Once I’ve done my research, listened to the album three times and formed an opinion, sometimes I like to read through listener reviews on iTunes or Amazon before I finish the review to see how close or far I’m about to stray from the general consensus. The comments have never changed my opinion, but as I’ve learned through martial arts training, it’s nice to be able to anticipate when people are about to kick the shit out of me so I can ground myself with calming thoughts and avoid the cardinal sin of overreacting to an attack. If I’m successful in finding my center, I can be philosophical when people write to tell me that I’m a dumb cunt or that they’d like to go after me with a baseball bat (both have happened).
With rare exceptions, fan reviews are pretty useless because fans think everything their favorite artist did is the greatest fucking thing ever. I remember checking out a Death Cab album that hadn’t been released but was available for pre-order and it already had over three thousand fan 5-star fan reviews. I never bought that album and I’ve never looked back. Idolatry creeps me out, and I think faith is the silliest of all human weaknesses.
Anyway, I was curious about what people thought about Brothers and Sisters because it represented such a dramatic shift in the sound of The Allman Brothers. The reviews on Amazon were mainly five-star, so I skipped those and went straight to the one and two-star reviews for the dirt. Three comments in particular caught my eye (typos uncorrected):
This work just emphasizes what a loss duane was to the band, if the live fillmore record was a 9.5 this is a 3.5.
Jessica is the one wonderful cut on the album. Rambling Man makes me retch; this artificial cheese product is an insult to Duane’s legacy. The rest is so-so.
This album isn’t bad but it’s a far cry from the Allman’s first four albums. You can see them going from a hard core blues band to somewhat of a pop band . Ramblin’ Man (featuring Les Dudek on lead guitar) and Jessica (featuring Dudek on acoustic guitar ) being two prime examples . . . The problem with this album is, they replaced Duane with Chuck Leavell . Where you once had gritty raw guitar solos, you now have a very melodic piano in it’s place.
I have four emotional reactions to these “reviews.”
- Empathy: I fully understand the deep sense of loss concerning the far too early death of Duane Allman. Duane Allman was a musical prodigy, an incredibly intuitive genius, a natural leader and one of the greatest guitar players ever.
- Impatience: Oh, come on. Nothing could insult or negate Duane Allman’s legacy, and neither Gregg Allman nor Dickey Betts were under any obligation to continue that legacy. Both were first-rate musicians imbued with a desire to leave a legacy of their own, a goal they had every right to pursue. It wasn’t like they made it as a pair of talentless losers who rode Duane’s guitar to fame and fortune. Gregg Allman was a superb vocalist, organist and musical arranger, and you’ll see Dickey Betts’ name on every list of the greatest guitarists of all time.
- Incredulity: I find it hard to believe that you couldn’t see the shift towards a more melodic, laid-back approach coming if you listened to Eat a Peach. How is “Ramblin’ Man” artificial cheese but “Blue Sky” isn’t? And what about “Melissa,” a song that Gregg Allman at one time believed was “too soft” for The Allman Brothers? And wait a sec . . . who wrote that perfectly beautiful and sweet dobro piece called “Little Martha?” Let me check . . . the track listing says “D. Allman.” What, you think that “Little Martha” was written by some Secret Brother Dave they had stashed away at The Farm?
- Anger: Lay off da piano player, ya bum! The maligned Mr. Leavell is a fantastic pianist who also served as a sideman for The Stones, David Gilmour and Eric Clapton.
Thank you for indulging my desire for a cleansing moment. I will now proceed to the view, unaffected by anyone’s opinion but my own.
Butch Trucks succinctly described the fundamental change in the Allmans’ sound and the reasons for it:
TRUCKS: While Duane was around, we were a blues-based band that added John Coltrane and Miles Davis to the mix. After Duane died, we started heading in a country direction because that was Dickey’s background.
Paul, Alan. One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band (p. 182). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.
