Duane Allman: An Anthology (Warner/Capricorn)

PEOPLE WHO get this record in order to have a testament to one of the generation’s finest musicians will find that they have taken home a celebration and exhibition of the best music made in the period 1967-72. It’s an exciting and rare experience to get more than you asked for, and as the album has been loaded with long tracks and varied material the wonders never cease.

After a week or two, it’s impossible to prevent a sense of Duane zooming up some mental league table of master guitarists, leaving the middle regions where he had seemed to belong alongside Johnny Winter and Jerry Garcia, up past all the Kings, Albert, B.B. Earl, and Freddy, to dispute the place at the top with Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. In my mind he made it, he’s number one.

Too late for him to care, of course, but part of what’s so engaging about Duane Allman is that he obviously didn’t really crave recognition and fame. So he was always ready to play anonymously on somebody else’s record, and to do it in a way that never distracted from the star’s contribution. Only Little Walter on harmonica, and King Curtis on any kind of sax, had comparable ability to find the perfect harmony back-up or answering phrase for somebody else’s vocal. But Walter and Curtis were not quite so strong on their own solo records, whereas Duane seems to have been capable of infinite invention, as ‘Dreams’ by the Allman Brothers on this compilation shows.

The immediately impressive impact from this double set is from the range and quality of the songs. There are interpretations of ‘Hey Jude’, Dylan’s ‘Down Along The Cove’, Joe Smith’s ‘Games People Play’ and the Band’s ‘The Weight’, alongside modernized adaptations of some of the most famous blues: ‘Rollin’ Stone’, ‘Statesboro Blues’ and ‘Goin’ Down Slow’. And depending on the pace of the song and the tone of the singer, Duane would vary his style, usually playing slide on other people’s records but finding a dobro on Cowboy’s ‘Please Be With Me’ and electric sitar on King Curtis’ ‘Games People Play’. The opening duet between Curtis and Duane on that last song is a beautiful moment, to hear over and over again.

The anthology has been put together with more love and consideration than we’ve come to expect from record companies, with three sides chronicling Duane’s career as a session and support musician and the last bringing together tracks from the four albums by the Allman Brothers Band. The opening track is a seven-minute medley of B.B. King songs recorded in 1967 by Duane, his brother Greg, and three others under the name of the Hourglass, but never issued. Greg’s singing is uninspired, and his organ-playing is rudimentary, but already Duane was able to elaborate on B.B. King’s lines without simply doubling the number of notes or increasing the tempo. He got better, but that was an impressive start.

An illustrated biographical booklet is included in the package, and for once this has been done well, attractive photographs enhancing Tony Glover’s warm and informational text. Rick Hall at the Fame studio in Muscle Shoals emerges as the man who first gave Duane regular work, and then Phil Walden (manager of Otis Redding) and Jerry Wexler (producer for Atlantic) helped Duane to form another band with his brother and supported it through the early years, meanwhile continuing to use him on various sessions. The special magic which endeared Duane to all the producers who used him was that he wasn’t simply a brilliant virtuoso, but he inspired other musicians to relate to each other. Ironically, this ability may have led listeners to underestimate Duane, since the effect is of a good overall sound rather than an attention-grabbing solo. Only when this LP directed my ears to the guitar part did I appreciate what Duane contributed to Clarence Carter’s ‘The Road Of Love’ and Johnny Jenkins’ ‘Rollin’ Stone’.

If the collection has a weakness, it is that the standard of singing rarely matches the quality of the accompaniment. Johnny Jenkins, Boz Scaggs, and Greg Allman in particular fail to keep pace with the changing tones of Duane’s guitar, but there are more than enough instrumental stretches and surprises to compensate. There’s nice little piece featuring Duane himself singing ‘Goin’ Down Slow’, and an acoustic duet with Eric Clapton, ‘Mean Old World’, which is charming too. My favourite is the track which first drew me to Duane Allman three years ago, ‘Dreams’ from the first Allman Brothers Band LP, a rare piece of spaced-out drifting that never loses direction for a moment. For more words, go read Tony Glover’s booklet. Better yet, listen to the music.

© Charlie GillettLet It Rock, March 1973

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