Backstage at Jones Beach Theater. The sun is descending behind the horizon. A solitary figure, Warren Haynes, emerges from the shadows, guitar slung low across his back. A hush falls over the place; the only sound his boots on the concrete. Women and children peer cautiously out of windows. Men look away. A lone ball of tumbleweed blows across his dusty path. Behind him, his six amigos—
OK, I’m kidding. But it struck me about sixty percent into Tuesday’s show that the Allman Brothers are like the Magnificent Seven. They ride into your town, an all-star team of desperadoes, each expert on his weapon of choice. They chase away your blues and ride on, asking nothing but that bluesy justice be served. Served of course, with several heaping side orders to boot—jazz, rock, and soul.
The three drummers lay down the percussive bed that heralds “Walk On Gilded Splinters.” Then the guitars join in and the band is off. Most of the crowd is unfamiliar with the song. There are harmony guitar riffs, then harmony vocals. Soon the guitarists are trading wicked licks, bringing the classic Allman Brothers sound, with intensity, to this relatively new vehicle. Derek and Warren drive the song to the final verse with simultaneous pleading lines. For the faithful, it is a solid opening; for the house at large, maybe a puzzler. But still, a strong statement of purpose—here we are, here’s what we do. Any questions?
Then immediately into a brisk, powerful “Trouble No More,” with Derek answering Gregg’s strong vocals with staccato responses. Warren and Derek briefly trade lines on the brief mid-section, and Derek sizzles on the song’s dash to the finish. By “Aint Wastin’ Time No More” the band has won over the crowd, with Derek again punctuating Gregg’s vocals in telepathic interplay, and playing stinging, ringing leads over the break– soaring above the fray like an indifferent angel. On the outro Warren takes the reigns, pouring the evening’s sweet summer breeze out through his graceful and understated solo, then kicking it up a notch as he climbs up the fret board to that ringing gutbucket place.
Next up is “Woman Across the River.” Warren’s bluesy solo licks between the verses are right in the pocket; Gregg layers on some tasty organ before Warren goes back into the vocal. Then Derek lays into a solo that is pure cool—so “cool,” in fact, that his strings are smoldering. As Derek lets loose Warren raises his right arm, a finger aloft, to indicate time to return to earth. The band follows his lead, then Warren snarls out the final verse, and the outro is again a highlight. The band continues to sneak in some of its best playing after the songs are ostensibly over. The guitars trade blistering lines, falling into and out of harmony riffing, the rhythm section locked in, the entire band hurtling forward until finally Warren hits the closing riff and the runaway train screeches to a halt. Bam!
Funky guitar chording lays the groundwork for what will soon be “You Don’t Love Me,” Derek beginning the vamp as Warren changes axes. Here the action is before the song starts, as the band explores the pre-song riff, Gregg offering up some organ. As is always the case, the drums are locked on, providing a solid bedrock foundation. Finally, almost three minutes in, the twin riff that should kick off the song—only it doesn’t immediately, there is some more vamping, before finally Gregg and the guitars lock onto the proper melody and Gregg begins the vocals. Both guitar players shine, Warren playing some searing slide lines.
Next up is a crowd-pleasing but somewhat rote “Midnight Rider.” Then a jaunty take on “Standback.” From my vantage point (close enough, nicely centered) the sound and the mix is perfect. The drummers are percolating, Oteil is slapping and snapping this one forward, his bouncy funky bass line serving almost as the lead instrument.
Warren slows things down with a heartfelt reading of “Dreams to Remember.” The band falls in softly behind him, Gregg layering on organ with a deft, light touch, as this song is all about the soul singing. Derek takes a resonant, glassy slide solo during the break, in full empathy with the vocal delivery; few guitarists can “sing” back as well as Derek can. Maybe none. The band does a stop time on Warren’s final verse, Derek’s accents barely there. All around, a magnificent exhibition of notes not played, Warren’s gritty vocals carrying the day.
Next Gregg offers up “Who to Believe.” Soulful vocals, solid soloing on the break. Then a forceful, aggressive “Every Hungry Woman,” both guitarists straining against the melody in almost competitive blasts of solo work.
The experience of a live concert is very much impacted by pacing, song selection, and flow– how the band grabs you by the scruff of the neck at the show’s outset, provides you with an overall experience, then pats you on the butt and sends you on home. A good concert—especially with a band like the Allman Brothers—is far more than the sum total of how well each song individually is played. It is a holistic experience, one song leading to the next. This is why hard-core fans enjoy live recordings of entire shows better than the anthologizing of the traditional live album; the former carries the indelible magic of the here and now, “to go.” (It is also why I am listening to the Instant Live recording of the show as I type.)
All of which is a roundabout way of saying, it was at this point that the show took a left turn, the band pushing the needle from solid to outstanding, with a sequence of songs that combined to pull you forward, blow you back in your seat, pull you forward, blow you back, and send you off in that happy place. It started with the impossibly wobbly, off kilter, riff to “44,” a song that manages at its best to exist wholly apart from the constraints of normal time. To these ears this is one of the finest numbers in this band’s repertoire.