After Duane Allman’s unfortunate passing, Dickey Betts fell into the role of unofficial band leader, in part because he wound up writing the majority of songs on the album and in part because Gregg Allman had shown no interest in taking the helm (and at the time was busy working on his first solo album). Dickey’s qualifications included vast musical knowledge, a gift for melody and a strong desire to integrate his country-bluegrass origins into the mix. Two songs into the recording sessions, though, Berry Oakley met his death in a motorcycle accident, just like Duane. And as they did following Duane’s death, the remaining members unanimously decided to soldier on, this time adding two new members to the lineup: the above-mentioned Chuck Leavell on piano and James Jameson disciple Lamar Williams on bass. According to most of the participants, the presence of two new highly capable musicians re-energized the band, leading to the production of The Allmans’ most joyous album.
The replacement of jazz riffs with country licks fundamentally changed both sound and mood, as did the shift from organ to piano. The sound on Brothers and Sisters is brighter and lighter; more relaxed and playful. Even the blues numbers feel lighter and more lounge-like—more like B. B. King than Muddy Waters or Elmore James. The new Allmans sound like a band you’d love to see at the local honky-tonk when the finance company has just repossessed your wheels and your love interest has hightailed it into the convent. You’d want to see this band because they make you feel good.
I find it amazing that some people loathe the album because it makes people feel good. I mean . . . wow, that’s . . . fuck, I don’t know what that is . . . let me hit the reset button.
Okay, I think I’ve got my head around this. The people who loathe Brothers and Sisters often complain it’s too “poppy,” a view that is associated with the belief that any song that hits the pop charts cannot possibly qualify as artistic. Assuming that hypothesis is true, it follows that all the following songs are empty, worthless crap because they all appeared in the Billboard Top 10:
- “Strawberry Fields Forever”
- “Light My Fire”
- “A Whiter Shade of Pale”
- “Like a Rolling Stone”
- “Eleanor Rigby”
- “For What It’s Worth”
- “White Rabbit”
I could go on, but we’ll classify that hypothesis under “thin ice” and move on.
People also despise the album because of that legacy thing. That’s the hardest thing for me to grasp because it defies a fundamental truth of group dynamics—any change in membership changes the group. The Allmans certainly didn’t choose to lose their driving force and one of the great bass players of the era. It’s also important to remember that we’re talking about a group of people who just lost two people they loved, two people who deeply mattered to them. “We did what we had to do—we were forced to bring new people into the band because two of our guys were killed,” Dickey Betts put it bluntly, and the fact that they could produce such an engaging album in the face of multiple tragedies is a remarkable statement of commitment to their craft.
Bottom line: get the fuck over it and move on.
Brothers and Sisters opens with Gregg Allman’s “Wasted Words,” a song dedicated to relationships where one party tries to “improve” the other, a ridiculous quest under any circumstances. I mean, if you really care about another person, wouldn’t you want more of that person to come out than less? And if you’re trying to change someone into something they’re not, shouldn’t that tell you to look elsewhere for companionship? Consider “Wasted Words” the modern version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “The Birthmark,” where an extraordinarily anal male science geek attempts to perfect his squeeze by surgically removing a birthmark and winds up killing her in the process. That dumb broad voluntarily submitted to the procedure; Gregg Allman spotted the high-and-mighty certainty of the zealot and was having none of it:
Well, I ain’t no saint and you sure as hell ain’t no savior
Every other Christmas I would practice good behavior
That was then, this is now,
Don’t ask me to be Mr. Clean, baby, I don’t know how
Ring my phone ’bout ten more times, we will see,
Find that broke down line and let it be
Your wasted words will never be heard, go on home baby and watch it on TV
From a musical perspective, “Wasted Words” is a good introduction to the new sound. The always-excellent work from the original rhythm section of Jaimoe, Trucks and Oakley makes it easy for Chuck Leavell to figure out how he can add to the sound, and his fluid piano style leads to some fabulous fills along the way. Dickey Betts debuts his electric slide skills, playing in a style that is more reminiscent of David Lindley than Duane Allman AND THAT’S OKAY. Dickey takes what the song gives him and runs with it, hitting all the right spots at the right time. “Wasted Words” rocks with a good-time feel, aided and abetted by some of Gregg Allman’s most interesting and cheeky lyrics, rhythmic variety and a very, very tight band.
