By: David Menconi
For: The News & Observer
Raleigh’s big outdoor concert venue has had three different names over the years, including its current incarnation as Time Warner Cable Music Pavilion at Walnut Creek. But there’s been one constant in its history: Allman Brothers are the only act to play there every season since it opened in 1991.
The venerable Southern rock icons play Walnut Creek tonight, which will make 18 consecutive seasons. Not too long ago, however, the streak was in doubt because bandleader Gregg Allman was laid up with hepatitis C.
Allman pronounces himself recovered, so the band is back on tour. The occasional health hiccup aside, things are pretty good within the Allman Brothers’ orbit nowadays. Their place in history is secure as one of the great American rock groups, and they’ve given inspiration to generations of jam bands. They’re closing in on another milestone, their 40-year anniversary, which they’ll mark with an extended run of shows next spring at New York City’s Beacon Theatre.
Positivity hasn’t always been the case for the Allman Brothers, who have endured massive amounts of dissension, distress and even death over the years. The hardest blow came early on, the 1971 death of legendary guitarist and initial bandleader Duane Allman.
Since then, Gregg’s yowling voice has endured as the band’s most visible signature. Come December, he’ll turn 61. That might be old for a rock star, but it’s just getting started for a bluesman — which Allman looks and sounds like more than ever nowadays.
We caught Allman in an unusually chatty mood recently, calling from his home in Savannah, Ga. It was his last day at home before hitting the road, and he said he had just had “three lovely ladies” over to give his hair and beard a pre-tour trim and touch-up.
“I’ve got these chrome barber chairs done up in black leather, they still pump up and down, and you can lean back,” he said of his home-grooming setup. “It’s great. Makes me feel like Al Capone.”
Q: So how is your health now?
A: I’m fine. The hepatitis C is gone; I’m cured. But then my sciatic nerve went out, too. I had a month there where I was completely off my motorcycles, all of ’em. That was sad. I pretty much couldn’t walk without a cane. Had to have a damn epidural shot, aw man — it was hairy. But it’s starting to subside. I’m gonna make it.
While I was doing the hep-C thing, I had a friend who’d gone through it. And he told me, “You’ll be sitting there for half a year because here’s how much strength you have: none.” The treatment is watered-down chemotherapy, kills everything. It [messes] with your immune system, so you can’t leave the house because you’ll catch anything if someone breathes on you.
Q: What are you planning for the 40-year anniversary shows?
A: We’re trying to get everybody we ever played with together. Have them all bring their whole band, different opening act every night. Got an e-mail into Clapton and he e-mailed back: “No matter how hard I have to bend, it would be an honour” — “honour” with a “u.” He’s a nice guy. He should bring [Steve] Winwood with him.
So we are visiting your fair city? We have a lot of surprises for you. The majority I can’t tell you about. But we are trying to know and be able to play any song we’ve ever recorded. Every damn one, and we want to space them out because it’s so easy to get in a rut. Plus I’m hoping we can find time to go in the studio with some new songs that have been road-tested. My theory is the audience scares you into doing it right. It really works.
Q: Even though you’re a Southern rock band, New York seems to be an important place for the Allman Brothers.
A: A lot of people think New York is some nasty island and New Jersey is the same thing, but those are two of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. That’s also where our biggest fan base is, the Northeast in general. Not that we don’t have it good down South; we do. But I guess between Watkins Glen and all the Beacon gigs, New York is kind of our musical home. I hate to say it’s a “hard” audience in New York, but they won’t let you get up there and [fool] around. They want some boogie, and they want some blues, and they’ll let you know.
Q: Do you find songwriting hard, or do songs come easy?
A: I dunno, man. “Midnight Rider” is one that took less than an hour, whereas “Queen of Hearts” took a year and a half. Some just fly out, almost like you’re possessed and they’re coming from a higher power. “Dreams” was one I had when I came to join the Brothers. I brought in 22 songs, that and “Not My Cross to Bear.” I don’t know what happened to the other 20; I think pieces came out in other songs. But that was a rough day. “What you got?” I’d play something, they’d snicker. “What else?” Somewhere between the ninth and 11th song, I laid “Dreams” on ’em. We learned it right there. And it’s the same way you hear it today.
Q: You’re playing a benefit show for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign; have you ever met him?
A: I never have. But he seems like he’s sincere, you know? McCain’s an army dude and has been all his life. As far as secretary of defense or something, he’d be the perfect candidate. But as far as the economy goes, which is neck and neck with all the other [stuff], I dunno. …
Q: How do you keep things fresh, playing 40-year-old songs night after night?
A: Play ’em different each time. I even play “Whipping Post” with my solo band — doo da ya yang, totally different feel, like R&B. Throw a middle part in it, too. We couldn’t play it the same way every night. It’d become like a job.