After the initial vocal section, Warren splays fat, stinging crystal clear blues lines over Derek and Oteil’s wobbly signature riff. Five and a half minutes into the song the band is almost silent, the lightest drum brushes keeping the song going, as Derek begins whispering over the top. Soon he is carrying on a conversation, Derek’s wispy lead lines posing existential questions, Warren’s chording providing snippy answers. Derek stretches out on a fat slide note, Warren still egging him on with tasteful chorded responses, and it is the point that the song falls out of time, and there is only endless now. Around and around they go, faster and faster, somehow creating the illusion of swirling in a circle, the band picking up steam, building the tension, everyone locked in, Derek’s fingers flying across the strings, Oteil laying thunder down at the bottom, and you know, you just know, that at any second—
–and there it is, the break back into the lumbering riff, executed on a dime. Time begins elapsing again, the band falls in behind Warren’s final verse. Then a minute-and-a-half more of time-free licks, Derek adding lines to the song’s wind-down like a master chef seasoning a gumbo. In all almost 12 minutes of pure group virtuosity. If this is the direction this band is taking, count me in.
An upbeat “Statesboro Blues” follows, feel-good bumpa dumpa music after the breathtaking “44.” Gregg takes matters into his own hands with a jaunty piano solo, Warren bleeds the innards out of his poor strings. Then Derek leaves the stage for one of the most blissful reads ever of “Melissa,” Warren pitch perfect in augmenting Gregg’s singing, his solo comprised of soaring, elegiac lines that seem never to end. He is avoiding the familiar triplet approach to soloing on this song, making it his own, making it new and breezy and just totally hitting the spot. It is old, it is new, it is welcome. Warren’s breathtaking solo on the outro goes on a full ninety seconds after Gregg has sung the final lyric.
“Black Hearted Woman” follows, forceful, the “Other One” style jam on the outro sounding somewhat less like that tune than usual. Out of the coda jam Derek improvises over the drum section—beautiful guitar improvisation that is reminiscent of the great jazz horn players—before dropping in enough of a taste that you know that, when he’s good and ready, he’ll be finding his way over to “Mountain Jam.” Butch pushes him, laying down the familiar tom-tom beat, but Derek will not be rushed.
From here on, the band has found the spot.
Derek flirts with the “Mountain Jam” lick, coming toward it, flitting away with jazzy asides, coming back, flitting away. He is a tease, and we love to be teased. Warren joins the party, Derek finally states the theme, Warren grabs onto it, and so the band is off and into “Mountain Jam.” The twin leads are yin and yang, fire and ice, over driving drumming. After the opening melody Derek takes the lead, playing jazzy colorful lines, then chording, and the baton is gracefully passed to Gregg as his smooth B3 solo emerges seamlessly from Derek’s wake, fights for space, and wins it. Then a similar hand-off, and Warren is leading the band. The music morphs as the band falls in behind Warren, fluid. Derek tosses off sporadic, long languid licks. Then Derek and Gregg pull back—still playing, but softer—creating the impression of a five-piece as Warren solos primarily over bass and drum section. Then Warren and Derek play discordant leads that blend perfectly together, taking the cool music down, down, taming the wild beast, Warren tossing in bird calls, the music less and less there until it is gone entirely and only the drums remain.
The drum solo is a short one—less than six minutes—before Oteil joins the percussionists for some sweet bass improv vamping, using the full fret board, his ringing melodic explorations eventually sliding, beautifully, into what my wife informs me is the Christmas song “Away in the Manger.”
There is another moment of virtual silence as the guitar players return and begin sprinkling notes over the rhythmic bed; soon the twin leads are wrapped around the “Afro-Blue” melody. After an all-too-brief workout on “Afro-Blue, back into “Mountain Jam” for the close. In all, a 28-minute tour de force from Derek’s pre-“Jam” riffing to the close of the “Mountain Jam” sandwich. A great way to end the show.
Only, it isn’t over. From the ashes of “Mountain Jam” emerges the mighty “Whipping Post.” Derek flies over Oteil’s deep bottom, exploring the dark places in the song, then racing frenetically to the next vocal interlude. Then Warren solos with a light minor key touch over Derek’s chording. The band picks up speed, Warren leading the charge, as they slam into the final vocal section (“Sometimes I feel…”)
NOW the ending is perfect.
In what almost seems like too much of a good thing, the band returns to encore with “Layla.” While the novelty of them playing this song may have worn off, the majesty most certainly has not. They approach it as less an anthem and more an old chestnut from some bluesman’s catalog. On the coda, Derek’s wistful playing evokes, without quoting, Duane’s original lines, and it is the perfect complement to the cool breeze coming off the water all around. It is the perfect note on which to send you off into the summer night. Finally Derek and band touch down, Warren wishes Oteil a happy 40th birthday, and we’re out. On to the next town, as the band rides out, the strains of “Little Martha” as the credits roll, the end of another perfect bluesy redemptive spaghetti western.