A Family Affair: Notes on the Allman Brothers Band/Phil & Friends Shows
A FAMILY AFFAIR
For years, The Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band shared a relationship unlike any other two bands in the music world. Ever since the legendary double bills they played at places like Watkins Glen and the Fillmore East, the two bands shared a love of jamming that made them kindred spirits. This feeling extended to the fan bases, which shared a family vibe. Love of good music and good times bound them together in a way that is unusual for fans who could be so dogmatic about their favorite group. Don’t get me wrong, Deadheads would often have good-natured debates with the Brothers and Sisters over which band was better, but there was never any doubt that they were the two greatest live bands in rock music. It was just a matter of who was #1 and who was #2.
Well, the Dead are no more, of course. However, Phil and Friends have rapidly ascended the throne as the next best thing, and the recent ABB/P&F mini-tour was seen by many as a historic reunion of the two bands that created the jam band scene as we know it. The 4 show tour started in Virginia Beach and ended in Atlanta, where I had the privilege of seeing the final act of this musical odyssey on the Allmans home turf.
Of course, for this wondrous confluence to occur, there was one fairly significant catch: Warren Haynes would have to pull a double shift and play with BOTH bands! By doing so, he has performed a service to the music community that may one day merit a nice big statue, but it wasn’t always a peachy scenario. When Phil and Friends and the Allmans originally released their summer dates, there were definite conflicts. Even as good as Warren is, he can’t play in Atlanta with the Brothers and play in California with Phil on the SAME DAY.
However, the Allmans shuffled some of their dates, and soon an arrangement had been reached that would accommodate Haynes’ busy schedule. Not only that, for four days the two bands would overlap, but in a good way. For the first time since 1973, the Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers universes would intersect, and one could only imagine what new realms of musical wonder would be created
RAINY DAY, DREAM AWAY
Unfortunately, I was unable to make it to the Virginia Beach, Raleigh and Charlotte shows. However, by the time I got to Lakewood, the parking lots were already throbbing with the sort of energy that only accompanies the very best tours. Many people were still high as a kite from the Charlotte show, both literally and figuratively. The sheer sense of momentum that had been built up in 3 short days was truly impressive, and I was confident that Atlanta would be the jewel of the tour. I would not be disappointed.
The night began with a sudden summer thunderstorm that drenched many folks who were still on their way into the show. As a result, many people hid from the rain during Susan Tedeschi’s opening set. She would get another chance at a large audience later, but few people braved the weather to catch her set of bluesy, soulful music. As Derek Trucks’ girlfriend, Susan is a part of the extended ABB family, but she certainly wasn’t riding coattails to get this gig, which featured a strong version of Get Up Stand Up. Those of you who are Bonnie Raitt fans should love Susan’s passionate singing and tasty blues guitar licks. Check out her album Just Won’t Burn for details.
Luckily, the weather had subsided by the time Phil and Friends hit the stage, not that a little rain would have deterred the Deadhead contingent. At most, it would have increased the calls for Cold Rain and Snow.
The show started off with an intro jam was much more uptempo and rocking than usual, with much less of the aimless meandering that sometimes occurs during these warm up jams, and I felt that P&F were trying to pump some energy into the soggy crowd.
Well, if that was the plan, then once the band hit the opening notes of Help On the Way it was ON! A great, tight version of the Dead classic went churning straight into a great Slipknot jam. Right out of the gate, Jimmy Herring and Warren Haynes were locked in, playing wonderful intertwining licks that seemed to spiral effortlessly into the twilight sky. Eventually the jam strayed so far from home that I realized that Franklin’s Tower wouldn’t be next, if it would be played at all.
Instead, we got a funky, greasy chunk of Viola Lee Blues. This song, the Dead’s original "long jam" from 1966, got the crowd moving with its inescapable backbeat before morphing into Mason’s Children. One of the rarest of all Dead songs, this was a good version, although it paled in comparison to 2/14/70 :) Suddenly, we were back in Viola Lee Blues, thanks to one of those nimble segues that leaves you thinking "How did we get HERE?" But we still weren’t done, as this would turn out to be a massive triple-decker Viola Lee sandwich, veering into into the gentle sweetnees of Sugaree before returning to Viola Lee for one last surge of pure jam energy.