The most controversial song in The Allmans’ catalog (and by far their biggest hit) is “Ramblin’ Man,” the song referred to by one of the listeners noted above as “artificial cheese.” My blonde brain went dead trying to remember if there really was such a thing as artificial cheese; since I knew my cuisine-sensitive French mother would be equally clueless on the matter, I consulted my good old American dad, who will eat anything. “Shit, I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for Velveeta! If you had a big family like mine with lots of mouths to feed, Velveeta and Spam made your grocery budget go a long way.”
My father left the conversation with a craving for a Spam-and-Velveeta sandwich and began a fruitless search for a Velveeta vendor in France. My mother is considering divorce.
All I knew about Velveeta was that I used to see it on display at the end of a grocery aisle and stayed clear because it wasn’t refrigerated. “Must be some pretty bad-ass chemicals in that shit to not need an icebox,” I would say to myself, haughtily shaking my head. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about Velveeta (segments relevant to the review underlined; what-the-fuck statements italicized):
Velveeta is the brand name of a processed cheese product having a taste that is identified as a type of American cheese, but with a softer and smoother texture than cheese. As a result, when melted/heated, Velveeta maintains a fully integrated, and evenly clump-free liquid texture. It was invented in 1918 by Emil Frey of the Monroe Cheese Company in Monroe, New York. In 1923, The Velveeta Cheese Company was incorporated as a separate company, and was sold to Kraft Foods in 1927. The product was advertised at the time as a nutritious health food. According to Kraft’s website, in the 1930s, Velveeta became the first cheese product to gain the American Medical Association’s seal of approval. It was reformulated in 1953 as a cheese spread. Velveeta is labeled in the United States as a “Pasteurized Recipe Cheese Product” (see processed cheese). The name “Velveeta” is intended to connote a velvety smooth edible product. Smoothness and melting ability are promoted as its properties that result by reincorporating the whey with the curd. The brand has also been successfully spun off into a varied, Velveeta-based product line.
So if I get this right, “Ramblin’ Man” is a disaster because though it poses as real American music, it’s softer and smoother than the real thing. When the band got down to business, they allegedly worked together to create a fully-integrated, variation-free texture that resulted in a velvety smooth product. If I’m really in a generous mood, I can understand how that perception might be formed—especially if you listen only to the single version. The single is a very straightforward rendition of a very catchy tune, played with minimal enhancements. Butch and Jaimoe play the driving rhythm as straight as they’ve ever played anything, and the song is arranged to focus on Dickey Betts’ lead vocal, especially the lyrics. The single is perfectly designed for public consumption through the medium of radio, a song tailor-made for full-throated vocal accompaniment as you speed over the open road.
When you listen to the full version on Brothers and Sisters, the fragility of that perception is completely exposed as total, unprocessed bullshit.
Because “Ramblin’ Man” is one of those iconic songs that has been played to death, I had to shift my perspective in evaluating its worth. I decided to apply the technique I use when reviewing albums from The Beatles’ solo careers—forget that The Beatles ever existed and focus only on the value of the songs and performances. “If I never knew there was such a thing as Paul McCartney and I picked up this album on a whim, how would I react?” It’s a little bit easier for me to do that because the sperm and egg that resulted in me were manufactured by my parents eleven years after The Beatles dissolved, so I don’t have the nostalgic bias that infects every Baby Boomer review of The Fab Four.
While I have rated most of solo efforts of former Beatles “atrocious” (if you really want artificial cheese, Paul McCartney is the world’s leading producer), I have a very different feeling about “Ramblin’ Man.” The song works on two levels, one reinforcing American archetypes; the other proposing a new archetype. The reinforced archetype is the restless American spirit, the desire to forge new paths to unknown destinations in search of either a better life or plain old excitement. It’s the spirit that drove the pioneers over The Oregon Trail (destroying dozens of native cultures in their wake); it’s the spirit that drove Jack Kerouac and friends to take to the road; it’s the spirit captured in hundreds of songs over the years, from Robert Johnson’s “Ramblin’ On My Mind” to The B-52’s “Roam” to “The Way” by Fastball. The emerging archetype is the abandonment of monogamy as a relational expectation. It’s a man saying, “Look, I’m going to fuck around and right now there’s nothing you can do to stop that. I’m just letting you know that up front.”
