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Published: 2009/03/24
by Mike Greenhaus

Geekin at the Beacon: A Historical Look at the Allman Brothers Bands Annual Residency

As Tour Mystic, Kirk West has many roles in the Allman Brothers Band organization, ranging from archivist to photographer to backstage “mae d.” In his time with the band, West had also been able to see the Allman Brothers Band’s annual run at the Beacon evolve from a stock set to a multi-night run featuring special guests, rare covers and forgotten originals. This year’s 15-night stand has been even more monumental as the group both gears up for its 40th anniversary and looks back on the life and legacy of founding member Duane Allman. On a rare day away from the Beacon, West invited to his midtown hotel to discuss the Allman Brothers Band’s unique history with the Beacon, Duane Allman’s enduring legacy and why it’s sometimes good to balance old friends with “hotties.”

For a bit more on Kirk West and his role with the Allman Brothers Band Museum, check out the latest issue of Relix.

Let’s start with some history. How did the Allman Brothers Band first find the Beacon in 1989?

KW- We were looking for a place in New York that was like the Fillmore or the Paladiuma small theater-type thing where you could do several nights. It was a September/October run, and they had been doing the sheds all summer long, so they decided to come back and play a lot of theaters that fall. After that I don’t think we came back until ’92 again. And that ’92 run was a result of trying to get a live recording out of the Macon, GA New Year’s Eve run in ’91, and the tapes didn’t turn out too goodthe building was sonically not quite right.

So what we ended up doing was booking a theater tour where we played several shows at the Orpheum in Boston and places like Burlington, Vermont, Wilkes-Barre. We came in, we recorded the Boston shows, and we recorded Beacon shows and that was released as An Evening with the Allman Brothers Band: First Set and An Evening with the Allman Brothers Band: Second Set. That run is when everybody fell in love with the Beacon. Then the next time I think we came back was in April, ’94, then we did Radio City for five or six shows in ’95 and then we came back in ’96 and haven’t left. It’s become what it’s become, it’s pretty remarkable.

The Beacon has also become known for its special guests. At what point did the run morph into such a sit-in fest?

KW- It wasn’t alwaysit became that special guest thing in about 2001 or 2002. Throughout the 1990s, we would only have the occasional special guest. Dickey Betts was in the band through the 2000 tour, and Warren Haynes and Allen Woody were there through the March run in ’97 and then we had Jack Pearson in ’98 and ’99 and Derek came aboard in 2000. Throughout those years, there really weren’t a lot of guests. We basically had four different shows, meaning four different setlists, and we’d rotate them. So the run was building a reputation as being a great party but it hadn’t really turned into this extravaganza and this cavalcade of stars, you know? But in the last three or four years, it’s really become that.

I imagine the addition of Derek’s and Warren’s return are largely responsible for the cavalcade of guests.

KW- Yeah, that’s it. I mean, Warren and Derek know a lot of people. Plus, you know, the band really started firing on all eight cylinders, and the band got really, really good. The shows got remarkable, so people wanted to come play. It became a “thing.” There was a period of time in the early 2000s where it became this New York City social event to see the Brothers from the stage. We had HBO stars, and we had movie stars and television people and art gallery people. It became this hip thing, and for two or three years the level of cool that we had achieved was ridiculous, you know?

We had a pretty wide-open policy there for a few years. The house was like a reggae party, and it was a rockin’ joint man, it was a rockin’ joint. I was the mae d’ at the best party in town so it was pretty rockin’ and then things kind of changed. MSG took it over, and the last time we were there two years ago they had only been running it since the first of the year, so they were finding their way. They had never run into anything like us before and, you know, it was our house. That was the way we felt about it, you know? “We own this place, we’re the reason this building is hip, and so we do our thing our way.” And it was a bit of a struggle, but it’s much better this year. We took last year off because of Gregg’s Hep C, and MSG has got this gorgeous renovation they’ve done, but they’ve had the place for a-year-and-a-half or two years now, and they’ve learned that this is the Beacon Theater, not Radio City, and you have to have a different mindset. The customers will come and come and come if you don’t oppress them.

You mentioned that the Allman Brothers used to work from 4 different setlists. How many songs do the Brothers have in rotation this run?

KW- There’s about 100 songs that the band knows well enough to play. And there are certain songs in that list of 100 that Gregg doesn’t have fun playing or that Butch doesn’t have fun playing or that Oteil Burbridge and Derek don’t have fun playing. So there are some that are taken off that list. This isn’t a greatest hits show by any stretch of the imagination, but if you’re gonna do this at this stage of the game, you gotta have fun doing it. So there are certain songs that we’d all like to hearor that most of us would like to hearor that fans would love to hear that aren’t getting played for one reason or another just because one of the guys doesn’t like the way the vocal range is or the tempo is, you know? And it’s a lot more interesting if you’re not playing the same 12 songs every night.