Sugaree put the spotlight on Warren Haynes, and he sang the hell out of this song. Before he joined Phil, I never knew that Warren was a big Dead fan, but the love and respect that he has for these songs is evident every time he hits the stage. Jerry must have been beaming with pride. For Lovelight, they brought Susan Tedeschi back out, and I honestly thought she stole the song. Her penetrating, Joplin-esque wail is custom-made for this tune, and the band seemed to follow her every move. Warren played some juicy guitar licks, the crowd all sang along, and right about now it was really starting to feel like a rock concert.
Bird Song is a tremendously beautiful song, and this was the best I’ve heard since Brent Mydland died. The jam just kept growing and growing, with Jimmy and Warren layering licks on top of each other in an impressive display of musical architecture. It was like witnessing the construction of a giant cathedral of sound, and the crowd was awestruck. Right about now, I entered the realm where you stop comparing it to other shows and analyzing every song, and just relax and enjoy what you know is one of THOSE shows.
China Cat Sunflower is one of the most intricate and powerful old-school Dead tunes, and this version raged hard. The jam that usually serves as a bridge to I Know You Rider was smoking hot, pure energy… And just when you had forgotten about it completely, here comes Franklin’s Tower to complete the Help/Slip/Franklin’s trio! After playing a fairly relaxed, if highly enjoyable set, Phil and Friends kicked into a higher gear for this song and just flat-out ROCKED! I hadn’t felt that much raw power at a Dead show since 88, and if that is heresy, call me a happy heretic.
For the encore, Warren was also highlighted with a wonderful reggae-style Soulshine that I really enjoyed. It was very different from the standard Allmans version, but the bouncy reggae feel seemed to fit just right. Eventually it morphed into a way-out psychedelic jam that had me thinking “I can’t wait to see how they get out of THIS!” Well, by dropping into a stunning version of We Bid You Goodnight, complete with rich harmonies that showed how strong this band is vocally. John Molo and Rob Baracco deserve as much credit as Jimmy, Warren, and Phil for the great ensemble sound that Phil and Friends project. By the time the set was over, the crowd was fired up and having a great time, and the sky had cleared. Now, for the main event…
Thanks to the generosity of Butch Trucks and his son Vaylor, I was able to watch the ABB’s set from backstage, and I was deeply impressed by the warm, family-oriented vibe I found there. (Absolutely NO ALCOHOL Backstage read a sign on the wall) I had heard people close to the band say that the members of the ABB were happier and getting along better than they had in years. I never saw the band interact at such close range before, so I can’t make comparisons to the past, but this was clearly a very happy bunch of folks.
Look over there, and Derek’s little sister is running around like an impish pixie. Look over there, and you see Col. Bruce Hampton holding court with some members of the extended family. Over there, Jaimoe, Derek and Susan engaged in a touching group hug.
When I was being awestruck over meeting such luminaries as Jimmy Herring and Oteil Burbridge, both of whom were very nice and in a great mood, I was looking out at the crowd. It was impossible to look too far without seeing someone smiling or laughing. At one point, it occurred to me that the Allmans were getting ready to play for the most warmed-up crowd I had ever seen.
With the positive love vibe running so strong, Revival was an inspired choice for an opener. “People can you feel it, love is everywhere” seemed to sum up the whole atmosphere perfectly. The band also made a strong statement by opening with a song that is usually an encore or a closer. They seemed to be saying “We’re going to start off at maximum intensity, and just take it higher from there.”
Which they did with tight, hot versions of Statesboro Blues and Don’t Keep Me Wondering. The blues has always been the backbone of the Allmans sound, and Derek and Warren’s fierce guitar duels gave new life to these classics. Gregg was in fine voice, and the band generally was hitting on all cylinders from the beginning. I could sense that many Deadheads, who were unsure of the new lineup without Dickey, were positively stunned by how good the Allmans sounded.
