Tag Archives: Jaimoe

The Allman Brothers Band – Brothers and Sisters – Classic Music Review

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!

The Allman Brothers Band – At Fillmore East – Classic Music Review

History tells us that The Allman Brothers’ first two albums didn’t exactly set the world on fire. History didn’t make a whole hell of a lot of sense to me, so I asked my trusty resource for all things 60’s and 70’s, my dear OLD dad. Since my work involves travel in six or seven different time zones, we set up a convenient time to Skype and did a digital interview of sorts while I took notes on my laptop.

“Where on earth are you?”

“BA. I’m only four hours off . . . I think.”

“Sounds about right. Looking forward to a midnight dinner?”

“No, I can’t wait that long. I grabbed an empanada to get me through the night. Let’s talk Allmans.”

“You’re doing Fillmore East?”

“First, then I’m skipping ahead to Brothers and Sisters. But I’ve been listening to all their albums and there are things I don’t understand.”

“Well, you know your dad has all the answers . . . ”

“You’re about a .280 hitter, but you’re the best I’ve got.”

“Thanks for the heartfelt endorsement.”

“Anytime. First, I want to understand why their first two albums didn’t do dick. What was it, Dad? Did people turn stupid towards the end of the 60’s? I don’t know how you can listen to those records and not get excited about that band. In terms of sheer musicianship, the first is easily one of the greatest debuts in music history and Idlewild South was just as strong—and even more diverse. There are songs on both albums you still hear today—“Midnight Rider,” “Revival,” “Whipping Post”—so, what the hell, Dad?

“First and foremost, The Allmans were perceived as a blues band and the market was flooded with blues bands. We had the British blues bands like John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, we had blues rockers like Savoy Brown and Ten Years After and we had Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield in their various incarnations. Even bands like Big Brother who weren’t considered blues bands always threw a few blues numbers into the set list.  I also think there was some prejudice operating then—they were from the Deep South, and the Deep South was considered seriously un-cool at the time.”

“That is so weird—nearly all the great early rockers—Elvis, Buddy Holly, Little Richard—were southern boys. Were you hippies too stoned to remember that?”

“You should remember from our trip down south following the trail of the Freedom Riders that things had become pretty polarized with the civil rights movement, and that polarization extended to music. When you thought “south,” you pictured George Wallace at the schoolhouse door, Lester Maddox with his ax and Bull Connor with his dogs and firehoses—the ultimate pigs.”

“Hmm. So how did all you enlightened hippies get over your stereotypes?”

“I know you’ll hate to hear this, but I think Creedence had a lot to do with breaking down that barrier.”

“I’ve grown up, dad! I may not like John Fogerty’s raging ego and their music seems faux southern to me, but I get their impact. Bill Haley wasn’t that good, either, but I gave him his due.”

“And don’t forget The Band.” I could see him smirking on my laptop screen, delighting in rubbing my red spot with back-to-back mentions of two of my least favorite groups.

“Yes—but isn’t it curious that a band from El Cerrito, California and another band from Toronto had to teach Americans how to appreciate southern music?”

“When people are stuck, sometimes you have to take the back door approach.”

“I guess. Another thing that seems to be unique to your era—the Allmans hit it big with a live album. I can’t imagine that happening today.”

“Live albums were a lot more important back then. You never would have heard of Peter Frampton if it weren’t for live albums.”

“I wish I hadn’t. Why do you think they were more important? What killed them?”

“There was sort of a shared ethic among music fans back then—if you couldn’t make it on stage, you were shit. The stage was the real test, not the studio. For a while it looked like Grand Funk Railroad was going to be the next big thing, but when they went on tour, it was obvious they didn’t have the goods, and they never recovered from that, because word got around.”

“How did word get around without the Internet? You mean to tell me that people picked up their landline phones in Boston and warned the people in Denver to sell their Grand Funk tickets for whatever they could get?”

