For the last few years I have experienced the Allman Brothers Band‘s New York City run of shows through Moogis – the brain child of drummer and entrepreneur Butch Trucks. I attended one show in 2009, one in 2010 and one this year. For most of the 20 years they’ve been doing what is usually referred to as the Beacon Run (last year it was at the United Palace in Washington Heights because the Beacon gave the March dates to what turned out to be a disaster of a Cirque Du Soleil production) I lived far from New York City and getting there in person was cost prohibitive. It’s still not cheap. Ticket prices are outrageous, the band merchandise is marked up higher than regular shows, food and drinks are costly and it costs 8 bucks just to get into NYC through the Lincoln or Holland Tunnels. I can’t even consider staying the night. This year, with the Daylight Savings time change factored in I got home at 4:15 a.m. However, the expense is worth it. The band delivers every single time. The music is exploratory, dynamic, intense and always sounds fresh even when they revisit the classics as they did on the night I went this year: March 12, 2011.
It was the 40th anniversary of the recording of their historic At Fillmore East album which was recorded over a few nights in March 1971. Many of the performances on the record were drawn from shows recorded on March 12th and 13th 1971. This year the band performed the At Fillmore East album as their first set. This was not a mere replication of the time-honored music created on those nights 40 years past. It was a continuation of the experiment. The band is a laboratory of musical interplay. Sometimes they discover Utopia and “hit the note” as they refer to it. Sometimes the elements don’t mix like they should and the result is dodgy at best, which fortunately doesn’t happen too often. The seven parts that make up the whole of the modern Allman Brothers Band have been together as a unit since 2001 and when they strive for musical Nirvana they usually get there. More impressively, they never stop trying. A jam can fall flat and go no where and then suddenly it’s off and running again. That is the spirit they captured last Saturday when they performed the songs from At Fillmore East.
A look at any setlist from the last ten years will reveal that the band regularly plays the seven songs found on At Fillmore East: “Statesboro Blues,” “Done Somebody Wrong,” “Stormy Monday,” “You Don’t Love Me,” “Hot ‘lanta,” “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” and “Whipping Post.” All these songs have become classics. Four of them aren’t originals yet the performances captured on At Fillmore East have come to be definitive. Blind Willie McTell’s original version of “Statesboro Blues” bears almost no resemblance to the Allman Brothers’ version which is in turn loosely based on Taj Mahal’s version. The Brothers turned it in to massive groove, with grit and soul that transcends genres, fads or trends. It’s the final revision. No one has done it better since.
“You Don’t Love Me” is another song reworked, twisted and transmogrified into a beast of a jam that revealed the power inside the band. The traditional verse-chorus parts of the song owe more to Junior Wells than Willie Cobbs but the tempo is fast and possibly as close as the band ever came to rock & roll, but it swings too, again defying categorization. However, they were just using the framework of the song as a launching pad for some incredible jamming that would fill one whole side of the original LP. By the time Duane Allman plays the theme from “Joy To The World,” it’s like a sunrise glowing over the wreckage of the apocalypse.
“In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” appeared on the band’s second album, Idlewild South, but it was the exploratory cataclysmic version found on At Fillmore East that dropped jaws and melted faces. It was like eating the forbidden fruit of improvisational music. The knowledge could never be unlearned and the innocence of pop music was gone forever once you heard Duane Allman and Dickey Betts bring jazz, latin music, and swing into the rock context; especially with the mastery displayed in twelve minutes of amazing playing captured on tape. The six members of the band played as one giant instrument. The jams aren’t fragmented as they are on other songs. Each man propels the others forward like waves of the ocean casting a navy toward a foreign coast. This feeling and sense of oneness is found again on “Whipping Post” which fills side four and ends the album after an exhaustive 23 minute jam.
I first discovered At Fillmore East quite by accident and it was the length of “Whipping Post” that caught my attention. I was about 14 and I was a fan of long songs but only knew of a few that could fill a whole album side. “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” by Iron Butterfly was and probably still is my favorite. I’ve been dissecting it since I was around seven years old so it has a special place in my musical heart. I also had Live/Dead by The Grateful Dead and I enjoyed “Dark Star,” which clocked in around 23 minutes and “Turn On Your Love Light” which was around 15 minutes. Neither one seemed particularly cohesive though and as a Beatles and Billy Joel fan I really liked purposefully constructed songs, be they long or short. I still do. I probably didn’t realize at the time why they didn’t quite hit the mark for me. I was young and didn’t play an instrument yet. I just liked a good long song and it had to make sense somehow. I was in for a treat with “Whipping Post.”