The set reached yet another level during the intro to Hoochie Coochie Man. In his past stint with the ABB, Warren would lead up to this song with scorching solo licks, but this time he and Derek traded off in a dizzying display of slide mastery. Could the two best slide guitarists in the world be in the same band? After this exchange, I was a believer. After a dramatic buildup, they kicked into the old blues standard, and Warren’s growling vocals made sure that everybody knows he’s here. Whether with Phil or the Allmans, Warren’s powerful voice lends a lot to the mix.
The band was doing fine on their own, but they brought out former member Chuck Leavell for the next few songs. They started with All Night Train, a tune co-written by Leavell, and although I could understand playing it with Chuck, I thought it was the only weak song of the set. Next, the band hit a groove with Desdemona, a brand new song that combines some of Gregg Allman’s most soulful singing with a great, jazzy jam section that let Derek, Chuck and Warren all stretch out nicely. With the first really long jam of the night under their belt, it was time for Jessica.
Jessica is one of Dickey Betts’ signature tunes, but one that Chuck Leavell has a special connection to, and he played an interesting variation of his famous piano solo. However, the jam really started to cook during a spectacular solo by Derek Trucks in which he lit the crowd up like a Christmas tree. For the first time all night, the Allmans reached that zone where the band is truly more than the sum of its parts, with each member’s instrument melding into one big sound. By this point, even the most skeptical Deadheads were hooked.
Midnight Rider was perfectly placed after two extended jam-fests, and the crowd sang along to a truly beautiful version. Next up was more Warren, and more special guests. Dave Schools of Widespread Panic got a huge ovation from the hometown crowd when he strapped on Oteil’s bass for the Govt Mule song Rockin’ Horse. Firmly in the hard-rock Mule tradition, this song hit hard and often, with Schools pulling off some bass riffs that surely made Allen Woody proud. For that matter, Oteil was grinning ear to ear during the whole thing as he waited in the wings.
Done Somebody Wrong was another orgy of slide guitar, with Warren and Derek redefining the limitations of the instrument every 30 seconds. One Way Out turned into another family reunion, with a cast of characters including but not limited to Jimmy Herring, Schools, and legendary percussionist Count Mbutu. The set finished off strong, but there was still time for an encore, and only one song would do: Mountain Jam.
An online fan pointed out that this was the first full version of Mountain Jam to be played in Atlanta since 1972, and it was well worth the wait. The jam reached the boiling point almost instantly, with Derek leading the way. This may be the hottest jam I’ve ever heard in the pre-drum solo section of the song, a churning and dynamic odyssey that left the crowd breathless by the time the drum solo rolled around. A very short drum solo gave way to Oteil playing a lovely version of Georgia On My Mind, which brought down the house. It never ceases to amaze me how musical Oteil is, and how thoroughly connected he is to his bass. It was nice for him to get the spotlight here, because he was driving the band all night long.
When the rest of the band reappeared, they wasted little time in going into orbit. Derek brought the jam way down, and soon Warren started playing off of his riffs in an incredible exchange. Like a wave coming in to shore, the jam started building and building. Suddenly, Warren and Derek hit the same place at once, and it was like there was a hole in the universe for a moment. The band was nearly drowned out by the explosion of noise that followed, as the crowd screamed involuntarily in ecstasy. By the time the ABB landed the mothership, nobody who was there will ever be the same.
Ever since Dickey left the Allmans last year, there have been two burning questions among ABB fans: Should the band continue without Dickey, and can they survive without Dickey? The first question will always be a matter of debate to some folks, but the second question has been answered in the affirmative, as far as I’m concerned. This was an awe-inspiring night of music, and even with a tough act to follow in Phil and Friends, the Allmans rose to the occasion and delivered the goods.
To be fair, it says a lot about Phil and Friends that can even share the stage with this version of the ABB. According to fans who followed the whole tour, whichever band was headlining on any given night was the best of the two. Thanks to the miracle of taping, as I write this, the bootlegs are circulating through the jam band community, and soon everyone will be able to hear as much of this experience as tape can capture. For those of us who were there, though, nothing can replace the feeling of actually being there. Whenever I remember that day, my thoughts drift to next year, and the possibility of another combined tour