“You know, it’s kind of a mystery to me, too. It just sort of happened—someone you knew picked something up in one of the trade papers, or you ran into someone who just dropped into town, or a DJ would hear something from an old buddy DJ back in New York and pass the word over the air in San Francisco. Looking back, I don’t know how they got all those people to the March on Washington either—it was just word-of-mouth, reports in the black newspapers of the day and maybe some flyers handed out at churches. Maybe we exchanged information on the astral plane while we were sleeping. All I knew is that—well, when Tull came to play Berkeley, I remember really looking forward to it because they had a reputation as a great live band. What I don’t remember is where I heard that or how I knew it.”

“So what killed the live album?”

“You already know that. Music videos, for one. Concerts are too scripted today; they’re too predictable, too staged. There’s too much tech involved. The great live albums today are from less popular artists who do small venues—Richard Thompson is the prime example.”

“I was just thinking—Nirvana’s Unplugged was on Rolling Stone’s list of great live albums—and that was produced by MTV. Solid album, I don’t think it counts as a real live album.”

“I agree. The excitement of a great live album is it captures things you don’t expect, the things that didn’t happen in rehearsal and aren’t part of the script. You know that from the Bill Withers album—the way he let the crowd determine where to go with the song. And when you’re talking about At Fillmore East, you’re talking about an album that’s full of surprises. They’re creating in the moment—pretty exciting stuff.”

*****

About six months ago I started looking for a live album to review. I’d done a few—Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall, Swiss Movement, and Full House Live—but wanted to do more. My original thought was to do Live at Leeds, as I felt the need for another Who album in the catalog.

That proved to be problematic. I always prefer reviewing the original version of an album rather than the “deluxe edition” or the “enhanced version” because I want to capture what the artist intended at the time of creation. I ran into a problem with the original Live at Leeds, because a good chunk of it is devoted to snippets from Tommy embedded within a version of “My Generation,” and I can’t stand either of those overrated productions. I was excited about the 1995 remaster because there was enough material from The Who Sells Out to balance the Tommy shit. And hey, “Tattoo” sounded great, the live version of “Substitute” was off the charts—but it all turned out to be an illusion. For the remastered version, new vocal overdubs were recorded to “address occasional flaws in the original tapes or performances.”

That’s called cheating!

My next choice was At Fillmore East, and I was delighted to learn that The Allman Brothers insisted there would be no overdubs. “We didn’t want to go back and overdub anything, because then it wouldn’t have been a real live album,” remarked Gregg Allman in Alan Paul’s Allman Brothers bio, One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers.

Thank our lucky stars that The Allmans were men of integrity.

At Fillmore East is one of those albums you can hear nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine times and still pick up something new every time, whether it’s some remarkable cymbal work by Jaimoe, or subtle but incredibly effective rhythm guitar support from Dickey Betts or a pattern by Berry Oakley that may not have been flashy but serves as the glue that holds it all together. While it’s only natural that your attention is drawn to Gregg Allman’s always solid lead vocals or the wondrous sounds coming from Duane Allman’s guitar, those showpieces would have been far less effective had the band supporting the brothers had been second-rate musicians. Hardly “just a blues band,” the stylistic variations you hear on At Fillmore East encompass influences from jazz, blues, rock and country, all played with unusual intensity and commitment.

That commitment developed and solidified during their formative years, when they practiced around the clock, playing every gig they could get. While officially they had no leader in the traditional sense, Duane Allman modeled the behavior, values and group norms that would guide The Allmans through their rise, as described by those who contributed to the oral history in One Way Out:

  • Work Your Ass Off: John Hammond Jr. recalled, “I asked Duane how he got so good and he said, ‘I took speed every day for three years and played every night all night.’ I think this was partly true and partly apocryphal but he really couldn’t get enough. He was just phenomenal.”
  • Cut the Crap: Jaimoe said it best: “The whole thing was just about playing music— no agenda, no egos— and it was good.”
  • Give It Your All: Butch Trucks summarized Duane Allman’s leadership style as follows: “Duane was capable of reaching inside people and pulling out the best. He made us all realize that music will never be great if everyone doesn’t give it all they have, and we all took on that attitude: Why bother to play if you’re not going all in?”

