any fun anymore. And it had reached that point. There’s no doubt about it. The first option was hopefully for Dickey to pull it together and do what needed to be done. He refused to do that, so … I’m afraid we’re stuck with the only other option we had.”
Replacing Betts with Warren Haynes, the slide guitarist many credit with fueling their ’89 comeback, may have been a cause for celebration in the Allmans inner circle. But a bigger reason things are looking up, says Trucks, “is we got Gregg back. Gregg decided to climb out of that bottle and get back into life again, so that whereas we were propping him up for a few years there, now he’s kind of pulling us along, saying, ‘Come on, let’s go.’ He’s just really enjoying himself and just having a good time. And all these ideas that he just had all bottled up inside are just coming out of him.”
The band’s response to all those previously bottled-up ideas was to hit the studio and cut 11 tracks in 10 days, which is really fast for them.
“If you knew the old Allman Brothers, it would take us 10 days just to get one track learned,” Trucks explains. “To get 11 cuts done in 10 days was just phenomenal. A lot of material is really flowing right now. We could probably do, shoot, three or four albums right now.”
In the meantime, they’ve taken to selling an all-new album cut in 1970 at shows.
As Trucks explains, “It’s this live thing with Duane and Berry from American University back in 1970, about two or three months before the Fillmore album, and it’s really kind of cool because you can hear all that stuff that finally came to a head at the Fillmore really taking shape. It’s right there. There’s some damn good playing on it, a damn good ‘Whipping Post.’ ”
A “Whipping Post” so good, in fact, it helped the drummer and bassist Oteil Burbridge figure out what they’d been doing wrong.
“When I got my first copy of this thing,” he says, “Oteil was at my house and we sat down and stuck the thing on. And he looked at me and I looked at him ’cause for the year or two before, we’d been playing ‘Whipping Post’ and it really hadn’t been going anywhere. And it hit us like a ton of bricks. We listened to it and we’d been playing it at about half speed. For some reason, we’d just started slowing it down. And we listened to that old recording with Duane and Berry and it was up there. And we just looked at each other and said, ‘There it is.’ We went back out the next tour, and all we did was just pick the tempo up and all of a sudden, it started breathing again. It started moving. It’s good to go back every once in a while to listen to the old stuff and kind of check out where you are.”
They may be playing “Whipping Post” tonight in Burgettstown, but Trucks can’t say for sure.
And that’s a welcome change of pace coming out of a period during which, in Trucks’ words, the Allmans got “too damn predictable.”
Time was, he says, they’d play “the same song followed by the same song. Every night, the same show.”
Now, he says, “We’ve reached a point where the set isn’t written until the afternoon of the show. And we haven’t played the same set twice in quite some time.”
The only trouble now, in fact, is things are going too well.
“Well, what happens,” Trucks explains, “is you get up there and start playing and I’m 55 years old now and I’m playing with these guys like Derek [Trucks, Butch’s nephew], at 22. Not only that but I’m the drummer that plays real hard and drives the engine of this thing and when it’s going good, I get into it. After about two or three songs, I feel like I’m about 19. And then, about an hour after the show is over, I feel like I’m about 91.”
Ed Masley can be reached at emasley@ post-gazette.com or 412-263-1865.