Is Warren still in charge of making the setlists or has that became more of a communal process?

KW- Warren will do his wish list and people will say, “Let’s change that one or let’s flip this.” You know, it’s a process. But if everybody’s happy then why struggle with it? It’s not like Warren says, “OK this is what you guys are playing tonight.” It is more like, “This is what I think, these are the guests we have, this is what’s goin’ on.” Haynes is master at that shit. You see what he does with Christmas Jam or The Deepest End and all that kind of stuff. He pays close attention, and he gets off on that. There were periods of time where they’d rotate it. Derek would do a setlist, Oteil, Haynes, Butch, Gregg, you know? It has floated around. We did a couple of years where that took place.

I noticed that Derek and Warren have been playing a new instrumental this tour. What is that song called?

KW- They don’t have a name for it. I keep asking them every night, but they don’t have one.

Is that the only new original song they’ve played so far this tour?

KW- That’s the only original new song. I mean, they had never played Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” until last night so it was great.

Another song Gregg hasn’t played for a while is his solo cut “Oncoming Traffic.” Can you tell us a bit about that song?

KW- Gregg did that one about three times in 2005 and would open the second set with him on grand piano. That was pretty special man. The soundcheck that afternoon was like, “Whoa man!”

Speaking of soundchecks, I hear the guys are soundchecking each night this run because of all the special guests. That has never happened before, correct?

KW- Yeah, we’ve never done that, but this is a different mindset. This is a tribute to Duane, and we have a lot of people coming that Duane played on songs with, and they’re not songs that the band has done. We had not done Boz Scaggs’ “Loan Me A Dime” since when Jimmy Herring was in the band in the summer of 2000. There were a couple weeks of rehearsal in January where they worked up all the songs by the guests that they knew were coming. But other guests have been added since January, so they have been in rehearsals many afternoons, and there’s a rehearsal room that we’ve set up on 7th floor so they’ll fine-tune stuff. Saturday night when we had Lenny White and Randy Brecker, they worked up “In A Silent Way” during intermission.

What was the process like of selecting this runs guests? It seems to have changed slightly from the concept as I initially understood, as “Duane’s Friends and Collaborators.”

KW- The original concept was to bring in people that were friends with or had played with Duanethat was the old timers original concept. Then Warren, who is a master of The Last Waltz kind of deal, started gathering people that were maybe influenced by or had influenced Duane, so it kind of blended. Then there was a period of a few weeks where people were coming out of the woodworks saying, “I wanna play, I wanna play!” So we had to say, “You know, we’re pretty well stocked up, maybe we can match you with this guy.” I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with the evolution of intent.

Let’s talk about some of the guests that have played so far this run. When is the last time the guys caught up with Levon Helm?

KW- We see Levon quite a bit. You know, I’m 58. Here’s an interesting thing. Ten years ago, I came into this thing as a fanan obsessive, historian-type fan. And the first ten years on the job, I could tell you everywhere we were going, everywhere we’ve been, dates of this and that and through the eighties, when I did the research for this biography project that never really saw the light of day but spawned this other stuff, it always surprised me because these guys couldn’t remember. I mean, we got Dickey on tape saying he wrote “Blue Sky” in ’74 or “Ramblin’ Man” in ’75, you know? [laughs]

How about Bonnie Bramlett. Obviously she has a longstanding history with the band dating back to the early 1970s.

KW- Well, Bonnie Bramlett was the first white Ikette. She grew up in East St. Louis, and met Delaney who was a session man in L.A. He was from Arkansas, and Delaney and Bonnie formed this ever-changing lineup of musicians. They got tight with Duane, and Duane played on several of the Delaney & Bonnie records and lots of live shows with them. Bonnie actually was an Allman Brother in 1979: she was on the Enlightened Rogues tour, and she was on several songs on Reach for the Sky. She’s been a dear friend for years, and she did several solo records on Capricorn in the ’70s after Delaney & Bonnie broke up as a band, and divorced as a couple. She’s just been a dear heart family member all along.

She was on Roseanne’s show tooshe had a featured role there for a number of years, and she did some acting. Delaney & Bonnie was also the opening act on the Blind Faith tour in 1970 which is where Clapton hooked up with them, and Delaney produced Eric’s first solo record that was the bridge between Blind Faith and Derek and the Dominoes. So Delaney & Bonnie are key to so much Allman Brothers and Eric Clapton history it’s remarkableit was just perfect. Bonnie and her daughter Bekka turned the Beacon into church. Unfortunately, Delaney passed away in Decemberhe had been ill for a number of years.