But even with all that commitment, even with their success in melding diverse musical influences into a compelling sound, and even with two excellent albums to their credit, The Allmans had been unable to gain much more than passing notice from the general public. According to Gregg Allman, the epiphany came after playing a series of shows in both Fillmores:

We realized that we got a better sound live and that we were a live band. We were not intentionally trying to buck the system, but keeping each song down to 3: 14 just didn’t work for us. We were going to do what the hell we were going to do and that was to experiment on and offstage. And we realized that the audience was a big part of what we did, which couldn’t be duplicated in a studio. A lightbulb finally went off; we needed to make a live album.

Paul, Alan. One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band (p. 117). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.

And boy, did they ever!

*****

The festivities begin with “Statesboro Blues,” the old Blind Willie McTell number that turned Duane Allman into a slide guitar genius after hearing Jesse Ed Davis play the slide on Taj Mahal’s version. Here The Allmans raise the bar on the classic warm-up-the-crowd number, holding nothing back from the intro to the thrilling conclusion. Duane takes over the intro, electric ropes of sound flying off his fretboard, establishing the baseline theme while enhancing it at the same time through soaring bends and one crushing full chord to highlight the syncopation. The multi-faceted rhythm section is beautifully understated, giving Duane all the room he needs to fly. The intro is followed by two verses of absolutely delightful interplay between Gregg and Duane, Gregg delivering his lines with breezy confidence, and Duane responding with a series of remarkably varied fills that emphasize the playfulness of the piece. The verses melt into the solo, where we hear Duane’s bending talent on full display, hitting and sustaining blue notes that fall outside the typical quarter or half-step bends of the run-of-the-mill guitarist. “How the fuck did you do that?” I scream into the speaker as Duane lays out a flurry of notes and rhythms that seem humanly impossible. The next verse comes in stop-time format, an absolutely brilliant decision that re-focuses our attention away from Duane and prevents us from mourning over what we feel was a too-brief solo. Dickey Betts then enters for his solo, displaying his nice-and-easy touch within the blues scale while reinforcing the melodic aspects of the piece. Towards the end of his solo, Berry Oakley asserts himself with complementary runs, giving this passage a nice bottom boost. When Gregg Allman returns to the mike, the band eases up a bit for Gregg, who now takes center stage with a more impassioned vocal that stretches across his range, incorporating slight intrusions into falsetto as he pushes the limits of the melody. Now the drummers cue the band that it’s time to drive this baby home, and in response to the cymbal bashes and stepped-up intensity, Duane, Berry and Gregg let it all hang out, with full confidence that Butch and Jaimoe have their backs. In the end, this “warm-up” song becomes a performance that most bands would give anything to serve up as the closer, given its dramatic build and smashing ending. “Statesboro Blues” is a message to the audience—the brash confidence of that time-honored phrase, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.”

Next up is their version of Elmore James’ “Done Somebody Wrong.” It is very difficult for anyone to match Elmore James’ intensity, but The Allmans had a couple of things going for them. First, Duane Allman was a better guitar player than Elmore James, who kept his riffs pretty simple and relied on stuttering rhythm and primitive distortion to make his style unique. Second, Berry Oakley chose not to adopt the bass part of the original, which is just a reinforcement of the two-beat syncopated pattern. Instead, Berry chose to do a fluid run, giving The Allmans’ version more swing. You experience the effect most intensely when the band accelerates the song in the passage following the guitar harmony crescendo, where things really get hot. Another crucial choice was Gregg Allman’s decision to sing like Gregg Allman and not to attempt a pale imitation of Elmore James almost manic, sinful preacher vocal style. Gregg picks up the swing in the rhythm pretty quickly, varying his phrasing to suit tempo and rhythmic emphasis. And while The Allmans cut some of Thom Doucette’s harp solos from the final album mix, they kept this one because it fits so well with the feel of the song. In the end, The Allmans made “Done Somebody Wrong” their own, making comparisons to the very impressive original version completely meaningless. Both rock like a bitch in heat.

