5 May 2005 – The San Diego Union-Tribune
by Buddy Blue
The quintessential Southern rockers the Allman Brothers Band were the greatest group of the entire 1970s. The group’s combustible-yet- cerebral concoction of gutbucket blues, modal jazz, Western swing and hard rock improvised into a single, unearthly aural echo remains the standard by which all other musicians should strive.
If the group went on to disappoint in the latter part of the decade and throughout the whole of the 1980s, the Allmans rose from the ashes, Phoenix-like, in the 1990s, creating music dang near fine as anything from their hypothetical prime, an imperative, virtuoso antidote to the methodically negative, discordant and ultimately inept grunge and gangsta rap then so fashionable.
Further, the group’s latest CD, 2003’s “Hittin’ the Note,” is hands-down the best thing the Allman Brothers Band has recorded since 1972’s “Eat a Peach,” back when the late, legendary guitarist Duane Allman still lurked among us. In short, the Allmans have reclaimed their status as one of the greatest rock groups by any gauge other than the vogue.
And so it was quite a shock to speak with Gregg Allman. While his singing retains all the muscle and soul of peak vintage, his speaking voice sounds — well, one keeps getting mental images of some little, worn-out old hillbilly dude, like Pappy Yoakum or Gabby Hayes. Certainly, this has much to do with several decades’ worth of infamously unwise choices on Allman’s part, including a brief marriage to Cher. Or perhaps it was due to 35 years spent on the road, bitterly battling bandmates.
According to Allman, however, the reason for his exhaustion is more mundane: “I just wish I would have said no the first time anyone offered me drugs and alcohol,” he says. “Alcohol is the one that almost got me. I can’t tour as much any more because I have, not a cirrhosis, but let’s just say my liver is pretty (mad) at me.”
For an ill-livered 57-year-old, Allman and his latest crew — founding members Jaimoe and Butch Trucks on drums, decade-plus- veterans Warren Haynes on guitar and Marc Quinones on percussion, and young whippersnappers Derek Trucks on guitar and Oteil Burbridge on bass — wallop like a killer tsunami.
Perhaps ungraciously, the sobered-up Allman attributes a measure of the group’s renewed munitions to the 2000 sacking of founding guitarist Dickey Betts. Publicly citing drug- and booze-borne psychosis as the reason for his dismissal — a charge Betts bitterly denies — Allman professes that the Betts-free lineup has found personal harmony resembling that of the Duane-piloted era.
“The whole band is back like it was when my brother was around,” he says. “At least the vibes are back, as far as camaraderie and everyone getting along with each other. We actually do things together outside of playing music, it’s amazing. We all know what went down. But the band just gets along so much better now, there’s a lot more mutual input and it’s fun for everyone again.”
Betts played an undervalued role in the Allmans’ success, as both a guitar monster frequently overshadowed by both Duane Allman and Haynes, and as a songwriter. Yet if the band today sounds a bit different than we’re used to, the team of Haynes and 23-year-old phenom Derek Trucks, nephew of drummer Butch, fills the gap splendidly with mind-blowing guitar pyrotechnics of their own. Allman believes that Trucks channels the spirit of brother Duane to a supernatural degree.
“The chemistry is very much alike,” he marvels. “It’s two guys with two different sets of chops, but as far as the inspiration and the spontaneity, it’s the same. My brother died before Butch was born, but he grabbed onto the old records and started listening to them. He was a real wiz in school, too. I don’t know much about reincarnation, but sometimes it gets . . . Derek stands right next to me every night, and sometimes, every now and then, you get this feeling . . . whew! It don’t last but for a minute but it hits me like a freight train.”
So here we are, three generations removed from the genesis of the Allman Brothers, with its current lineup now representing all three generations. Allman never dreamed the band would endure so long, yet they somehow survived through the eras of disco and punk, New Wave and hair metal, hip-hop and whatever else was thrown at them.
At the same time, and against all odds, the Allmans is somehow viewed as hip again by a young generation of fans weaned on the likes of such Allman-inspired acts as Robert Randolph, the White Stripes, Black Keys, String Cheese Incident, North Mississippi Allstars and Medeski, Martin & Wood — not to mention Allman offshoot groups Gov’t Mule and the Derek Trucks Band. How’s it feel, Gregg?
“I love it, absolutely,” he says. “It does my heart so much good that we didn’t land on the disco planet and get stuck there.”
As for the Allman Brothers Band’s ultimate legacy?
“We always gave people their money’s worth,” he crowed. “We didn’t just get up there and doodle around for 45 minutes and then split. We absolutely, seriously, loved to play. Somebody asked me the other day if I was ever gonna retire, and I said, `Retire? Retire from what?’ ”
Buddy Blue is a San Diego writer and musician.