THE ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND has been causing somewhat of a commotion in the music world of late. They were the talk of the town during a recent engagement at Ungano’s in New York, knocked out the audiences at The Boston Tea Party, and have been drawing rave reviews almost everywhere they’ve played.
While the band itself is a relative newcomer. Duane and Gregg Allman (despite the fact that they are in their early twenties) have been at it for quite while. Revealing their musical aspirations through bands such as the Allman Joys and the Hourglass, the first major step toward realizing these aspirations occurred when Duane became a guitarist-in-residence for Atlantic way down there in Muscle Shoals (see Bobby Abrams’ article, Nov. 28 Fusion). His work included sessions with Wilson Pickett, Arthur Conley, Aretha (‘The Weight’), King Curtis, Clarence Carter, and a forthcoming album by John Hammond. Quite an impressive list. Seasoned by all this heavy session work, Duane once again struck out on his own. Brother Gregg was recalled from exile in California, and the Allman Brothers Band began to take form. The product of this enterprise may be heard on a new Atco/Capricorn release titled simply The Allman Brothers Band.
Despite being relegated to white Florida nightclubs in their early days, the brothers have always worked from a solidly black base, and this album manifests their roots most clearly. They have always had an affection for the blues, but the British invasion freed them artistically and allowed them to range far beyond the limits of traditional material. In addition to their blues backgrounds, their music has been colored by Duane’s rhythm & blues experience in Muscle Shoals and Gregg’s exposure to the hard rock of California. And although their roots are showing, they inject a vitality into dated riffs that puts many of the prostrate British blues groups to shame. They are extremely tight and well disciplined, flashy but solid. In a decade that has been as blandly derivative as ours has often seemed it’s nice to see a fresh approach attempted.
But, as with any new band there are definite problems here. There is a restrictive tightness involved in being an r & b studio musician, as Duane was. While some of the most tasteful guitar work anywhere can be found on r & b sides, if often means that one must suppress personal ambition to assume the backup stance. It can be very rewarding work, but at the same time very frustrating because there isn’t much of a chance for individual recognition. The limitations of being a studio musician give this album a tension-release quality for Duane, his first real chance to cut loose and show what he can do. There is also the usual “first record” pressure to contend with. As a result, Duane attempts to create as much initial impact with this album as he possibly can. Although this strategy may work on individual cuts, it doesn’t succeed when applied to the entire record. Impact is fine, but when you attempt to sustain it for any extended period of time it becomes repetition; and repetition seldom, if ever, creates impact (The Velvet Underground being perhaps the only exception). While some cuts may be impressive in themselves much is lost when we are repeatedly exposed to it.
From the outset they make their debt to the blues very apparent. The opening song, ‘Don’t Want You No More’, a Spencer Davis tune, demonstrates clearly the British influence. It is not the type of prolonged boredom that we have come to associate with current British blues, however, but harks back to the driving Clapton/Green days of John Mayall. This is but one influence that has contributed to the Allman Brothers’ sound, and for the most part they look to America, not England, for inspiration.
‘It’s Not My Cross To Bear’, a slow blues number, introduces us to the vocal work of Gregg Allman (who also handles the organ chores). He possesses a voice much more powerful than his boyish face would lead us to believe, but he nevertheless comes off like a conglomeration of every blues singer you’ve ever heard. Competent, yet not distinctive.
The album’s up-tempo numbers, ‘Don’t Want You No More’, ‘Black Hearted Woman’, ‘Trouble No More’, and ‘Every Hungry Woman’, all utilize a guitar/organ rhythm line intro which is effective in that it sets up a framework on which the song may build. It serves as a constant point of reference to which the band often returns as a unifying factor. It also keeps the song from thematically losing sight of itself, a problem many of the more musically egotistical bands seem to have. On the other hand, however, the close proximity of the riffs to one another lends a feeling of sameness to all the cuts on which it is employed. Consequently, I find it hard to differentiate between the four songs: they all sound basically the same. Considering that these four songs constitute over half the album, this makes for a lack of diversity that seriously hinders the effectiveness of the Allman Brothers style and this album as a whole.
‘Dreams’ is successful simply because it breaks the pattern. Gregg’s organ playing (very reminiscent of Steve Miller’s ‘Baby’s Calling Me Home’) is heavy and shroud-like, illustrating the title very well. The guitars, up until now the front instruments, tone themselves down to fit the moody nicely. The song is dragged out a bit too long perhaps (7:18), but it is still a most welcome change.
The instrumental emphasis throughout the album is placed on the band as a high powered unit rather than individual talents, and this gives most of the cuts an especially full sound. The rhythm section is so full that in many places it projects with the richness of a horn section. The guitars are about the only instruments given any sort of prominence; and although their playing is fast and showy, after awhile it becomes uninteresting. Too many predictable virtuoso riffs, too much too soon. Duane does a shore but beautiful slide intro to ‘Every Hungry Woman’, but for the most part it appears that he may be trying too hard to impress. Gregg is given one-brief organ solo (on the first cut), but thereafter his organ is used basically as a rhythm instrument, and at times is indistinguishable. The Allman Brothers use two drummers, yet the possibilities involved in double percussion are left mostly unexplored. The problem that arises out of the hard unit approach of The Allman Brothers Band is that, while the band as a whole functions very tightly, the individual identities of the band members are hidden. Even in the case of the guitars, which are most often at the forefront, we have no clear picture of who the musician is, as both Duane and Dick Betts are listed as playing lead guitar. I suspect that Duane handles the yeoman’s share, but who can be sure. Perhaps with a wider range of material the identities of the band members will emerge, but on this we’ll have to wait for the next Allman Brothers album.
On the whole, this is a very promising beginning. The album has its faults, as do most first albums, but these faults cannot obscure what tremendous potential there is in this band. Go and see them live for full effect, but if this isn’t possible, buy the Allman Brothers’ album it’s a more than adequate primer.
© Ben Edmonds, Fusion, 20 February 1970