Doucette’s harp contributions did not make the cut on the mis-titled “Stormy Monday” (the T-Bone Walker original bears the ludicrously stretched “Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just as Bad)” on the record label). The Allmans’ version is loosely based on Bobby Blue Bland’s early-60’s version (called “Stormy Monday Blues”), a more soulful version with strong bass featuring Bobby’s inimitable command of phrasing and vocal dynamics. After the intensity of the two opening numbers, the relative stillness of “Stormy Monday” is surprisingly soothing, like a cool shower on a hot, humid day. At first, the band pretty much sticks to the original chord pattern of alternating 7th and 9th chords with minor 7th enhancements in the couplet that closes each verse, though they do depart from the pattern occasionally on the closing chord. Gregg Allman’s vocal is suitably subdued in the opening verses, as are the guitar fills, but there are subtle builds and disappearing drum rolls in the background that let the listener know the band has no intention of leaving this thing on simmer forever. Duane’s solo begins at about the three-and-a-half minute mark, sweet, subtle and gorgeously fluid in the first go-round that rises to a more pronounced and assertive attack in the second. This is the point where Dickey Betts tosses in some short but incredibly effective countering chords, Berry Oakley breaks out of the dominant bass pattern and Gregg starts warming up on the organ. Gregg’s solo is accompanied by more swing and syncopation in the beat, accentuating the jazz influence in the piece. Dickey Betts then enters with a solo that communicates a certain tenderness until he lets it rip in the second go-round, earning a well-deserved round of applause as he fades nicely into Gregg’s final turn at the mike. “Stormy Monday” is not an easy song—it combines a melancholy sweetness requiring a light touch with the discipline to take the emotional peaks just far enough an not an inch further—but The Allmans aced the test.

Side Two opens and closes with “You Don’t Love Me,” a cover of a Willie Cobbs song that hit #1 in Memphis back in 196o but failed to cross the Mason-Dixon line due to typical record company bullshit. However, many guitarists knew the song because of its memorable guitar riff, so it’s not surprising that The Allmans would rescue the piece from oblivion. In doing so, they kept the basic rhythmic shift in the verses but ratcheted up the speed from the somewhat laid-back tempo of Cobbs’ original. They also extended the length from two-and-a-half minutes to just a tad over nineteen, filling up the entire second side. Some critics have whined about the length of some of The Allmans’ extended jams, most notably the astonishingly arrogant self-styled Dean of American Rock Critics, Robert Christgau. Without quoting his often tortured English, Christgau’s basic argument was this: while Jerry Garcia and the Dead jam with a destination in mind, The Allmans never really go anywhere you don’t expect them to go.

Huh?

While I’ve heard some Allman jams that didn’t quite work out (even they disliked their version of “Mountain Jam” on Eat a Peach), I’ve also heard some Dead jams that certainly qualify as mind-numbing experiences. That’s the nature of improvisation—sometimes your shtick works, sometimes it doesn’t. To apply the “pointless” label to all the jams on At Fillmore East sounds like the view of a man who already dismissed the band as inferior to Jerry Garcia and company before he put needle to vinyl.

“You Don’t Love Me” has a definite intent that evolves into a coherent structure that is as clear as a sunny day but is hardly “predictable.” The first third of the piece is designed to highlight the talents of each of the soloists—Duane, Gregg, Dickey and Doucette all get a chance to shine in between the renditions of the verses. That segment ends when Duane Allman wraps up a blistering solo with a held blue note while the band support diminishes to a fading drum roll. The nearly two-minute interval that follows is Duane Allman making love with his guitar in front of a hushed crowd—he fondles, he tries different moves as he probes for the sweet spot, then drives deep and deeper with a series of erotic wails before collapsing into a deep-note bend, the sound of a man spent after a great fuck. Once Duane fades, Dickey picks up the theme, at first supported only by cymbals. The drummers then begin to complement one another, increasing their intensity in sync with the faster picking on the guitar. This intense interplay continues for a minute until the band syncs to a new rhythmic variation with Berry Oakley entering the space. Dickey Betts follows his instincts and decides to add a touch of country to the piece, gradually bringing this segment to an end with a return to the essential blues flavor of the song and revealing unexpected speed and dexterity in a breathtaking blitz of picking. And just like magic, he takes the fade chord and guides the band back to the snappy rhythm of the song itself. The closing passage is humorously triumphant, as the band follows yet another delightful variant of the chord structure to a path that leads to a brief rendition of “Joy to the World” before wrapping things up with the triumphant finale. Pointless? Directionless? Bullshit! “You Don’t Love Me” is a first-rate improvisation that reveals both the strong unity of the band, each member’s remarkable individual talents and the spirit of good humor that marks any successful improvisation.

