(no setlist; see Duffy’s comment.)
Some folks may have thought I was restrained in my comments about Thursday’s show. There was a reason. As one woman I spoke with Friday night put it, its like the Olympics. If you’re a judge, you can’t give the first gymnast a 6.0, because what happens if the next one is better? What would I do, in short, about a show like– oh, I don’t know– Friday night?
There was a kink or two to be ironed out Thursday, mostly in the pacing; I do not think the band would have disagreed. I had no doubt things would be neatly ironed and pressed by night two.
The band takes the stage and begins the onset of a slow-building, instrumental crescendo, part tuning, part performance, before hitting the mark on an aggressive “Every Hungry Woman.” They are immediately “present,” in your face, with Oteil on the bottom and Warren driving the band forward. There is the insistent 2-guitar riff, then Warren plays some pile driver guitar– Warren was spot-on all evening– and then Derek pulls and snaps a solo from the strings of his poor guitar. Then “Statesboro Blues, with Warren, then Derek, playing blues solos over the bumpa dumpa bounce.
Oteil announces “Wasted Words” by improvising around the riff before the band joins him to slam into the song. On his slide solo Derek gets very loud, very hot, and very fast, a dramatic and powerful instrumental flourish.
Warren leads the band through “Hiding Place,” a Haynes original he’s played solo, that might as well be another Howlin’ Wolf song, with its variation on the “I’m a Man”/Hoochie Coochie Man” familiar blues riff (actually, that probably makes it more of a Muddy Waters song.) “Is that going to be an Allman Brothers song?” I ask one of the band’s posse. “Yeah, I think so” is the response. Good choice. Like a lot of the blues tunes Warren brings to the band, this one spends a lot of time on the one chord, the simplicity of song structure a vehicle for hard bop improv. Gregg plays some absolutely delicious church organ. Warren goes way up the fret board for his slide solo; Derek drives the song to a resounding close.
“Midnight Rider” is up next, always a sing-along; Warren sticks close to the now-familiar arrangement.
For the second night in a row the band favors us with the instrumental, “Egypt.” The more this song is played, the easier it will be to tell which parts are composed and which are improvs. Tonight, in addition to the distinct dessert vibe, the song elicits thoughts of Santana in the instantly sublime opening chording. Derek plays a nice, climbing solo, his notes resonating throughout the house. Warren does an eastern dance with his spot. Overall, this song is shaping up as a beautiful addition to the set, and a compositional high point in the band’s latter-period oeuvre (if I’m going to write reviews, I am required by law to use the word “oeuvre.” I don’t even know what it means.) Twenty minutes just seems to fly by.
Derek wails away, aggressively aloof– and by the way, try being aggressive and aloof at the same time if you think its easy– in his solo on “Don’t Keep Me Wondering.” At the end he points to Oteil, who picks up the riff but does not go off alone.
Then another highlight, “Desdemona;” the song has already become a band classic, and is greeted as such by the crowd. Gregg begins the instrumental break, after some heart-wrenching singing, with a nifty chorded organ solo; Derek, hovering nearby, watches him like a hawk the whole time. Then Derek peels off a slippery, resonant note that leads into his solo, layering it on top of Gregg’s chording of the song’s mid-section framework. Derek appears to have stopped pretending that the jazzy section to this song isn’t “My Favorite Things,” and within seconds he is stating that familiar song’s beloved melody, Broadway by way of Coltrane. As he usually does with a melody, though, Derek wraps his guitar around it, basks in it ever so briefly, then just as quickly moves away from it, taking off on variations and improvisations. Bubbling just beneath the surface, though, as reference point to his solo, is the “Desdemona/My Favorite Things” melody, implied by the chord structure. Soon he is playing monstrous, arena-sized salvos, drawing the crowd to its feet. Then, finally, he hits the hanging note that serves to pass the baton to Warren. And all the while, Derek never takes his eyes off Gregg.
Warren plays some garden variety achingly beautiful blue note guitar, with Butch driving the train underneath. Warren’s playing is stellar, BIG, and he hits the note on the wind-down of his solo; the crowd is appreciative but sort of sorry when the band finally touches down for the final vocal section; you didn’t want the fire to go out.
Then, right into “Hoochie Coochie Man,” no extended opening guitar duel. The band hits the song hard, hammering home the blues overtones of the first set. It is a strong one.
