By: Mike Curtin
For: The Post Star
Sunday, Saratoga Performing Arts Center hosts an evening of southern blues, rock and soul, headlined by perennial SPAC favorites the Allman Brothers Band.
For nearly 40 years, the Allmans have remained among America’s most revered musical institutions, despite the deaths of key members, the debilitating effects of drugs and alcohol, and the passing of numerous musical trends.
The group was formed in 1969 in Georgia by guitarist Duane Allman, who at 23 was already a veteran sessions musician, and his singer-keyboardist brother Gregg. Both had enjoyed brief moments of fame in area bands like the Escorts and Allman Joys, and had recorded a two albums for Liberty Records as the Hour Glass.
Joined by second guitarist Dickey Betts, bassist Berry Oakley and drummers Butch Trucks and Johnny “Jaimoe” Johanson, the band fashioned an expansive sound that drew from Duane’s extensive work with blues and soul greats like King Crimson, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin; Gregg’s own soulful vocals; and the West Coast psychedelic sound of the Grateful Dead.
Released in 1969 on manager Phil Walden’s Capricorn Records, the band’s self-titled debut contained many of the group’s keynote performances, including “Trouble No More,” “Dreams,” and Gregg’s roiling “Whipping Post,” which would become a concert centerpiece.
At 30 minutes — brief by today’s standards — the follow-up album, “Idlewild South,” featured more classics like Gregg’s “Midnight Rider” and Betts’ “Revival” and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” and established the group as a premier touring ensemble.
“Live At the Fillmore East” (1972) made them bona-fide superstars.
Recorded at New York City’s legendary rock palace, the blazing guitar interaction between Duane and Betts set a new standard for rock music artistry.
By October of that year the album had charted gold, but tragedy struck later that month when Duane died in a motorcycle accident, followed a year later by Oakley in a similar crash.
The group persevered, with Betts handling all the guitar chores and with a more country-influenced sound, most notably the Top Five single “Ramblin’ Man.”
In July 1973, the Allman Brothers performed with the Band and the Grateful Dead before an audience of about 600,000 at Watkins Glens, considered the largest single-day rock concert ever.
Mid-’70s albums like “Brothers and Sisters” (1973) and “Win, Lose or Draw” (1975) were steady sellers, and the group was an inspiration for Southern-rock combos like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Marshall Tucker.
But the excesses of the rock star life was beginning to take its toll. Allman and Betts recorded uneven solo albums. Johanson and later band members, keyboardist Chuck Leavall and bassist Lamar Williams, departed to form Sea Level.
Later discs were greeted less enthusiastically by longtime fans, but by 1990 the band was again on the ascendency, fueled by a four-disc retrospective “Dreams” and a new lineup that featured journeyman guitarist Warren Haynes.
Haynes remains the linchpin of the current incarnation, in between stints with various offshoots of the Grateful Dead and his own solo career. Joining Haynes and founders Allman, Trucks and Johanson in the current lineup are guitarist Derek Trucks (nephew of Butch), bassist Oteil Burnbridge and percussionist Mark Quinones.
Like the Dead and others, the band’s archives have spawned a profitable cottage industry, with the CD releases of past concerts, including its most recent “Boston Commons 08/17/71,” available through its Web site (www.allmanbrothersband.com).
Joining the Allmans for Sunday’s show are two young groups seeped in the same rootsy tradition.
The North Mississippi All-Stars was formed in 1996 by brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson, sons of famed Memphis songwriter and producer James Dickinson, and influenced by the primal blues styles of Jr. Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside.
In 2000, the band’s debut, “Shake Hands With Shorty,” was nominated for a Grammy for “Best Contemporary Blues Album” as were subsequent releases “51 Phantom” and “Electric Blues Watermelon.”
The All-Stars have collaborated with jazz-fusion keyboardist John Medeski, sacred steel guitarist Robert Randolph, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
Its first live concert DVD, “Keep On Marchin’,” was released June 26 and upcoming this fall is a 10-year double-disc retrospective.
And showcasing tunes from its just-released national debut “Country Ghetto” will be singer JJ Grey and his band Mofro.
Born and raised in North Florida, Grey was inspired by Bill Withers, Dr. John, Van Morrison and Sly & the Family Stone.
In 1986, he commenced his performing career, and for the next 15 years honed his
talents on both sides of the Atlantic.
In 2001, Mofro’s independent release, “Blackwater,” was named one of the best CDs of the decade by Amazon.com.
A National Public Radio interview led to gigs opening for B.B. King, Jeff Beck and Widespread Panic, and this year the release of “Country Ghetto” for the Chicago-based blues label Alligator.
The North Mississippi All-Star’s “Keep on Marchin'” is available on Songs of the South Records; JJ Grey & Mofro’s “Country Ghetto” is available on Alligator Records (www.alligatorrecords.com).