After four covers, it’s nice to hear three straight Allman compositions, all memorable contributions to music history. The Allmans separated themselves from the rest of the pack in many respects, but one of the most remarkable features of the band is the quality and quantity of instrumentals. This is important because it’s much harder to come up with a viable instrumental than a straight song—the music has to be that much stronger to compensate for the absence of lyrics. Dickey Betts understood the challenge inherent in instrumental composition:

Writing a good instrumental takes months, which makes them totally unlike a solo, though people often think a song with no vocals is just a bunch of solos put together. It’s a completely different process. Slow blues solos are just your heart coming out, but all the solos happen too fast to even think about. They’re the closest thing to Zen that I do. If I think about it, it’s gone. It’s ruined. If I’m stuck or I need a mental rest, I’ve got licks that I can hang there until I get my mind together to start something else, but it’s mostly instantaneous and instinctive. It’s like touching a hot stove; you don’t think you’re gonna jerk your hand back. You just do it. The instrumentals, on the other hand, are very studied. It’s called architecture, and for a good reason. It’s much like somebody designing a building. It’s meticulously constructed, and every aspect has its place. Writing a good one is very fulfilling, because you’ve transcended language and spoken to someone with a melody. My instrumentals try to create some of the basic feelings of human interaction, like anger and joy and love. Even instrumentals that are just for fun, like Freddie King’s “Hideaway,” talk to you.

Paul, Alan. One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band (pp. 206-207). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.

The first instrumental on At Fillmore East is “Hot ‘Lanta,” and the basic feelings this piece evokes are those you experience in a steamy night in the big city—excitement, tension, constant motion, a sense of intrigue mingled with a sense of danger—all the things that make Saturday night in the city a deliciously naughty adult experience. The use of the minor key accentuates the grittiness and dark side of the city, much like it does in The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City,” but the comparison ends there. “Hot ‘Lanta” is a more complex composition combining minor seventh and ninth chords with half-step moves more common to jazz than rock ‘n’ roll. The first passage establishes the theme with the paired guitars flying in beautiful unison over Gregg Allmans’ organ support, but what really stands out is Berry Oakley’s bass, a fascinating, continuous flurry of high-speed runs and melodic counterpoint that continues through all three solos until the drummers take over for a few minutes, trading complementary blows. After a restatement of the theme, the music shrinks to a whisper of distant rolls and sweet guitar that slowly build with the encouragement of Butch Trucks’ timpani into the ending crescendo. Think of “Hot ‘Lanta” is movie music at its best—with imagery so vivid you can do without the film.

Next is the unedited version of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” that appears on the original album, not the edited version that appeared on the 1992 expanded edition and caused quite a controversy. I love the swells Dickey Betts plays during the introduction; the sound he creates reminds me of the Ondes Martenot used on several Radiohead songs. Comparing The Allmans to Radiohead may seem like an off-the-wall comparison, but that’s only if you buy into the belief that The Allmans were little more than a Southern roots band. Au contraire! We’ve already seen how they integrated influences from four major musical genres and how well they handled non-standard rhythms that are relatively rare in rock. In One Way Out, Dickey refers to The Allmans as a progressive rock band, a label we normally associate with bands like Pink Floyd, Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, with the marriage of rock and classical music, and with adjectives like “overblown” and “pretentious.” Others have labeled The Allmans a “fusion” band, a label that has the advantage of greater accuracy but still falls short of capturing The Allmans’ essence. My point here is that when you listen to “Elizabeth Reed,” you’re listening to something unique, innovative and far beyond established rock boundaries of their time.

