By: Malcolm X Abram
For The Akron Beacon Journal
The Allman Brothers Band is old. For the better part of 34 years (with a few breaks in between) the band has toured the country laying down sturdy blues rock with touches of jazz, old school R&B and country. It produced one of rock’s most revered live albums, 1971’s Live at Fillmore East and has had to try and live up to that high mark.
Band members also have seen more than their share of personal tragedy. Band founder/leader Duane Allman died in a motorcycle accident on the streets of the band’s home base of Macon, Ga., in 1971 just as they were gaining notoriety. Almost a year to the day later, bassist Berry Oakley died in a bike wreck not too far from where his band mate’s life ended.
But, the surviving original Brothers, drummers Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny “Jamoe” Johanson, guitarist Dickey Betts and singer Greg Allman, always seem to find their way back to one another.
Despite life-threatening bouts with drugs and alcohol, two tumultuous breakups, a Spinal Tap-like revolving door of band members, money woes, and Greg Allman’s brief marriage to Cher, the music and Duane’s philosophy of “hittin’ the note” just wouldn’t let the band die.
After the band’s third reformation in 1989 with guitarist Warren Haynes and bassist Allen Woody (who left in 1997 to dedicate themselves to their side band Gov’t Mule), ABB became a staple on the summer tour circuit.
First, the band played the same ol’ songs to the same grizzled peach heads that packed theaters and parks in the ’70s, but eventually it was embraced by young jam band scenesters as one of the movement’s forebears.
In 2000, guitarist Betts was unceremoniously dismissed because of the usual “creative differences,” which loosely translated is “after three decades, we couldn’t take his dictatorial crap anymore.”
Old fans grumbled about betraying the brotherhood, but when Haynes returned to the fold in 2001, even the most skeptical peach heads had to admit that the band seemed to take on new life.
The change was immediate. Onstage Greg Allman actually seemed happy to be playing, and without Bett’s painfully loud rig, the band members were able to set up closer to each other and eye contact and smiles became common.
For bassist Oteil Burbridge, who joined in 1997 after a stint with the Aquarium Rescue Unit, the new good vibes were a much needed breath of fresh air and a bit of a surprise.
“There was so much turmoil,” he said from his home in Alabama a few days before the start of the 2003 tour. “But I had never been in a really big scale rock ‘n’ roll band, so I thought maybe this was just how you guys do it.
“I had heard about Pink Floyd being on the road and suing each other at the same time. I thought that was absurd, talk about doing it for the money, so I thought that’s rock ‘n’ roll. But it turned out that they don’t like it any better than I do.”
Betts’ departure allowed abandoned crowd favorites, such as Mountain Jam to be reintroduced and new songs began turning up in the set lists.
“There were some times when I used to dread (going on the road) because there was so much tension,” Burbridge said.
“When you’re playing improvisational music, the whole thing thrives on the empathy that the people on stage have towards each other as people. If that’s stifled, then the improvisation will be stifled and the spirit won’t be right.”
With all those newfound good vibes flowing through everyone, the band managed to get back in the studio. The product is Hittin’ the Note — ABB’s first nonlive release since 1994’s Where It All Began.
The CD, written mainly by Allman and Haynes, is loaded with ABB trademarks. Greg Allman’s husky world-weary voice sounds better than it has since Brothers and Sisters and he even takes a few rare organ solos. The Jaimoe-Butch Trucks-Marc Quinones drum trio keeps the rhythms loose and restlessly moving forward.
Butch’s nephew Derek Trucks’ and Haynes’ guitar styles complement each other and are mixed hard right and hard left to highlight the effect. Haynes’ short, choppy phrases match well with Trucks’ long, singing slide playing while Burbridge holds down the bottom end with the right mix of melody and in-the-pocket grooves.
What is missing are the country music flavors favored by Betts. They are replaced with the old Southern soul and R&B sound beloved by Haynes and Allman. Desdemona, the nine-minute blues ballad Haynes/Allman penned, could be a lost Bobby Blue Bland song, at least until the jazzy, instrumental middle section where the two guitarists show their considerable chops.
Allman sounded like an old hard-living/loving road dog at 21. But now that he’s 55, he is able to imbue reflective songs, such as Old Before My Time, with the resonance of someone who really has been there and done that several times and knows he’s lucky to be alive to sing about it.
“I’ve lived a lifetime actin’ out a part, It’s been a long uphill climb, Now all the things that used to mean so much to me, Have made me old before my time,” he sings.
The CD even has a lengthy instrumental (a Betts specialty), Instrumental Illness, penned by Burbridge and Haynes with classic ABB guitar harmonies, jazz phrasings, and even a rare Hammond B-3 organ solo from Allman.
It would be silly and unrealistic to knock the band for not having the same edge or energy of the Live at Fillmore East/Eat a Peach era.
Hittin’ the Note may not have an instant classic rock radio staple like Whipping Post or One Way Out, but Burbridge is fully aware of the band’s past and feels great about its future.
“When you’re dealing with the Allman Brothers Band, you’re always looking back to 1969 to 1972,” he said. “That is my favorite era as far as records. That’s the spirit I want to stay true to, that’s the Allman Brothers bible. I keep looking toward that while looking to the future, because it sounds different now.
“But I think that we’re capturing that spirit and people say we are and that’s a big compliment and that’s what I want to keep alive — that spirit that they had then.”