BEFORE YOU EVEN HEAR a note, the coupling of Gregg Allman produced by T-Bone Burnett seems like a match made in heaven.
It’s as if the ownership of a baseball team bent on winning breaks the bank to lure over the best offensive and pitching free agent talent available in the off season (Phillies, anyone?) to bolster an already imposing lineup, and they easily triumph through the regular season, sweep all opponents in the playoffs and make a championship look like kids’ stuff.
It’s a wonder that these two stellar talents haven’t crossed paths until Low Country Blues, which is the best album this reviewer has heard in the first two months of 2011, and most certainly will rank right up there at year’s end.
That’s not surprising since everyone who Burnett works with sounds better, as has been the case for the past quarter century. But it was the release of his soundtrack for the Coen brothers’ 2000 film O Brother Where Art Thou? that the producer gained a permanent position in the zeitgeist of popular culture and the music business.
Allman also is firmly positioned in those annals, as the result of being the kid brother/front man of the Allman Brothers Band, which courageously carried on following the October 1971 motorcycle death of older brother/lead guitarist Duane, who lived to see the release the month before of the band’s essential Live At The Fillmore East, which was recorded the previous March. Gregg, 13 months younger than his sibling, reluctantly took the reins of the band, and 40 years on, the road goes on forever indeed. (The ABB are booked for their nearly month-long Manhattan residency at the Beacon Theater in March 2011. After a festival gig in April, Gregg then takes his solo band on a tour through the south and Europe, booked solid through the fall.)
However, Allman has sporadically recorded in the past two decades, and Low Country Blues is his first solo record in 14 years. He and Burnett reportedly bonded over T-Bone’s plans to build in Los Angeles an exact replica of Sam Phillips’s Sun Studio. Allman was sold on Burnett, who promptly assembled a crack studio band for them to record in Los Angeles, and picked several dozen blues standards for him to consider.
Right from the lead track’s opening acoustic bass notes of Sleepy John Estes’ ‘Floating Bridge’ and Allman’s unmistakable gruff vocals a few seconds later, we know we have a winner. Three electric guitars, courtesy of Burnett himself, Doyle Bramhall II and Hadley Hawkensmith, and a rolling piano from Dr. John (listed in the notes under his real name Mac Rebennack), who plays throughout (and actually sat in with the Allman Brothers Band on guitar when they performed at Duane’s funeral), combine for a sound reminiscent of Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs era.
‘Little By Little’ picks up the tempo a bit, with Dr. John doing a fill worthy of Jelly Roll Morton. On Skip James’ ‘Devil Got My Woman’, Allman and Burnett retire to the Delta Blues swamp, with nice slide work from Bramhall. Muddy Waters’ standard ‘I Can’t Be Satisfied’ sounds like it could have been an outtake on the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street, with Burnett injecting lots of reverb in the proceedings, and adding his own guitar as well, along with Bramhall.
When Gregg was 21 he already sounded like an experienced old man, so it’s not surprising his voice is grizzly. But his tone has ripened, and one can visualize Burnett behind the control room glass giving Allman vocal direction. This is especially true on ‘Blind Man’, in which Allman fools you that we’re listening to Ray Charles. Did I mention Allman’s always been a great blues singer with impeccable timing? On this track, Burnett’s crack session men weave in and out of Allman’s lead vocal growls, as the horns punctuate particularly dramatic moments.
The only original is ‘Just Another Rider’, which Allman co-wrote with Warren Haynes, guitarist in the ABB, which he has played in off and on since 1989. The song could have easily fit well on an ABB album, since it’s sort of an update on ‘Midnight Rider’, one of the band’s classic staples, done by Allman in several different styles over the years. But ‘Just Another Rider’ is not as spooky.
The four-piece horn section carries Amos Milburn’s long-lost 1950 blues composition ‘Tears, Tears, Tears’, with a notable horn arrangement by Darrell Leonard. That’s followed by a female quartet of soulful female back-up singers who make ‘My Love Is Your Love’ memorable. It’s followed by some blues testosterone on Otis Rush’s ‘Checking On My Baby’. The traditional ‘Rolling Stone’ caps the set, and Allman’s trademark Hammond B3 organ is prominent in the mix; he plays the keyboard on eight of the tracks.
There’s not a bad track among the dozen on Low Country Blues, and its entire 52-minute vibe smacks of a rustic Unplugged VH1 session, or at the very least, another trademark Burnett production that no doubt next year will win a Grammy.
For Allman, the success of Low Country Blues is all the more poignant when considering that in June 2010 he had a liver transplant, and he wondered whether he would live to see this already recorded release. The man’s a survivor in more ways than one, and you owe it to yourself to hear this album.
© Larry Jaffee, Audiophile Review, Fall 2011