The swells eventually fade and the dominant theme emerges, expressed through a double lead alternating between melody, harmony and counterpoint; beneath the gorgeous lead guitars you’ll hear Berry Oakley punctuating the rhythm while adding a different counterpoint phrase to the mix. After a stunningly-well executed crescendo, the band shifts to a Latinesque tempo featuring the secondary theme, leading to a diminuendo that opens the floor to the soloists. Before exploring the solos, I have to give credit to Berry, Butch and Jaimoe—the rhythmic support of the solos is pure sustained energy channeled through stunning precision arising from the ability of those three musicians to listen intently to the cues served up by each soloist. Without those guys, the solos would have gone nowhere except in fruitless search of a foundation.

First up is Dickey Betts, who eases into his moment in the spotlight while the rhythm section gradually raises the intensity level; eventually he finds his sweet spot after a few superficially dissonant bends that are actually departures into modality. Once freed from the limitations of the scale, he soars to the heavens. Gregg Allman comes next and here I will confess that we pianists are absolute snobs and have a tendency to view organists as a lesser species, so when I tell you that Gregg Allman’s work on “Elizabeth Reed” is my favorite organ solo ever, it should impress the hell out of you. The man knew his instrument, its inherent limitations and its strengths. Those strengths are sustained rhythmic emphasis and thematic fills, and this solo is all strengths.

Now we arrive at the point where producer Tom Dowd attempted to substitute Duane Allman’s original solo with a “better” one from another Fillmore East performance in the 1992 edition. Dude! You produced one of the greatest live albums ever! The recording quality and performances are exceptional! Why fuck with that? I don’t have any issues with the original solo—it’s actually one of my favorite passages on the album because it highlights Duane’s picking ability, which like all of his other skills, is truly remarkable. He earns several “How the fuck did you do thats,” both in the opening passage and in the midtone segment where he stays low on the fretboard. When Duane goes Coltrane on us and gives us the guitar equivalent of “Giant Steps,” all you can do is soak it all in and let the waves of sound ride over every fiber of your soul.

Side four is devoted to twenty-three minutes of “Whipping Post,” making it the longest piece on the record. That’s a good thing. Whenever I listen to the five-minute studio version on the first album, I feel cheated.

Berry Oakley gets things moving with his famous overpowering bass line, delivered in 11/4 time. Gregg Allman had no idea he had written the intro in 11/4 time; the pattern just felt right. Without that “missing beat,” the pattern would have become tiresome in about four measures and the song would have lost all sense of momentum. The fact that the choice was intuitive rather than deliberate makes all the difference in the world—this is a song about existential pain, and it simply had to be more about the feel than the math. 

My old piano teacher is probably spinning in his grave, but he needed the exercise.

The build to the first verse is simple and effective, a layered repetition of the main riff to communicate a sense of building existential anxiety. Gregg Allman’s vocal is more than heartfelt—it’s soul-felt. The pain of humiliation at the hands of a woman he naively but genuinely loved is more than he can bear as he realizes that both the woman and his friends have played him for a fool:

I’ve been run down and I’ve been lied to.
And I don’t know why, I let that mean woman make me a fool.
She took all my money, wrecks my new car.
Now she’s with one of my good time buddies,
They’re drinkin in some cross-town bar.

Sometimes I feel, sometimes I feel,
Like I been tied to the whippin’ post.
Tied to the whippin’ post, tied to the whippin’ post.
Good Lord, I feel like I’m dyin’.

This is far more than the injured pride of an arrogant male; this is sincere outrage about making yourself completely vulnerable to a person you love only have that person exploit your precious gift for selfish reasons. That woman is a LOWLIFE BITCH! Tie HER up to the whipping post and let me at her! And that whipping will be anything but the titillating kind for which I am renowned on two continents!

Please excuse my burst of empathy, but Gregg Allman went “all-in” on this vocal and if you can’t feel his pain, you’re either a robot or a very nasty person.

