By: Robb Frederick
For Pittsburgh Live
Gregg Allman is getting old.
The 60-grit singer is 55 now. His knees creak. He knows when the rain’s coming. His personal trainer comes out to the house, out past the plantation oaks. She has him on the Atkins diet.
“This friend of mine, this guy who lives two doors down from me, lost 73 pounds while I was off on tour,” Allman says, swearing by it. “I came back, and I didn’t even know the sucker.”
So he counts his carbs. He eats clean. And he gulps Gatorade with the hope of a man seven years sober. “I gave up running my personal ship a long time ago,” says Allman, who performs Saturday at the P-G Pavilion in Burgettstown. “You just go with what happens, you know? And things got real crazy for a while. But I ain’t finished yet. I hope I can play until I’m as old as Les Paul.”
That means 33 more years – in itself, a remarkable stretch of rock ‘n’ roll life.
Allman already has lived that long on the road, and has the scars to show for it. He’s lost a brother, and two bassists. He shook off a heroin addiction and a short marriage to Cher. He has seen the Allman Brothers Band, the standard-bearers of twin-guitar Southern rock, split up twice.
Two years ago, he helped force out founding member Dickey Betts, who took with him the best of the band’s repertoire, including “Ramblin’ Man,” “Blue Sky” and “Jessica.” And somehow, with “Hittin’ the Note,” the band’s 24th disc – and the first without Betts – he has hog-tied the muse again. From “Firing Line,” the first single, to “Instrumental Illness,” a jazz-minded 12-minute improv built on a loping Oteil Burbridge bass line, the songs call on all the band’s strengths: bustling percussion, fat organ fills and that signature vine-climbing guitar.
Allman ranks the album alongside “Eat a Peach,” the band’s seminal 1971 set. And his worn, whiskey-spit singing stands the test, especially on “Desdemona,” a wrenching blues song that bounds into a stunning slide-guitar run.
Allman wrote the song with Warren Haynes, the cowardly lion-looking guitarist who was Betts’ foil from 1989 until 1997, when he left the Allmans to form Gov’t Mule. Haynes spent a week at Allman’s Savannah, Ga., home, often writing through the night.
The chemistry caught. “I was pretty much in a slump,” Allman says. “But this thing with Warren woke my writing back up.
“I’m not back to where I was,” he says. “I don’t think I’ll ever be. I’m pretty thankful for the stuff I’ve already written. But Warren and I have the exact same taste in music. When I’d get hung up on something, he’d come in and finish it off.”
The recording sessions were simple. The band sat in a circle. Allman closed his eyes. They played five takes, and then went on to the next song.
They took just 10 days, never playing more than five hours at a time. “The band was in a really good head space,” says Haynes, who co-produced and mixed the disc. “Everybody was in a really good place, and you can feel it in the music.”
The songs were written as tour horses, with instrumental breaks built in. But the Allmans, who once filled an album side with a single 33-minute song – a cut that grandfathered them into the now-thriving jam-band scene – never tear up the template. The solos, more often than not, notch up the energy level, building until the rest of the band storms back in.
They played that way at Bonnaroo Music Festival in June, launching the latest tour for a sweaty Tennessee crowd of 80,000. They went on without a single rehearsal. “The Brothers have always lucked out on the first night,” Allman says. “We’ve never had a bad first night. We might make a few mistakes, but we get it down.”
They’ve been better every night since, he says.