The Allman Bros. Band: Dead Or Alive?

IS IT ENOUGH TO LOVE YOUR MOTHERS, HATE FAGGOTS AND RIDE A MOTOR CYCLE? WELL, PLAYING A LITTLE MUSIC OCCASIONALLY HELPS, SAYS NICK KENT, WITH AN ARCH FLUTTER OF HIS FALSE EYELASHES.

I NEVER DID get to do that interview with the Allman Brothers.

Stuck out in New York’s Chelsea Hotel, approaching a state of instant poverty and suffering from all the culminative paranoias such a situation can produce in the psyche of an impressionable young limey like myself, I manfully strode one day into the offices of Capricorn Records and enquired of their suitably laid-back stumble-bum P.R. man, Mike Hyland, whether there was the merest possibility of my being scooted down to Macon, Georgia, pronto in order to chew the cud with at least one member of his label’s pride and joy.

All this took place, by the way, not too long after the event of Berry Oakley’s death when the subsequent silence that had held sway between the Allmans and the rock media ever since was due for an imminent discontinuation, if only to complement the then-up-and-coming release of their Brothers & Sisters album.

Hyland hummed-and-ha’d in his archetypal “Y’all” drawi and finally came to the good-natured if half-hearted conclusion that maybe, just maybe, a phone interview could be got together with Dicky Betts.

“Dicky lahks to talk about his involvement with the Injun situation.”

I left despondent, but resigned. After all, stories of the Allmans’ non-complicity with the press were rife enough; rumour had it that there were actual skeletons of once-enthusiastic cub rock-reporters sprawled out in the hospitality section of Phil Walden’s Macon offices – the wait was somehow just too much for ’em…

And when one finally gets the privilege of actually jawing with one of the band – usually Greg Allman or Dicky Betts – the resulting copy always reads more or less the same: a stream of rumbles firmly rooted in the “get down and do our thang” tradition, mingled with a suitably righteous quota of blandly sagacious Southern truisms, all framed inside a couple of paragraphs extolling the virtues of the band as heavy dues-payers and no-crap merchants. Voila!

And who really expects, or even wants, the Allmans to be loquacious spokesmen for their music anyway?

The image is fixed and straight as an arrow: The Allman Brothers Band as good sons of the South who love their mothers, sing ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’, ride motorcycles, drink too much, do up a mess o’ drugs, eat collard greens, chicken and pussy (in any given order) and don’t stand for no truck from faggots and their ilk.

And, when they’re not involved in at least one of the aforementioned, they play music – music, mind you, that has suddenly elevated them from grand cult status to become easily America’s biggest, most-respected rock ‘n’ roll band.

So big that they’ve single-handedly become the centre-pin for a whole swing towards the white Southern bands – not in the way that, say, the Beatles dam-busted open the Mersy-sound or the Jefferson Airplane rang in the West Coast ’67 boom, but enough to ensure that each month we’ll be greeted by at least one album bearing the mugs of a bunch of earnest-looking, long-haired Southern preachers’ sons singing the praises of Jesus, mean big-legged women, and fried chicken. Complete with amped-up “zip-a-dee-doo-dah” guitar and obligatory truckin’ rhythm.

The James Montgomery Band, The Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie, Cowboy – that’s just for starters on Capricorn’s current list of fledglings, not to mention Al Kooper’s heavy excavations into the “hill-jack” hinterlands for his own “Sounds Of The South” label.

Sure, most of the bands don’t mean a hoot up a dead bison’s butt-hole, but they’re all as ethnic as hell, and then again, the Allmans even have a bunch of third-rate impersonators from other regions of the States, the prime example being West Coast patsies the Doobie Brothers.

Whichever way you look, the Allman Bros. Band have the joint cased even down to the vigorous sense of awe in which they’re treated nowadays by rock writers.

IT’S HERE that I wish to start exerting some kind of counter-influence, if only to balance the currently accepted approach to the band which continually gives vent to articles in either suitably pseudo-ecstatic “The Allmans? Jesus – God, they got the guts of America spilling out all over the stage every time they tune up” rantings, or else equally horrendous theses typically entitled “The Allman Bros.: The Agony and The Ecstasy.”

Bah!

And don’t think I’m some kind of hillbilly-denigrator. I mean. I’ve been into The Allman Bros. ever since I first read about ’em in Rolling Stone! Yep, Stone had this small piece in their Dylan Interview issue about how famed session-man Duane Allman had got this band together and if you really wanted to hear some good grit, stick around for the imminent release of their first album.

