Gregg Allman: Low Country Blues

T-Bone Burnett brings Gregg Allman back from the brink with a blues injection. It’s the best solo album he’s ever made.

IF YOU LIKE music of a rootsy-rock persuasion, performed by artists of a certain vintage, then over the past few decades you’ll have found your taste being increasingly mediated by the Gatekeepers of the Pantheon, producers whose belts are notched with the commissions of their heroes.

Rick Rubin is perhaps the most famous, primarily for his work with Johnny Cash, though probable winner in a Top Trumps contest would be Don Was, who got about as close as it’s possible to get to the Triple Crown of Heritage Rock by producing albums for Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and — the real band being unable to re-form — the soundtrack to the Backbeat Beatles film.

But there’s no doubting who’s got the current hot streak of heritage production successes: in recent years T-Bone Burnett has become ubiquitous in this respect, his CV stuffed with the likes of BB King, Ralph Stanley, Tony Bennett, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, John Mellencamp, Elvis Costello, Willie Nelson and Elton John & Leon Russell. Now T-Bone has given Gregg Allman the kiss of life by producing Low Country Blues, Gruntin’ Gregg’s first solo album in 14 years, and, it almost goes without saying, probably the best of his career.

That kiss of life was close to literal, too: no sooner had the album been recorded than Allman, long suffering chronic hepatitis C, was swept into a Florida clinic for a liver transplant, which delayed its release for six months, until the gutsy bluesdude, an habitual road warrior, was fit to promote it. Perhaps anticipating that it might be his final testament, Gregg chose to cover songs by his own pantheon of blues titans, amongst them Skip James, Magic Sam, Sleepy John Estes and Otis Rush. Burnett, meanwhile, surrounded him with simpatico players such as Dr. John and guitarist Doyle Bramhall II, though once again the secret weapon proved to be the producer’s favoured rhythm section of bassist Dennis Crouch and drummer Jay Bellerose, who lock things up with the relaxed tightness of Ransom Knowling and Judge Riley.

Knowling and Riley are rarely mentioned these days, but their taut-but-loose backbeats slapped many a significant blues cut into shape, most crucially bringing the snap and swing to Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s seminal ‘That’s All Right, Mama’which sketched the rock and roll blueprint so perfectly that Elvis Presley didn’t need to change a thing when he covered it for what is widely accepted as a pivotal moment in rock history. Crouch and Bellerose don’t play in quite the same style — the latter in particular employs a highly sophisticated, illustrative form of percussion — but they do manage to imbue these tracks with an organic sense of movement that isn’t simply locked into metronomic exactitude. The blues is a living, breathing thing, and they enable these songs to breathe again.

Take ‘Floating Bridge’the tale of a near-death drowning episode suffered by Sleepy John Estes, which Allman recounts over the loping gait of Crouch’s double bass; or the cantering slide-guitar groove of ‘I Can’t Be Satisfied’which fattens Muddy Waters’ 1949 original imperceptibly, without souring its sprightly charm. Doyle Bramhall is best showcased on the grimly nimble fingerstyle motif of Skip James’ ‘Devil Got My Woman'(aka ‘I’d Rather Be The Devil’), which also features one of Allman’s most gripping vocals, desolate and haunted through the Spartan first verse, before piano and rhythm section roll in for the rest of the song, Bellerose’s sluggish beat as haggard as the morning after.

A similar spooked mood attends ‘Rolling Stone'(not the Muddy Waters one), which closes the album in a gritty stew of shuffling shaker, deep bass drum and bottleneck guitar, stalked by a descending piano figure that brings to mind the eerie bayou voodoo mood of Gris-Gris. Another highlight is ‘I Believe I’ll Go Back Home’on which mandolin and Bellerose’s customised percussive topography combine in a sprightly country-funk variant of the standard blues meme variously employed by Kokomo Arnold, Elmore James and Sam Cooke copyists the Ovations.

Elsewhere, the tone is equally divided between the bitter-chocolate tone of stinging Chicago blues like Otis Rush’s brooding ‘Checking On My Baby’and Magic Sam’s ‘My Love Is Your Love’ — Sam’s strident tone and vibrato flourishes replaced by Gregg’s more relaxed sway and bearded baritone timbre — and a richer, more uptown ’40s vintage blues sound, upholstered in smouldering horns and fluid guitar fills that recall T-Bone Walker’s imperial period. ‘Tears, Tears, Tears’ is one such cut, while both ‘Blind Man’and Allman’s own ‘Just Another Rider’feature another couple of outstanding vocals, strikingly reminiscent of Bobby “Blue” Bland — and praise doesn’t come much higher than that.

Back in the Allman Brothers Band’s heyday, Gregg may have been undervalued in this respect, somewhat overshadowed by his brother’s mercurial talent, but Low Country Blues suggests that behind the burring Hammond B3 perhaps lurked the American equivalent of those British blue-eyed R&B boys Cocker, Morrison and Stewart.

© Andy GillThe Word, February 2011

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