And as long as that rule applies to women, I’m okay with it. I imagine someday I will choose to be monogamous, but that’s my choice, not someone else’s or society’s. I always tell prospective partners up front that faithfulness, as defined as “I won’t fuck anyone else even though I’m dying to fuck that guy I met at the bar last night,” is simply not an option. What I will do is tell you that I am going to fuck that guy I met at the bar whether you like it or not, and if you give me any grief about it, you’re history. I also grant you the right to do the same, and oh, by the way, if she’s hot and open to a threesome, count me in.
What really makes “Ramblin’ Man” a satisfying experience for me is the combination of evocative lyrics and the split structure of baseline song/extended jam. The first verse is particularly well-crafted, capturing the American propensity for gun violence and its destructive effect on families. I also wonder about the invisible figure of the now-single mother, broke and likely headed back to the family, but nearly always a social outcast due to a combination of shame and misogyny :
My father was a gambler down in Georgia
He wound up on the wrong end of a gun
And I was born in the back seat of a Greyhound bus
Rollin’ down highway forty-one
The verse segment is executed with good spirit and clear intention—a driving, melodic passage that forms a strong lead-in to the second half, which features an extended guitar duet with Dickey Betts and Les “No, You’re Not in the Band Because No One Replaces Duane” Dudek. Here Butch and Jaimoe ramp it up with fills and rolls, and the band falls into an irresistible groove that you hope will never end, transforming the song from a toe-tapper to a hand-clapping, foot-stomping delight. While people may have tired of “Ramblin’ Man” due to excessive airplay, try to remember that the reason a lot of songs get too much airplay is that they were great songs with legs from the get-go. And if you resisted “Ramblin’ Man” from the beginning because it was so un-Allmans, take comfort in the fact that you were not alone and that it’s possible to overcome your misplaced mourning:
TRUCKS: We all thought “Ramblin’ Man” was too country to even record. We knew it was a good song but it didn’t sound like us. We went to the studio to do a demo to send to Merle Haggard or someone and then we got into that big long guitar jam, which kind of fit us, so we put it on the album and it became a hit.
Paul, Alan. One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band (pp. 182-183). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.
Side one ends with a pair of Gregg Allman numbers, “Come and Go Blues” (which is not a blues number) and “Jelly, Jelly” (which is). “Come and Go Blues” is an interesting piece combining a touch of funk with a pattern-breaking chorus that feels more like rock and a short jam that leads to a complex series of moves that resolve into a solid guitar solo. People nostalgic for a bit of old Allmans will be somewhat heartened by the faint presence of the organ; I tend to focus more on Leavell’s piano and his remarkable touch. “Jelly Jelly” is more traditional blues with lyrics borrowed from Bobby Blue Bland applied to a different melody. Here Gregg gets an organ solo that is somewhat understated, especially in comparison to Leavell’s nifty right-hand counter move that just fucking sings. Dickey’s solo reminds us that he’s a pretty damned good blues picker, more in the traditional Chicago style with fewer, cleaner notes and soulful bends.
On side two The Allmans take it up several notches in tempo with “Southbound,” a blues rock bash guaranteed to get your ass into high gear. This is one where I would have left the piano out of the mix; Leavell hits the notes at the right times but his patterns don’t sync well with the groove established by the rhythm section—he tries too hard to keep up with what Butch, Jaimoe and Lamar are doing instead of filling the pockets in rhythmic counterpoint. Of all the songs on Brothers and Sisters, this is the one where the rhythm section absolutely shines, so the piano is a relatively minor distraction when considering the whole.
If there’s one thing The Allmans didn’t lose in the painful transition to a new direction, it was the ability to create engaging instrumentals. I rarely quote the Wall Street Journal, but when Holman W. Jenkins Jr. referred to “Jessica” as “a true national heirloom” in an article on Chuck Leavell, he nailed it. One Way Out spends pages and pages on the debates surrounding who deserves the songwriting credit, but in the end, it’s pretty simple: Dickey came up with the melody and basic rhythm, Les Dudek worked out the shift to G in the bridge and all the band members had a hand in the rest. “Jessica” qualifies as an heirloom because it was the result of unselfish, dedicated collaboration.
