THE ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND’s magic has always existed mainly on the concert stage, where it can engage its audience casually and cumulatively. The band’s image, simply reflected on the double-fold cover of the new album, is of an earnest, hard-working, lovingly interacting community. It is further enhanced through their concentration in performance on extended collective instrumental elaborations, and while I usually have a low tolerance for that type of thing, every time I’ve seen the Brothers I’ve been completely transfixed. They simply do things no one else can.
The live magic, which owes so much to their ability to generate a bilateral sense of community, is almost impossible to synthesize in the studio. Considering the problem, they have been surprisingly successful in recording. Each album has its dull stretches (particularly the live double album, made during a relatively uninspired performance), but each has moments when the magic is paralleled if not duplicated. Oddly enough, these occur when the band is working in the straight song form it finds so constricting onstage. Gregg Allman’s plaintive ballads on Idlewild South, ‘Midnight Rider’ and ‘Please Call Home’, are the most fully realized songs on any of the five Allman Brothers albums, although Gregg’s ‘Melissa’, ‘Ain’t My Cross to Bear’ and ‘Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More’, and Richard (nee Dickie) Bett’s ‘Revival’ all stick in the mind immediately, both as pop songs and as distinctly Allman Brothers performances.
Still, the group’s good songs taken together would barely fill an album. As special as ‘Midnight Rider’ is, it doesn’t flow naturally out of the group’s body of work, as do largely instrumental tracks such as ‘Dreams’ and ‘In Memory of Elizabeth Reed’. The studio recordings of these two are certainly appealing, but in comparison to their live presentations, they seem more like outlines that give the concert listener a sense of recognition when he encounters the real thing.
As its popularity increased, the band became more interested in making a definitive studio album. Working in the pop song form wasn’t the answer, but the predominantly instrumental music that formed the basis of their live performance still hadn’t come to life in the studio. At the crucial moment, during the early sessions for Eat A Peach, Richard Betts came up with what amounted to a revelatory new approach with ‘Blue Sky’.
‘Blue Sky’ had no blues flavoring; if anything, it had a country tinge. So much of the band’s freelance instrumental work relied on blues changes that ‘Blue Sky’ at first listening seemed to be more in the song category, especially with Bett’s dead serious, urgent singing in the forefront. But, without changing cadence or dramatic tone, the vocal section is transformed into an ensemble instrumental piece flowing powerfully around Bett’s plaintive electric guitar work. As recorded, the piece had a dramatic and thoroughly unified quality to it, and at the same time, it seemed a perfect vehicle for the unique Allman Brothers live presentation. The only track at all similar to ‘Blue Sky’ was Bett’s ‘… Elizabeth Reed’, but that number was completely instrumental and less spiritedly recorded. A more likely model can be found on ‘Layla’, the lone studio effort on the Allmans’ cousin band, the Anglo-Southern Derek and the Dominos. Clapton’s ‘Anyday’ and ‘Keep On Growing’, though more light-hearted than ‘Blue Sky,’ had similar vocal-building-to-instrumental structures, practically unprecedented at the time, but perfectly suited both to Clapton’s established role as virtuoso and to his expanded role as songwriter-singer. At the time of ‘Blue Sky’, Betts was in a similar situation. The subsequent death of Duane Allman made the hybrid development of Bett’s new hybrid-form even more significant than it had initially appeared.
On Brothers And Sisters, Bett’s ‘Blue Sky’ style dominates the album. Since the death of bassist Berry Oakley occurred just two tracks into the album sessions, and since Gregg, once the group’s primary source of material, seems to have his mind on something else here (perhaps his forthcoming solo LP), Betts has been called upon to set both style and tone for the band. His ‘Ramblin’ Man’ sounds fresh and convincing because of his mournfully earnest singing and playing, the band’s dramatic complicity and the song-into-instrumental pattern that is obviously the ideal form for the band. They make it work just as well in the completely instrumental ‘Jessica’. To my ears, this is the most effective instrumental the Allmans have ever recorded: It breaks the band’s recent tendency toward humorlessness while demonstrating vividly that this group can elaborate brilliantly on a motif without once falling into obvious blues or rock & roll patterns. ‘Jessica’ has all the lyricism of ‘Blue Sky’ and ‘Ramblin’ Man’, plus the mouth-opening group virtuosity of live performance; it indicates that Betts has gained a great deal of confidence, both in himself and from is fellow band members.
A warm and casual neo-country blues called ‘Pony Boy’, with Betts doing the vocal and dobro over minimal backing, comments on and thematically completes Bett’s ‘Ramblin’ Man’-‘Jessica’ progression. The few seconds of hambone at the end of the song let the listener get closer to the band than ever before. This warming and lightening may prove in the long run to be as important a step as the band’s musical change in direction.
The fourth Betts contribution, ‘Southbound’, is a more conventionally Allman Brothers styled number (not that ‘Ramblin’ Man’ or ‘Jessica’ sound like anybody else), with Gregg taking the vocal. It’s extremely well-played, but it doesn’t flower like Bett’s other three numbers. Gregg’s two tunes, ‘Wasted Words’ and ‘Come and Go Blues’, show a conscious move away from the deep melancholy that usually grips him as a writer and singer, which is probably a good sign for him personally, but neither track approaches Gregg’s best recorded work. The remaining number, a non-original blues called ‘Jelly Jelly’, is, like most of the other conventional blues the Allmans have recorded, a lot less successful than the bulk of their own more liberated stuff. The piano work of new member Chuck Leavell is as hackneyed here as it is inventive on ‘Jessica,’ and nobody else sounds particularly involved.
Brothers and Sisters is no masterpiece, but the new band has shown that it can carry on the work of the old, and add the appropriate new twists when necessary. They’ve finally discovered a form that feels as natural in the studio as it does in front of their people. It’s heartening to see a group of this commercial and critical stature still working so hard at getting even better. But I guess that’s what you’d expect from the Allman Brothers Band.
© Bud Scoppa, Rolling Stone, 27 September 1973