The grand piano is wheeled out for Gregg to begin the second set, and he favors us with “Rain,” the Beatles song he covered a la Ray Charles. Stripped of the recorded arrangement– just voice and piano– Gregg approaches the number like a folk song, finding the heart of the song and wrapping his voice and chops around it. As I say, less gospel, more folk. A very “solo Gregg” sound. Then “Delta Blue,” which to these ears sounded more vital and urgent than the night before, and is shaping up as a keeper. I wonder if it will evolve into a full band number.
“These Days,” of course, is one of those songs which you have to be a total Scrooge to dislike, and Gregg and Warren again did it up right. Then, during what is now becoming the Derek and Warren slot, the two trotted out “Old Friend,” a dirty bluesy take featuring sweet dual acoustic slides.
Easing back into the full band array, the boys take on “Old Before My Time;” like “Melissa the previous night, a good segue from acoustic set to full-on electric. But the exclusion of “Melissa” somehow improves the flow of the second set. Warren takes the narrative solo in what is essentially a folk song, his ringing lines drenched in empathy for the protagonist’s lot. Then a jaunty “Trouble No More,” before things start to get very interesting…
Marc Ford, once and future Black Crowe, joins the band for a rollicking “Same Thing.” Ford heats up the coal on his solo, then tosses a hot one to Warren, who cools it down leading into the vocal section. Warren and Derek’s harmony lines give way to Oteil’s bouncy solo, the point on which the song turns from a blues to a funk, without really changing. Derek grabs the ball out of Oteil’s solo, then the three guitarists are huddling, and lines are peeled off, flying faster than you can see who is playing what. All three guitarists are hanging 10 off a big oncoming wave of Oteil. A hard, emphatic finish as that wave crashes ashore, with the guitar players all in unison and Oteil still driving the groove; this is a stone cold highlight, and as always on “Same Thing,”, Oteil is deep in the middle of things.
Sometimes you can catch the flow of the show, and you know in your bones where the band is going, and this was one of those times. I don’t think anyone was especially surprised to hear Butch begin pounding out the familiar cadence of “Mountain Jam.” Soon, of course, it’s the Derek show over the Butch timpani. Marc and Jaimoe join in to provide a full, percussive bed as Derek switches to chords in his soloing. Gregg lays in some spot-on keyboard work, adding some heat to the proceedings. Warren plays some cowboy-inflected lead, giving way to an extended solo that is somehow improvisational blues as dance music, shake your booty and all. It is a display that shows purpose and discipline. Derek proceeds to testify with cool blue arrows of sound, leading gracefully into the drum section. Marc shines first, then Butch shakes things up. Soon a 3-drummer assault is underway, Jaimoe’s subtle rock steady beat the glue to the voices of Marc and Butch’s kits. Oteil joins the fray, but there is no bass solo; instead he is all over the fret board, layering bottom over the top of the drums. Derek provides some coloration with his chording, and soon the band flips into the march section. Then they slow down, and Derek’s tone becomes a bird, soaring through the rafters of the theater. Warren makes the wise musical decision to play no notes, and his not playing is right on the money; Derek carries the ball, finally winding his improv blues to a soft landing, the crowd applauds, and out of the ashes Butch is on the timpani for the closing section. Derek states the theme, the band wraps around it, and the song is brought to a close. It is one of those 30-minute numbers that seems to flash by in ten, and shows the groupmind these seven men have going on. One of the most important musical skills, especially in an improvisational setting, is the ability to listen; you can actually watch these men as they listen so intently to one another, adding just what the music calls for, nothing more, nothing less. They sound so good, so effortless, on “Mountain Jam” that it is as if their virtuosity is hidden by the ease and grace of the performance. Unless you think about it, or unless you’re the idiot taking notes.
Again, there is little question that the encore will be “Whipping Post.” Warren plays a lengthy, dark, probing, exploring solo. Not to say he is unleashing terrifying forces of nature, but Helen Hunt is chasing after him in a pick-up truck. The band is big, sound man Slim’s wall of sound covering the house with aching sweaty blues, Gregg singing the hell out of the tune. It is the only possible encore, and they nail it.
The show is an odyssey, it is transformative. That’s what I look for in Allman Brothers Band shows; a good one is a little like a great book, where the hero is changed at the end. Only here, the hero is you. The cold nip in the air on Broadway is a bracing reminder of the real world. It feels good, but you want to go back inside.