THE STORY OF The Allman Brothers Band has been one of the great epics of rock ‘n’ roll, replete with all the Homeric ingredients of love, death, high old times, corruption and disgrace, while hardnosing the highway for a good few more miles than Odysseus and Aeneas managed between them.
Where the life stories of the survivors deviate from classic blueprints is that they don’t reach tidy conclusions, they simply keep on keeping on; after each tragedy, each crisis, what they do is draw breath and go back to work.
Compiled with love by Bill Levenson (who put together Crossroads, the Clapton retrospective), Dream is a six-LP/four-CD 23-year chronology and probably best approached as you would a quality doorstop novel. Defer the thrills, appreciate the groundwork. That’s what the Allmans were doing in ’66-’68. Their hometown was Nashville, the C&W capital, but as The Allman Joys and then The Hour Glass their ambition was to sound like black bluesmen (with their ‘B.B. King Medley’) or like the young British bands who had already taken the same influences into new territory. They cover The Yardbirds’ ‘Shapes Of Things’, and a version of Willie Dixon’s ‘Spoonful’ is a straight copy of Cream’s. Meanwhile, down in Florida, Dickey Betts’s band The Second Coming were on exactly the same tack, imitating Cream’s strange harmonies on ‘I Feel Free’.
The Hour Glass signed to liberty and recorded in Los Angeles, but when their third album was mercifully binned they drifted down to Jacksonville and into the far more congenial company of Betts, his bassist Berry Oakley and a drummer friend of his named, immortally, Butch Trucks. Soon The Allman Brothers Band emerged and with it Southern Boogie. But the mighty potential of the six-piece – twin guitarists, twin drummers, keyboards and bass – was still quite a time developing.
Selections from their first couple of albums see them paying homage to ‘Statesboro Blues’ (copying Taj Mahal), ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ and ‘Dimples’ – pub band fare really. So by this time you might be asking what the legend of Duane Allman was all about? There is one early hint, originally released on the posthumous An Anthology. At a Muscle Shoals session he recorded the outtake ‘Goin’ Down Slow’ and his guitar suddenly takes the plunge out of juicy R&B cliche and into some dark pool of passion where each note struck seems to be taking him by surprise as much as it does the boggle-eyed listener.
However, it’s strange then to pass through the three selections from the double live At Fillmore East, supposedly the essential Allmans album, without further goose pimples. ‘Whipping Post’ is there, weighing in at the full 23 minutes, and what you find is not the guitar hero showcase of distant memory but an overstretched piece of R&B jamming sustained by the phenomenal drum partnership of Trucks and Jaimoe Johanson.
It becomes clear that Duane was held in awe less for his team playing in his own band than for his soul sessions with Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and King Curtis and, later, his epochal partnership with Clapton on the Layla album – none of which is represented here (whether for reasons conceptual or contractual is not revealed). Still, there is a fitting elegy for himself in three tracks recorded just before his fatal motorbike crash in 1971. ‘Little Martha’ is a lovely, gentle acoustic duet with Betts and ‘Blue Sky’ an exultant display of electric twin harmony, while the hitherto unreleased ‘You Don’t Love Me’/’Soul Serenade’ is a complete statement of his tough, gut-feeling approach, at its best when gathering intensity into simple phrases rather than flashing about the frets.
So Duane is gone, Berry Oakley to follow within months, and there are still 25 tracks to go! The orthodox view would have you forget the rest, but that has a lot to do with bitterness about Gregg’s turncoat role in the infamous “Snortergate” coke bust. Replacing Duane with piano player Chuck Leavell was a master stroke. He and Betts could swap delirious solos and never get tangled up in painful memories, while his percussive fills lent ever more impetus to Trucks and Johanson. Surely the band was never in better shape than on Brothers And Sisters, flying into the glorious instrumental ‘Jessica’, both ecstatic and built.
After that, certainly, there are signs of struggle. The Allman Brothers Band split into Gregg and Betts factions, partly reunited (minus Leavell and Johanson) and did well for a couple more years, split again and scratched around as unsigned has-beens. Even these “best of” siftings offer no more more than pleasant boogie retreads like ‘Good Time Feeling’ by Betts’s Great Southern (’77), the grittier-than-average adult rock of Gregg’s latest successful comeback with ‘Demons’ (’88), and the sweetened heavy metal of the current Betts band whose ‘Duane’s Tune’ is a nice thought but inappropriate. The only recent indication of venturesome spirit is Gregg’s rendition of The Beatles’ ‘Rain’, his battered voice for once truly touching rather than locked in the genre, as he sings with piano and a choir. It’s stunning, and nobody released it until Levenson came along – no wonder Gregg plays safe.
© Phil Sutcliffe, Q, October 1989