Dickey Betts started the composition as a two-finger tribute to Django Reinhardt but the song took shape only after his baby daughter Jessica crawled into the room with a smile on her face and Dickey decided to accompany her movements with complementary music. When he brought the song to the band, the reaction was similar to that of “Ramblin’ Man.” Chuck Leavell captured the essence of the challenge: “How do we make this a little more intense and make it work as an Allman Brothers song?”
Simple: get back to what made The Allmans a great band in the first place. The Allmans had an incredible gift for variations on a theme, taking songs as starkly simple as Donovan’s “There Is a Mountain” and turning them into rich and varied improvisations. “Jessica” is more structured than “Mountain Jam,” but that structure emerged from a whole lot of messing around in the studio, trying this, trying that, combining one idea with another. The chord structure of “Jessica” is pretty simple: an A-D pattern supplemented by the shift to G: the underlying structure is your basic pentatonic major key song. Like the great improvisers and students of music they were, The Allmans called up influences from blues, country and modern jazz, enhancing the basic pattern through a kaleidoscope of variations—key changes, dramatic crescendos that seem to reach to the skies, quarter-step moves and notes that don’t belong to the key (F in D major, for example) but make sense modally and sound fucking fabulous.
The first segment in “Jessica” begins with the simple acoustic guitar-and-piano intro that sets the foundational rhythm and chord pattern for the three-part harmonies combining guitar, piano and the Hammond B3 that form the central theme. These harmonies were “very difficult to work out,” according to Chuck Leavell, but their efforts resulted in one of the most beautiful combinations of sound on record, a lilting melody that is astonishingly engaging from the get-go. Though the time signature is straight 4/4, the tempo is modulated by The Allmans ability to swing, resulting in a rhythm with faint hints of bossa nova. The second segment is also introduced by acoustic guitar, but the response is very different—a simple blues pattern on guitar supported by maracas and conga drums. Leavell joins in on piano, soon followed by Lamar Williams on bass, intensifying the A/D pattern, and once the rhythm is firmly established, Leavell comes to the fore with a piano solo that reminds me of Miles Davis’ description of the sound of the great Bill Evans—“crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall.” As the solo increases in intensity, he gradually introduces more patterns based on seventh chords, providing just enough tension to introduce the fabulous resolving crescendo that brings the guitar back to center stage. The guitar solo here confirms Butch Trucks’ observation that Dickey Betts “is one of the most lyrical guitar players in rock and roll,” a solo that displays both his amazing dexterity and his intuitive commitment to a song’s melody. Dickey eventually reconnects with his harmonic partners, leading to another clever transition and a glorious return to the main theme. The musicianship on “Jessica” is astonishing—the precision of the harmonies, Leavell’s clear and delightful piano solo, Lamar Williams’ bouncy bass and Butch and Jaimoe managing the excitement overflow with hot fills and rolls. When you listen to “Jessica,” you not only feel the band’s total commitment to making a truly marvelous piece of music but the sheer joy they must have felt when it all came together.
Brothers and Sisters ends with a funny, funky acoustic blues in the style of Robert Johnson, Dickie Betts’ “Pony Boy.” There’s no debate that Dickey Betts is a great acoustic slide player and picker, and his fascination with country blues—especially the Black Bottom Blues of the Mississippi Delta—results in one of the few modern takes on country blues that actually sounds authentic. The story is based on a myth in his family about an uncle who would ride a horse to the local bar so he could get good and drunk with the knowledge that the horse would get him home and allow him to avoid a confrontation with a breathalyzer. Clever boy! The lead acoustic guitar is sweet and beautifully back-porch; the rhythmic support from piano and guitar nice and steady. The call-and-response between Dickey and Leavell is a hoot, and the interplay before the final verse, where the musicians finish each other’s phrases, is a final confirmation of the superb collaboration that marks Brothers and Sisters.
No, it’s not At Fillmore East, but you really can’t compare the two, even though both covers certify that both are products of the entity known as The Allman Brothers Band. I love both albums, for entirely different reasons, and the choice of listening to one or the other depends entirely on my mood. When I’m in the mood for something intensely sexy but also intellectually engaging (and those are NOT mutually exclusive qualities), I’ll go with At Fillmore East. When I’m feeling blah and want to have a good time, I’ll listen to Brothers and Sisters.
And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to have a good time!