Now I’d never really paid much heed to Duane Allman’s session work and now, looking back, find his credentials culled from the aforementioned pursuit a trifle less than spectacular. Certainly he acquitted himself more than admirably when he was called upon to perform such tasks, but one can’t help but notice that his presence alongside the greats seemed to coincide with an inferior product on the latter’s part.

Star-tracks like Aretha’s ‘The Weight’ and Wilson Pickett’s ‘Hey Jude’ were really artistic failures for the performers themselves and, from the evidence of the Anthology album, Duane’s work with the Allmans is exhilarating enough to make his session performances seem precise but cramped.

So there they all stand on the cover of their first album – The Allman Brothers Band – looking to all the world like an ex-teen combo of The Lemon Pipers ilk gone drastically to seed.

Berry Oakley, Dicky Betts and Butch Trucks scowled like extras from the kind of “blood existentialism and peyote awareness” Western movie that Dennis Hopper might perpetrate. Jai Johanny Johanson, all heavy earring and jazz-man shades, looked like the token junkie-conga-player of the band. Duane and Gregg stood out: Gregg with his pretty-boy mug and slightly vicious-looking mouth – the perfect slicked-up hill-billy counterpart to the Brian Jones-Dennis Wilson ‘blonde-is-beautiful’ genre, and Duane with his wistful, peceptive looks. Obviously the leader.

The album itself was good – full-blooded and noisy with a powerhouse sense of dynamics unfortunately less than matched by the material. Side one never quite seemed to recover from that sudden amputated adrenalin rush of ‘Don’t Want You No More’ just when it slumped into a tedious blues, ‘Not My Cross To Bear’. But side two called the shots effectively enough, kicking off with ‘Every Hungry Woman’, a long almost impressionistic work with Gregg’s typically haggard Gospel croak ringing out from the muted guitar-and-organ silk-screen back-drop.

It’s a track I’ve always been slightly less than enamoured with, though many of my peers have felt otherwise, marking it out as a high-point of the band’s productivity and pin-pointing the style which they claim, bears a favourable debt to middle-period Coltrane.

Finally ‘Whipping Post’ is one of those epic tortuous frisks in the Atilla the Hun tradition. Allman bewails his girl-friend’s infidelity with world-weary aplomb while the band zoom in and out on a veritable dizz-buster of a riff, riding like the Klu Klux Klan in a D. W. Griffith movie.

I recall buying Idlewild South on the same day that I purchased Layla, around Christmas of 1970. The latter’s majesty tended to put the proverbial damper on the Allmans’ second album and the fact that Idlewild suffered also from a lousy cover and less than 30 minutes of playing time didn’t help much either.

All of which is unfortunate, because the album as a whole was a firm step forward, mostly transmuting the first affair’s earnest ferocity into a more textured, almost breezy quality.

Dicky Betts first two recorded compositions, ‘Revival’, a exhilarating piece of acoustically paced hokum and ‘In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed’, a superior extension of typical Santana ‘jingo-for-the-gringoes’ musical oatmeal, were commendable, while Gregg Allman’s compositions, among them the classic ‘Midnight Rider’, still remain unchallenged by his work since.

Finally there was ‘Leave My Blues At Home’ which took the Allmans’ previous sense of dynamics into the realms of pure musical atheleticism, flexing its way through a giddy five minutes. Bett’s and Allman’s guitars zig-zagged around each other like quicksilver in water, while even bro’ Greg’s down-trodden larynx took on a defiant stance to complement the activity. Impressive histrionics if nothing else, and a worthy pointer to the up-and-coming Fillmore East album.

AGAIN, IN retrospect. Live At The Fillmore East is not quite the Tasmanian Gorilla it was toted as at the time of release. A live double album? Recorded at the Fillmore? Ho-hum indeed, and for every inspired thrust of pure white heat inspiration, there was a least one laboured morsel of blues picking, or the eternity that was ‘You Don’t Love Me’.

It also pin-pointed the very restrictive basics around which the Allmans often set their jams into operation and made all the more ludicrous the contention of the time that the band worked in the spirit of John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders.

What the Allmans possessed in terms of fire, they often lost out to in lack of melody – their reliance on stock blues themes bares this out admirably – and only the live re-working of ‘Elizabeth Reed’ really lights up again. What a track it is! Breezing into its exquisite melody and then all of a sudden cutting out into an inspired jamming segment: unexceptional Greg Allman organ solo, and then a beautifully methodical Dicky Betts solo – each note savoured – before Duane himself moves in for the kill:

Spiralling out like some mojo demon was setting a blow-torch to his amps, Allman demonstrated here that indeed he was the only guitarist since Hendrix to play with a ferocity that made it almost impossible for other musicians to catch up with him.

