Butch Trucks: Beacon Bound
Photo by Larry Hulst
For the past few years, The Allman Brothers Band have used their annual residency at New York’s Beacon Theatre to celebrate important moments from their rich history. But for the first time since 2009, The Allman Brothers Band will enter the Beacon with some new, originals. The Allman Brothers band singer and organist is in the midst of a creative renaissance after recovering from liver problems stemming from Hepatitis C. As founding Allman Brothers band drummer Butch Trucks explains below, Allman is “is in the best shape he’s probably been in for decades” and all eyes are on the group’s 45th anniversary in 2014. Shortly before heading to New York from his Florida home, Trucks discussed The Allman Brothers Band’s upcoming Beacon run, his Rock Roots Revival event, the future of Moogis and his long-awaited return to Madison Square Garden’s stage.
Let’s start by talking about The Allman Brothers Band’s upcoming Beacon run. The last few years have celebrated different anniversaries (2009 marked the band’s 40th anniversary, 2011 honored At Fillmore East and 2012 emphasized Eat a Peach ). Does the band have any overarching themes for this year’s shows?
I know that Gregg is in the best shape he’s probably been in for decades. He’s finally got his liver squared away—all the medications are balanced out, he’s getting his strength back and, along with that, his motivation to write songs. The word is that he’s got a bunch of new songs ready to go, and that right there in itself is something we haven’t had in a few years. So I’m really looking forward to the run—we leave on Wednesday [February 20] to go and rehearse, and I’m really looking forward to going there and seeing what Gregg’s got in the can. I am excited about what he’s put together for the Beacon that’s new and that people haven’t heard before.
Do you know if these are songs Gregg worked on by himself, with Warren Haynes or with another collaborator? Both of the new songs written for his 2011 solo album Low Country Blues were written with Warren.
Actually, I really don’t know. I just got an email from Gregg a couple weeks ago—and it’s not something he does very often—so you know something special is going on. You could just feel it in the email that he was beaming. He said, “I got all these new songs ready to go, I can’t wait. See you guys in New York.” That just made my day—it made my year and maybe the next three or four years.
[Ed note: During Allman Brothers Band rehearsals it was revealed that these new ABB songs are new Warren Haynes originals that he’s since shared with Gregg and the entire band]
Every Beacon run has featured some surprises. Last year you brought back mini-acoustic sets at the start of ever second set during the run. Where did that idea originate from and do you plan to revisit that concept this year?
That’s something that comes and goes, I don’t know. It kind of pops its head up every few years and I like it—I love it, ‘cause it’s the only time when The Allman Brothers are playing that I get a chance to take a break. In a normal show, I’m the only guy who’s never able to get off of his drums. I’m there for every damn song and I love it when they do those acoustic sets—it gives me a break. But at the same time, there’s nothing like the Beacon.
It’s something that’s inexplicable. I get there and after the third or fourth show, I’m exhausted. I’m 65 years old now but the first show is always exciting because I haven’t played in a while, and I have all this energy built up. The next night I have to come up and grit my teeth, and look at the blood blisters I’ve got on both hands. By the third or fourth night I’m just exhausted. It’s a lot of energy playing those three hour sets and playing as hard as I play—driving the band like I do. So I get to the show, feeling like a 95-year-old man and then I’m looking at those three steps I have to walk up to the drum riser, and it looks like Mt. Everest. I get up there and I get the drums set up. We start playing and about halfway through the first song something happens, and I’m an 18-year-old Superman.
I’m not kidding. With this band, it has been consistent. I mean, every single night. We don’t have bad nights anymore. I get up there and for three hours I’m just riding high and just riding that magic and music with the level of intensity we play.
How do you feel the Beacon compares to a normal Allman Brothers Band show at this point?
You can feel it—the energy and the audience is part of what causes that because it’s a very intimate setting and they’re right there. They’re involved, whereas when we’re playing the big sheds the people are all the way off in the distance and it’s hard to get any communication going. But at the Beacon, being at the same venue every night for a long time, you just have the feeling that we’re much freer to get up and try things that people have never heard of before. When you are only playing one night [in a city] you’re kind of stuck with having to play the greatest hits. You’re coming through for one night and then you have to do the greatest hits and move on. It just makes the Beacon a special event; it’s something that I know is going to end one day, but I hope it’s not anytime soon.
Speaking of the Beacon, what were your personal highlights from last year’s run?
Well, another thing I love about the Beacon is that every night is different—every night is totally different. One night we may start out playing “In A Silent Way,” the Miles Davis tune, and then it lays down a mellow groove and a feel for the whole evening. Then, the next night it could be just the opposite and we’re up there just pounding and jamming and blowing the roof off the ceiling. Last year, we had Bill Evans [on March 16] and we just jammed and jammed and jammed. If we ever add anyone to The Allman Brothers, he’s it.
The year before that we had Dr. John, and that’s a huge change in style and where you’re going and everything else. But also so much fun—it’s what I love about the Beacon, you never really know what’s going to happen. For the last 10 or 12 years [since the band’s current lineup has been together] it’s been consistently good every night—we don’t have bad nights anymore. Obviously there are some nights where it’s just through the roof and there are the nights where we may have to work a little harder but it’s still good. Before [that] it was like 75% of the time the shows were embarrassing, and we pulled out of that. I just love it, I can’t wait. I’m just counting the days. We start rehearsals on Wednesday to work up those songs of Gregg’s and you know. We’ll see what comes out for this run.
What is an Allman Brothers Band rehearsal like at this point? Do you focus on newer material, run through the back catalog or work on different types of improvisation?
I can’t think of a way to rehearse that we don’t do. Bottom line, it gets down to what the song is. Gregg wrote “Midnight Rider,” and that is a “song.” It has a very definite structure and there’s not a jam there. And then on the other hand you’ve got “Whipping Post” or something like that where only 10% of it is song and 90% of it is jam. So, you have to take every song for what it is and if it’s a song that should be structured then we work very hard on developing an interesting structure so we won’t get bored with it. If it’s one that has a jam, then that’s easy. We just learn the song and then let it go.