The funny thing is that I only found the record. There was no jacket, no sleeve, no side two or three. I found one platter in a stack of records brought to my grandmother’s house from her deceased brother’s home. I had no idea who the Allman Brothers were. It was 1984. The Allman Brothers weren’t a big topic for 8th graders in 1984. Quiet Riot? Yes. Ratt? Yes. Twisted Sister? Yes, I do indeed wanna rock. Van Halen? Oh, yeah. Allman Brothers? Not so much. But “Whipping Post?” It was 22 minutes long. It had to be good or they would have stopped playing it right? Right off the bat, that thundering bass had me hooked. “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” had a great bass line and guess what? So does “Whipping Post.” I liked prominent bass players and Berry Oakley certainly fit that description although at the time he could have been Steve Allman. I had no idea who these guys were. Maybe they were all named Allman. Maybe none of them were. Maybe they were all men or maybe they were playing music for all mankind. It didn’t matter. The power, mastery and mystery had me hooked. I loved a musical mystery and I set out to learn more about these Allman Brothers. I didn’t even know what the album cover looked like. But I remember hearing those opening bass notes and in my 14 year old mind I was hooked.
I thought about all that as I witnessed the 2011 Allman Brothers Band present an equally powerful music statement on March 12, 2011. The opening notes of “Statesboro Blues” proved they were looking forward as well as back. Derek Trucks took the slide guitar spot and as usual he did not play Duane’s immortalized licks from the album. Warren Haynes usually does so when he plays the slide parts, but tonight Derek put his own stamp on the song. By the time “Stormy Monday” started, the crowd felt pretty sure the whole album would be forthcoming. What were odds they’d play the first three songs and then diverge on a different tangent? Gregg Allman belted out the blues as only he can. His voice was strong and when he sings the blues you believe it. By the time they finished a scorching “Hot ‘lanta,” a rift in the time-space continuum had opened and through the chasm, the power of “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” was unleashed. The modern band has the added power of percussionist Marc Quinones who has been with the band for 20 years. His contribution cannot be denied. The drum section is twelve-limbed beast that can put fear in the hearts of men, but for the front line of this band it is exactly the engine they need to soar into the way-out-o-sphere and beyond. To say the version of “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” rendered on Saturday, March 12, 2011 was better than the original might get me tossed in the stockade for heresy but it certainly equaled it in power, imagination, and exploration as they traversed the rift, mixing past, present and future to intoxicating levels. For me, it was the musical highlight of the evening and one I will revisit often.
By the time Gregg Allman belted out the final “Good Lord, I feel like I’m dying” in “Whipping Post,” the crowd knew it had witnessed something special. Maybe it comes from Gregg’s revitalization after his liver transplant, maybe it was the fresh take on the classic album, or the joyous, vital delivery. There was something celebratory. The band knew they were still capable of capturing the magic of the musical cosmos 42 years into their existence and they knew full well that the 75 or so minutes of music they just presented was exactly what they, and we, were hoping for.
I’ve been a fan since finding the single platter that fateful day in 1984, even though it took a while to find all their records back then. I lived in a small town with no record store. There was no internet, and my parents were not big on driving me to the “city” to look in record shops. My quest for more started slowly, but it is a journey that continues today. I enjoy all facets of the Allman Brothers Band’s history. I even like the dreaded Arista records – Reach For The Sky and Brothers Of The Road – I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to like them. Are they great? No. But they are better than a lot of music of the time period. I appreciate it all and their music and spirit has meant different things to me at particular times in my life. When I go to an Allman Brothers Band show, I bring with me all my knowledge of their history, all my history as a fan and the memories of experiences I’ve had since first hearing the band. I listen intently and watch closely. My wife says I don’t enjoy concerts like regular people. I’m like an observer. She’s exactly right too. Especially in the case of an Allman Brothers show. I am like a research scientist observing the experiments of a leader in the field. The Allman Brothers Band, now in their 42nd year of musical experimentation capture my attention and imagination every time.