Duane takes off in high-speed flight, supported as always by The Allmans’ once-in-a-generation rhythm section and Dickey Betts’ raw rhythm guitar. Duane’s tone and intensity mirror the sting of the whip; it feels like a furious assault on body and soul. When he takes it down a notch for a few moments with a series of soulful bends, it feels like the blows have ended only to leave the victim writhing in pain. The even more furious finale to the solo reinforces the stings and the sense of having been overwhelmed by the pain and humiliation. Gregg’s rendition of the second verse is just as intense as the first, a stark refusal to deny the existential agony that burns in his soul. Dickey Betts steps in for his solo, opening with licks in the mid-range that express a sense of dark uncertainty as the survival instinct begins to kick in. Interestingly, what follows is a series of tentative riffs that move in and out of key, as if the man is half-heartedly looking for a way out of the darkness. When Dickey finally goes high, we return to consciousness of the pain and a sense of anxiety . . . perhaps there’s no way to escape the darkness. The agitated, high-speed riffs that follow reflect this frustration—the feeling the pain will never end.

What follows is a shift into something more like free jazz than blues rock for a minute or so before the band settles on a melancholy theme to provide a baseline for even more free-form improvisation. This is the most beautiful passage in the song, a melange of sweet guitar, spinning cymbals, drum roll punctuations and gorgeous, melodic bass. It collapses back to the urgent intensity of the main theme, highlighted by dissonant guitar harmonies at the ends of the phrase. A wild crescendo leads us to a false ending, a moment of silence before Gregg sings all but the last line of the chorus—a false ending within a false ending that opens the way for Dickey Betts to give us a truncated version of “Frère Jacques” (almost as if the injured party is seeking solace in childhood innocence) which in turn signals Duane to add his reflections. These reflections manifest in music akin to a raga, leading to an almost spiritual segment of sweet high bends—and then, suddenly, the siren-like attack of the main theme appears briefly, only to fade and allow Gregg to complete the circle and sing the last line of the chorus. In twenty-three minutes, our man has experience the sting of pain, the depths of depression, waves of anxiety, flashes of false hope—but in the end, the pain remains: “Good Lord, I feel like I’m dyin’.” Try to imagine “Whipping Post” with a happy ending where the woman comes back, apologizes for her cuntiness and all live happily ever after, and you’ll understand why the song had to end with the man still struggling from the trauma he has suffered. “Whipping Post” is one performance that deserves all the accolades it has received over the years, and is clearly one of the most memorable performances ever captured on record.

*****

At Fillmore East captures one of the great American bands at their too-brief peak, and what The Allmans accomplished here cannot be understated. They were the first to synthesize the four main streams of American music—blues, jazz, rock and country—into a satisfying whole. When you listen to At Fillmore East, you hear the spiritual descendants of Louis Armstrong, Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry and Jimmie Rodgers in the form of one deeply committed group of musicians.

The Allmans broke a lot of rules to get there, but you can’t make progress by sticking to the tried-and-true. The most important ethic shared by the band members was a spirit of defiance—not angry defiance, not adolescent defiance, but positive, creative defiance. This spirit manifested itself in the early decision to bring Jaimoe into the band in defiance of the segregational mindset and in rejecting the advice from industry pros concerning what they needed to do to make it to the top. One of the most fascinating passages in One Way Out features Dickey Betts and Butch Trucks talking about their refusal to sell out:

BETTS: We were just so naive. All we knew is that we had the best band that any of us had ever played in and were making the best music that we had ever made. That’s what we went with. Everyone in the industry was saying that we’d never make it, we’d never do anything, that Phil Walden should move us to New York or L.A. and acclimate us to the industry, that we had to get the idea of how a rock ’n’ roll band was supposed to present themselves.

TRUCKS: They thought a bunch of Southern guys just standing there playing extended musical jams was absurd. They wanted Gregg out from behind the organ, jumping around with a salami in his pants. They wanted us to act “like a rock band” and we just told them to fuck themselves. We were playing music for ourselves and for each other.

Paul, Alan. One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band (p. 65). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.

Vive le résistance!

%d bloggers like this: