I was lucky enough to attend the final Allman Brothers Band concert at the Beacon Theatre in New York City. When I first found out I was going, I thought I might write a review and post it here. But, I soon realized that to write a review correctly, I would need to take notes and/or get a recording of the show. I don’t have the money for a recording and I didn’t want the show to feel like an assignment. I wanted to enjoy myself and soak it all in. So, I left the reviewing to others. It was a fantastic show, as the reviewers correctly pointed out. I’ve seen the Allman Brothers somewhere around 75 times* and it was by far the longest show I ever saw them do. It was about 4 1/2 hours. It was also the closest thing to a greatest hits show I ever saw them do. Every song they played was a song that is associated with the Allman Brothers Band with the sole exception of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”.
It’s been a little while since that show. The members of the band are all continuing on with other projects. I’m looking forward to those, their individual projects are pretty great, too. But, I’ve also been thinking about the Allman Brothers Band’s legacy.
The first thing people tend to do when writing about things, especially legacies, is categorize them. This is natural and understandable. It is hard to discuss something without boundaries. But, there is a problem with categories. They have to be used very carefully. Otherwise, something that was intended to help facilitate discussion becomes misleading or incorrect. For example, Jackie Robinson was a Hall of Fame baseball player, a dominant college athlete, a celebrity, a veteran, a husband, and a father. But, if one were to pick any of those categories in describing Jackie Robinson’s legacy, it would be horribly misleading if not plain wrong. Jackie Robinson was a civil rights pioneer and a hero. Everything else is detail.
One of the first things many people say about the Allman Brothers is that they pioneered “Southern Rock.” I don’t really know what that means. Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and Jerry Lee Lewis were all Southern and played rock. In fact, almost all early rock was “Southern Rock.” The term doesn’t say anything about the Allmans or their sound. As Gregg once said, calling something “Southern Rock” is the same as saying “Rock Rock.”
Another term that gets used when talking about the Allmans is “Jam Band.” This is another term that is virtually meaningless. Yes, they were a band that jammed, but this tells us next to nothing about them. Every band that uses improvisation jams. It would be strange to say that the Allman Brothers sound the same as Soulive, but they are both “Jam Bands.”
There are two reasons these labels bother me. One is that these labels have probably caused a lot of people to miss the Allmans’ music. When I hear “Southern Rock,” I immediately think of Confederate Flags and good ol’ boys and it all feels racist and like something I don’t want to be a part of. And when many people here “Jam Band,” they think of long songs with no direction or structure. The Allman Brothers Band is about music. They are not about being Southern (even though they are) and they are not about jamming (even though they do). They are about good songs played well. If not for the labels, many more people would know that.
The other reason it bothers me is that it diminishes their legacy. Duane’s original vision for the band was a group of musical equals all playing music together. It wasn’t about the singer or lead guitarist. It certainly wasn’t about celebrity. It was about playing without barriers or boundaries. It was about celebrating the music they loved while pushing it in new directions. Saying that they were the first “Southern Rock” band or an early “Jam Band” misses what they actually were all about.
It turns out that the Allman Brothers Band’s legacy is that they never swayed from Duane’s original vision. First, there are the songs. The hits like Melissa, Midnight Rider, and Ramblin’ Man are a part of our collective culture. We all know the words and can’t help but sing along when we hear them. They had a real range of songs, too. Blue Sky is the happiest song I’ve ever heard. Whipping Post is the angriest (I often say it’s the best Metal song of all time). Dreams is Jazz, Revival is Gospel, No One Left to Run With is Rock, Trouble No More is Blues, and Where It All Begins is Country. Songs like Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More have amazing lyrics. And Little Martha is flat out gorgeous.
Then, there are the musicians. Ultimately, the Allmans were a musicians’ band in the same sense that Bernard Purdie is a drummer’s drummer and Willie Weeks is a bassist’s bassist. You have:
Duane Allman – Brilliant guitarist. Famous for his slide playing, but equally good fretting. He was a session player before forming the band. Aside from his amazing work with the Allmans, check him out with Aretha Franklin on her version of The Weight and on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs with Derek and the Dominoes.
