By: John Ferguson
The same day Dickey Betts left the Allman Brothers Band, his former bandmates dropped his most popular song, “Ramblin’ Man,” from their repertoire — permanently.
It wasn’t animosity that moved them to ax the tune from their set lists; it was monotony.
“As soon as Dickey left, we never did ‘Ramblin’ Man’ ever again,” said Oteil Burbridge, the Allmans bass player for the past 11 years. “I didn’t have to lobby for that one. I think that was pretty much agreed on by everyone. It got so worn out on radio. You can kill a song by playing it too much.”
The present members, who will perform Monday night in Hershey, consistently play songs that have been part of the band’s repertoire for almost four decades. Though the band’s personnel — because of tragic deaths, profound personal problems and basic incompatibility — has frequently changed over the years, its core repertoire remains intact.
The band continues to mine songs, including “Dreams,” “Mountain Jam,” “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” “Trouble No More,” “One Way Out,” “Midnight Rider,” “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin” and “Whipping Post,” that were included on albums recorded in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Nobody in the band — the current lineup (Burbridge, Gregg Allman, Butch Trucks, Jaimoe, Warren Haynes, Marc Quinones and Derek Trucks) has been together since 2001 — gets tired of playing those songs. That’s partly because they are crack improvisational players who can usually find something new to explore in even the most familiar song and partly because that core repertoire is so strong.
“There’s some really timeless music in it and it’s because of the people I’m working with and how we feel about each other,” Burbridge, 43, said. “It’s about the legacy we have. You’re part of a living legacy. That’s amazing in and of itself.
“It must be great for the original partners (Allman, Trucks and Jaimoe) to enjoy the legacy they’ve created and get to see the influence on all the other bands that came behind them. That’s a special thing.”
Before embarking on a tour, Burbridge said the bandmates get together for a couple days of rehearsal. He said they go over some familiar tunes, try to unearth songs they haven’t played for a while and pull in a few covers that have resonance for the Allman Brothers Band.
Burbridge said he hopes the band will revive “Blue Sky” (a Betts song, by the way).
“That’s a song I miss doing,” he said. “We have done it since Dickey left but very rarely. That’s a very beautiful song, I think.”
Cover songs the band has been playing on its current tour include “The Weight” by Robbie Robertson and “Anyday” by Eric Clapton. Duane Allman, the band’s original guitarist, who died in a motorcycle accident in 1971 when he was just 24, played guitar on a version of “The Weight” sung by Aretha Franklin, and “Anyday” was recorded by Derek and the Dominoes, which paired Clapton and Allman.
Burbridge also said the band can play all of the songs from “Hittin’ the Note” (2003), the only studio album recorded by the current band members and arguably the Allmans best album since “Brothers and Sisters” (1973).
“When you’re trying to change it up every night, you’ve got to use everything you can,” Burbridge said.
The bass player’s favorite Allman Brothers songs include “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’, “Stand Back,” “Leave My Blues at Home” and “Black-Hearted Woman.”
“You’ll notice that those are all classic Berry Oakley (the band’s original bass player, who died in a motorcycle accident a year after Duane Allman perished),” Burbridge said. “Those bass lines are very unique to him and to the Allman Brothers. When you see me getting deep in the groove at night, it’s usually on something like that.”
The band’s legacy started in 1969, when its original members included Duane Allman, his brother Gregg Allman, Oakley, Betts, Jaimoe and Trucks.
The band persevered after the deaths of Allman and Oakley but it was later beset by problems it couldn’t overcome. There were numerous breakups and periods when it appeared the band would never reform.
After a long hiatus in the 1980s, the band did reform in 1989 and has been performing and recording ever since. However, nobody was sure if the band would survive when the the decision was made to force Betts out of the band (reportedly due to erratic behavior sparked by drug and alcohol abuse) in 2001.
“It was either that or the band was going to break up,” Burbridge said. “We said, ‘Hey, we might as well take a shot at it.’ “
Betts is missed but the current lineup is a powerhouse. And though Betts is gone, his legacy lives on — perhaps not through “Ramblin’ Man” but through songs like “Blue Sky,” “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and “Jessica.”