His work on ‘Elizabeth Reed’ is crazed enough to give Robert Johnson and his mother the creeps, gang-busting its way trough the proceedings like an apocalyptic cocaine blitz and leaving the listener far behind to contemplate in its slipstream. The track also demonstrated how he and Betts had taken the whole dual guitar interplay trip for beyond the usual “slippery-fingers-lead-over-basic-grain-rhythm” partnership of such as Keith Richard and Mick Taylor, and Johnny Winter and Rick Derringer, totally giving the lie to Jerry Garcia’s pseudo-cosmic noodlings against Bob Weir’s limpid strumming. At their best, they were untouchable.

One hardly need dwell on Duane Allman’s death (only perhaps to ponder the story that just prior to the accident, the Allmans’ management were reportedly trying to persuade the whole band to come off the road and get themselves ‘cleaned out’ at a local hospital) except to note just how much the band has changed since. And that the change has definitely been for the worse.

Eat A Peach is a frustrating album if only because it works on three different preapts over its four sides. Easily the best is the third side which is an effective mixture of adequate live out-takes from Fillmore East – and three absolute gems recorded in the studio just prior to Allman’s death.

‘Stand Back’ is compulsive Allman Brothers: definitive sloppy funk rhythm, taught slide guitar and Greg Allman at his best, while ‘Blue Sky’ opened up a whole new dimension of the Allmans with total success. An easy country song performed with precisely a lack of the self-consciousness that has characterised much of the dreck put out under the moniter of “country-rock”, it was Dicky Betts’ real piece-de-resistance, sung in a great nasal Hank Williams style and featuring dazzling guitar interplay.

Two whole sides were then dedicated to a somewhat arduous reworking of Donovan’s old ‘There Is A Mountain’ theme (which the Grateful Dead also used as a motif in their live ‘Alligator’ segment on Anthem Of The Sun), starting off well but then proceeding to cover the water-front previously sculpted out by such as Bloomfield and Bishop in their East-West phase, and never quite getting anywhere. Also Berry Oakley’s bass solo sounds just a little too reminiscent of the one that graced ‘My Favourite Things’ on John Coltrane Live at the Village Vanguard Again.

The one side of non-Duane Allman work was singularly depressing because there was indeed something desperately lacking. ‘Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More’ was a good song. sure enouth, but didn’t pack the appropriate drive. ‘Les Brers In A Minor’ was a complete waste of time, sounding at different stages like turgid cacophony and a suitable soundtrack for a cigarette advert. And finally ‘Melissa’, an old Greg Allman song, regurgitated for the album. Unfortunately the archetypal reflective troubadour chord progression only served to make Allman’s voice more guilty of the charge of being “tiresome”.

So far, so so. Brothers & Sisters is an adequate to good record – quite listenable but somehow too predictably slumped into its concept of ‘laid-back’. The full-tilt tenacity of yore has sublimated itself into Greg Allman’s ambling wasted funk or else Dicky Betts’ good timey jog-alongs with only the vaguest attempt at a high-energy symbiosis on Betts’ ‘Southbound’.

Granted, all the post-Duane accident-product has been recorded under fairly traumatic circumstances, and it would be unfair to reach any grandiose conclusion at this stage. The future looks uncertain but healthy, if egos and other excesses can be held in check: Greg Allman has lived his haggard troubadour persona up to the hilt on his solo album, and Dicky Betts seems to possess enough stamina to take over the leadership role (if he hasn’t already done so) should such a move be necessary. The next album is obviously vital.

The fact remains though that last year’s saviours of rock are, sure as shootin’, gonna end up the pratfall for this year’s critical back-look strategy, and the Allmans are already set up for the fireworks as far as I can see. It’s simply necessary to get their contributions into perpective before it all gets crazy again.

At the moment, the band’s studio work is no way exceptional – the Allmans have never been able to really cut it with the inventiveness of, say, early Traffic, and a band like Little Feat are currently far worthier of all the acolytes and verbal bouquets being awarded to Macon’s finest. I just hope it all works out for the best, because when the Allman Brothers Band are at their best, they confirm admirably to the old “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” maxim for ideal dynamics. And they sting with style!

© Nick KentNew Musical Express, 2 February 1974

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