Gregg Allman – Vocals, Organ, Piano, Guitar, Songwriter. His keyboard playing is somewhere between Booker T. and Jimmy Smith. In a lot of ways, he is the glue that held the band together. His voice is legendary. It is raspy in the best way. Even as a young man he sounded old. And the songs are wonderful. Aside from the Allmans, check him out with his solo project and with the Derek Trucks Band on Drown in my Own Tears.
Dicky Betts – Guitar, Vocal, Songwriter. He helped invent the twin lead guitar sound that, for many people, defines the Allman Brothers. He has that country twang in his voice. But, for me, no one writes a happy song like Dicky. It is relatively easy to write about pain and sorrow. A song like Blue Sky is so joyful and wonderful. He also wrote one of the most popular instrumentals in Jessica. He can also be heard with Great Southern and solo.
Jaimoe – Drums. At the last show, Jaimoe said he wanted to be the worlds greatest Jazz drummer and Duane gave him that chance. The twin drums defines the Allmans almost as much as the twin lead guitars. Jaimoe always provided fascinating colors and textures beyond a simple beat. He can also be heard with Sea Level and Jaimoe’s Jasssz Band.
Butch Trucks – Drums. The other half of the twin drum section. Butch is the rock solid foundation of the band. He’s the main tympani player. He always reminded me of Al Jackson Jr. in the way he made everyone else sound better. Even in the drum solos he played without ego. He can also be heard with Frogwings.
Berry Oakley – Bass. If Butch is Al Jackson, then Berry is Duck Dunn. His groove was perfect. He was capable of flash, but only when the song called for it. His bass line is a huge part of what makes Whipping Post work.
Chuck Leavell – Keyboards. The solo on Jessica alone would make Chuck one of the all time greats. He has chops to spare, but he’s so soulful. He has been with the Stones for more than 20 years, he is the pianist on Eric Clapton’s Unplugged, and he’s on about a thousand other records. He can also be heard with Sea Level and on his solo records.
Lamar Williams – Bass. He’s another rock solid bass player. He’s bouncier than Berry, but still has a great groove. He can also be heard with Sea Level.
Dan Toler – Guitar. He was known as Dangerous Dan because he could shred. He was only in the Allmans briefly, but he can also be heard with The Gregg Allman Band.
Warren Haynes – Guitar, Vocals, Songwriter. Warren was a huge part of the Allmans’ revival in the 90’s. He has a great, gritty voice drenched in Southern soul. His guitar work is amazing. He can move from slide to fretted and back without missing a beat. And Soulshine is his composition and stands along any other song in their repertoire. He can also be heard on solo albums, as a special guest with tons of people, and with Gov’t Mule.
Alan Woody – Bass. I don’t think any two people have been as musically compatible as Warren and Woody. Woody had a restless curiosity in his playing. It’s like he was always looking for something new. He can also be heard with Gov’t Mule.
Marc Quinones – Percussion. Who would have thought that a band famous for its two drummers would have room for an additional percussionist? Marc made it work. He added an exotic energy to the music without making it Latin or African. He can also be heard with Rueben Blades and Spyro Gyra.
Oteil Burbridge – Bass. Oteil is one of the most versatile musicians around. If you want funk, soul, jazz, blues, or country, he’s perfect. His solos are amazing. He’s equally adept with a pick or his fingers. He can also be heard with the Aquarium Rescue Unit and Oteil and the Peacemakers.
Derek Trucks – Guitar. Derek is simply amazing. I have never seen another musician grow so consistently from night to night. He is the whole package: intelligence, passion, virtuosity, and musicianship. He started as a slide player, but has become fluent on the frets as well. He can also be heard with The Derek Trucks Band and The Tedeschi Trucks Band.
Put these musicians together and you get a band that was perfect. They were adventurous like the best jazz bands, passionate like the best blues bands, and accessible like the best pop bands. That’s quite a legacy.
*75 is an odd number. It’s is way more than a casual fan, but no where near a hard core fan. For most people, I must have been pretty obsessed, but for the people who were actually obsessed, I was a lightweight.