There was an organic community of musicians that would go from Delaney & Bonnie to Derek and the Dominoes to Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour. It was great, and that’s the roots of all that kind of stuff and people don’t understand that. People don’t get that sometimes.

Shifting to a perhaps more recognizable, but less historical guest, how did Bruce Willis become involved with the Allman Brothers camp?

KW- He was a fan and, you know, actors tend to have egos and no shame. Most people who play harmonica don’t have the balls to say, “Hey man, lemme blow some,” you know? And Bruce Willis, for instance, is a really cool dude. He’s not a bad guy, so that’s always nice to see. He’s got humility, and he’s a good harmonica player. This time that he sat in was the best any of us had ever seen him play, we were all knocked outit was cool. He’s been blowin’ a while you know, he’s a huge music fan. He owns a club out there in Wyoming or Utah or wherever the hell it is, and he’s got a joint here on the Upper West Side not too far from the Beacon. Good cat, but it doesn’t always translate with all those actors come musicians.

One of this run’s most high-profile guest pairs was Trey Anastasio and Page McConnell. If I am not mistaken, Page first played with the Allman Brothers at the Beacon in the mid 1990s and Trey sat in at the Big House Benefit.

KW- Yeah, Trey came and played The Big House show and Trey sat in on occasionhe played up in Burlington one night with us a couple years ago. But I think Page lives here in Manhattan so it was easy for him to just drop by, and I think maybe Trey does now too. They’ve been around us, you know, and the Mule and stuff for years. And that translates to excitement in the crowd whereas last night, for instance, the guests were Scott Boyer and Tommy Talton from Cowboy, as well as Sheryl Crow. Now Scott Boyer played with Butch in the 31st of February and before that he was in a band called The Bitter Ind, so Butch and Scott Boyer have known each other since the early 1960s. Tommy Talton came into the thing in the late 1960’she was another Florida boy bangin’ around. Cowboy was part of the family of Capricorn bands and were an opening act for the Brothers all through the early years when Duane was still kickin’ and on into the ’70s when the Brothers were headlining major things. They’ve always been friends and both of them were on Gregg Allman’s Laid Back album. So they’re family members for years, but for a house of 2,800 New Yorkers, that may not carry some weight. The history of that may not be obvious or relevant to them, whereas Sheryl Crow comes out and she’s a hottie, but she only goes back to the ’94 H.O.R.D.E. with the Allman Brothers.

Buddy Guy also sat in with Trey and Page last week. Besides being a blues legend and inspiration to the guys, does he have any actual history with the classic ABB?

KW- He did a show at the Fillmore West in January of 1970it was four nights at the Fillmore West. B.B. King was the headliner, then Buddy Guy and then the Allman Brothers. It was the first time the Allman Brothers had played the Fillmore West. They had played the Fillmore East once in December of ’69 and then went to the West Coast for the first time and played the Fillmore West.

Derek also used to play at Buddy’s club in Chicago and played with Buddy a lot when he was a kid. Buddy would take him under his wing and put him onstage and stuff. I got married at the Checkerboard Lounge which was Buddy’s old club in Chicago, so I know Buddy pretty good. It used to be that Buddy in front of a black audience was unbelievable, but Buddy in front of a white audience was kind of a sideshow act to be honest with you. He’d never finish songs, and he’d do all kinds of whacky stuff like talk about Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton. It was disappointing.

When you used to see Buddy and Junior Wells together, and they’d just kill youthey wouldn’t book any of this “Mary Had a Little Lamb” shit, you know? But, when he was onstage with the Allmans this past week at the Beacon, he was brilliant. He was like he used to be. And he was onstage and he tore it up man and at the very end of “You Don’t Love Me,” he played “Mary Had a Little Lamb!” [laughs]. I went, “Oh Buddy, God damn.” But it was a great 30 minutes or whatever that he was onstage. And he’s one of the older elder statesman, ain’t that many of them cats around man. So to see Buddy up there or Taj Mahal up there is amazing. Some of those blues legends are like dinosaurs tromping across the Earth and they need to be respected and valued and you need to take it in because it’s not going to last. It needs to be cherished.

Finally, can you give us a little background on Eric Clapton’s history with the Allman Brothers? If I am correct, he never actually played with them, right?

KW- Right. Duane did two shows with Derek and the Dominoes, and he recorded a few songs on Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs. I think Dickey sat in with Clapton in ’74 in Atlanta at the Omni and, of course, Derek toured with him for a while. But, as far as The Allman Brothers Band, Clapton has never played with the ABB. But it will be an interesting weekend.

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