WHAT A RELIEF to hear the new Allman Brothers album! When they played in the park a few weeks ago, everything was beginning to sound the same, even the new material. The quality of the musicianship and the level of the music was no lower, but the group has a tendency to over-conservatize, to go over and over whatever ground they have staked out previously, and this can become a bit tiresome if indulged in too often or for too long.
Idlewild South (whose the culprit that chose that title?) is, however, a fine presentation of Allman Brothers music. Unlike that live performance in the park, it takes a few chances and moves on beyond the territory in which these musicians feel at home. Every achievement of the first album is maintained, and some new elements are introduced, all of them successful.
‘Revival’ is by 2nd lead guitarist Dicky Betts, and much of it sounds really strange for the Allman Brothers. In fact, I had heard this song several times on PLO before I found out who it was. The vocal sound is especially weird for this group; fortunately it all works. This is a rocking, stomping “People, can you hear it? — Love is everywhere!” song that never loses its rhythmic pulse. We are into some heavy times now, and the future seems even more ominous, and it’s music like this that we need to give us energy and spirit for struggle. The harsh, soulful way Greg Allman sings “We’re in a revolution!” is almost the best thing on the album.
Greg wrote ‘Please Come Home’, a really beautiful torch song for the rock & roll generations. Again this is a departure in conception for the Allman Brothers Band, a bit less of the blues, a bit more of the ballad. It all builds and builds in much the same way as one of the prime influences on the music of the Allman Brothers — early Ray Charles, back when the high priest was translating gospel into R & B. As good as anything the band from Macon has ever done.
I’m not too much for this version of the Muddy Waters classic, ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’, not so much because what the band plays isn’t good, but rather because it can’t really go anywhere. After so many thousands of recordings of this song, especially a surfeit of “white blues” versions, what could the Allman Brothers, who owe so much to Muddy Waters anyway, possibly have to say that would be new or even interesting? Bassist Berry Oakley’s vocal is adequate, the back-up is solid as usual, but even if marking time for the Allman Brothers Band produces better music than most rock groups at their best these days, the last thing they should put on record is yet another version of ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’.
‘Don’t Keep Me Wonderin” is the Allman Brothers Band — this one captures most of the basic, but formidable elements that help make up the sound we are accustomed to: a funky, choppy rhythm, hornlike guitar blues riffs, pungent comments by Duane on slide guitar, throbbing organ, and a grainy, soulful vocal by Greg. ‘Wonderin” rocks & rolls by way of Muddy Waters with Duane slithering all over his guitar, oozing and sliding in a style that comes as close to exhibitionism as you can get without blowing the whole thing. This is the sound that dominated Johnny Jenkins’ album. Ton Ton Macoute!, and it’ll get you on your feet dancing if nothing else will.
‘Leave My Blues At Home’ is hard and heavy, with everybody working out. I hear more than a trace of the James Brown instrumental sound on this one, plus familiar Allman Brothers riffs exchanged by the two lead guitars. ‘In Memory of Elizabeth Reed’ is the longest cut on the album, and the one that, with ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’, most marks the spot where the Allman Brothers should fear to tread. Not that it isn’t good; in fact it’s excellently done. But the next time the Allman Brothers Band takes us here, we may not want to go. ‘In Memory’ is a lovely, Santana-ish blues ballad that escalates into a strong, but belabored explication of “white blues” riff on top of riff on top of riff. As usual, the soloes are good, but they don’t really catch on fire. It’s almost exasperating to hear musicians like the Allman Brothers lavish such expertise on musical ideas that they themselves have already exhausted.
Okay — here’s the one that turned me around: ‘Midnight Rider’, something really different for the Allman Brothers. I remember being knocked out by this song when they played at last year’s Turkey Trip at the Georgian Terrace. An absolutely perfect bit of country rock, maybe the best thing the Allman Brothers Band has ever done. (Ironically, it isn’t at all like them.) I feel the same excitement over ‘Midnight Rider’ that I did when I first heard the country material on the Stones’ Beggar’s Banquet. It would be hard to overpraise the vocal harmony, the lyrics, the rich guitar work, and the smooth way it all works together. Really fine. And as for the simple, effective lyrics, they are a perfect evocation of the late-night guerrilla activities that are coming down these days. “I’m not gonna let ’em catch me, no, not gonna let ’em catch the midnight rider!” A song for a generation going underground.
What can you say? It’s good to have another album by the Allman Brothers Band, and let’s hope they give us more ‘Midnight Riders’.
© Miller Francis Jr., The Great Speckled Bird, 9 November 1970