Allman Brothers Band, Hi-Fi Buys Ampitheatre Atlanta, GA & Oak Mountain Ampitheatre, Pelham, AL, 9/21 & 22
MY WEEKEND WITH THE ALLMAN BROTHERS
In my humble opinion, Derek Trucks is the most exciting guitarist alive. He is one of those rare and unique musicians who can blow your mind in a whole new way every time you see him, and if you read no further, that is the first thing everyone should know about this incarnation of the Allman Brothers Band.
This is not to suggest that the ABB has become a one-man show. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Gregg Allman, a true living legend, is sounding better than he has in years. Warren Haynes is one of the most revered figures in the Jambands community, and his contribution to this band speaks volumes about his talent. Don’t forget the rhythm section, which is probably the best in the world. The whole nature of the Allmans music thrives on group interaction, on reaching that zone where all the members are equal participants in creating a tapestry of sound. Even so, Derek’s bottomless tone and limitless creative imagination are the best reason why the ABB is still a vital band.
I was lucky enough to catch back-to-back shows this weekend, getting a double dose of jamming in Atlanta and Alabama. Allman Brothers shows in Atlanta always have a sort of hometown feel to them, even though the band’s origins are in Macon and Jacksonville, Florida. Although bad weather dampened the festivities somewhat, the hardy souls who braved the rain were full of energy (and beer), and were interested to see what this version of the ABB had to offer.
My first impression was how tight and sharp the band sounded, more so than last year. The tricky process of melding 7 individuals into a telepathic unit takes time, even if the “new guy” is Warren Haynes, who has already been in the band once before. For the first time, this lineup really sounded like a band, not just a group of talented players with a lot of “potential”. Crisp versions of classics Midnight Rider and Trouble No More quickly convinced me that this lineup is no longer a work in progress, and the crowd responded strongly to this opening combo.
No One To Run With was the first Dickey Betts tune of the night, but it belonged to Derek. His spine-tingling slide runs brought appreciative hollers from the crowd, as the Chosen One got to really stretch out and show his gifts for the first time. Amazingly enough, this version would be topped tomorrow (more on that later). Warren Haynes got to step out vocally with Woman Across The River, a bouncy, funky Curtis Mayfield tune that fits Warren’s voice perfectly. It got the crowd moving and dancing, and the vibe was very strong. This new addition to the catalog definitely gets the seal of approval.
Like most of you, I go to shows to see those moments of special magic when a song reaches beyond its ordinary boundaries and gives you a glimpse of eternity. No really good show is complete without at least one song that is worth of “Best Ever” consideration. Ain’t Wastin Time No More was the first such moment in a show that would have many. The ending jam was extended more than I have ever seen, with Derek’s Eastern-flavored slide ragas leading the band into a wonderful groove that felt so good it hurt.
However, Good Clean Fun brought the show back down to Earth. This has never been my favorite Allmans song, and although this version was tight and powerful, I couldn’t help thinking of all the other songs they could have played instead. Soulshine was much more welcome, with Warren and Derek joining in blissful harmonic union to create pure emotional comfort food for the ears. I have heard this song criticized as sappy, but I have always thought that it is uplifting and soulful.
Rocking Horse is another of Warren’s new crop of songs, and one that has virtually unlimited jam potential. Raging with sheer brute force, the muscular changes and heavy bottom-end of this song betray an unmistakable Govt Mule influence. In fact, Warren even teased “Mule” about halfway through his solo. Darker and heavier than most ABB material, Rocking Horse allows the band lots of leeway in the jam section, and Warren and Derek’s solos were backed by precision ensemble playing that accentuated every peak and valley.
Gambler’s Roll was another song I could have done without, and for a second I nearly slipped into “Bitchy Fan Whining About The Setlist” mode. NOBODY likes that guy, so I am happy to report that an utterly transcendent rendition of Dreams wiped all such petty thoughts from my brain. Derek and Warren both love to play the slide solo on this tune, so they rotate, and tonight it was Warren’s turn to take us for a ride. This was one of the best solos I’ve ever heard Warren play, reminding me of a great Dreams I saw in ’96 with Warren. The thing that really puts this version into the “Keeper” category, though, is the way the band ebbed and flowed and followed Warren around every corner. The unity and collective consciousness the ABB showed on this jam was truly impressive, with Derek’s rhythm guitar flourishes perfectly supporting Warren’s long, fluid leads. After this jam, the band was truly warmed up and would play at a very high level for the rest of the show.
The highlight of this show, despite the many Allman Brothers classics, was a brand new instrumental called New Instrumental. This driving, upbeat jam reminded me of music you would hear on a truckstop jukeboxon Pluto, that is. On the one hand, it had that classic boogie-woogie beat and was driven by a relentless bass line, courtesy of Oteil Burbridge, and had many elements of that classic Allman Brothers sound. However, the intricate main riff is so chromatic and exotic that it almost sounds like music from another planet. A very groovy, totally jamming planet where guitar players aren’t constrained by the same arbitrary laws of musical sanity that shackle their creativity on Earth.
After a keyboard solo showed Gregg Allman’s newfound willingness to push his own limits, the band created a tight, playful groove as Derek soared and screamed, feeding off the energy of the crowd to create an electrifying jam. Then, a tight segue into a delicious funk groove before Warren takes control, harnessing the raw power of the jam and letting it guide the band. Then the band slowly drops out, and some impressive drum trio work by Butch Trucks, Jaimoe and Marc Quinones shows why Butch gets so testy about this segment being called a “drum solo.” It is the interaction between the three that makes this percussion festival so special, and so much more interesting than most drum “solos”. After a nice bass/drums collaboration, Oteil got to do his thing. First he gives us some mellow jazz scatting where he creates radiant starbursts of color, then a soul-stirring combination of the Doxology and America the Beautiful that had many in tears. Eventually that hypnotic, mesmerizing bass line comes bubbling back up from nowhere, and the band returns to The Neptune Bar and Grill for a few more minutes of sizzling jamming before they finish up strong.
Most of the people at this show, including myself, had never heard this new jam before, and to say we were impressed would be an understatement. It seems so thoroughly in the Allman Brothers tradition, but takes their legacy into the new millenium. After such a monster jam I could have walked away satisfied, and I thought we would get one or two more songs at most, but the band wasn’t close to done yet. Right on the heels of the new instrumental came a ferocious version of Black Hearted Woman that left me stunned and amazed. The traditional closing jam went further and higher than I would have thought possible, redefining the parameters of the song and creating yet another Must-Have Jam.
The crowd was already pretty wound up at this point, but the old favorite Statesboro Blues whipped the audience into a frenzy. In keeping with the rest of this show, Warren handled most of the slide parts and cranked out some really juicy old-school blues riffs on this song in particular. Derek still got his licks in, but tomorrow in Oak Mountain he would get to play more slide. I had thought that Statesboro would surely be the set closer, but Warren stepped up to the mike and we would get at least one more. The Otis Redding song I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now) was poignant and beautiful, and a good opportunity for Warren to show his soul. Towards the end of the song Derek conjured up some incredibly sweet slide accompaniment that had the sound of helpless yearning for lost love.
When Jimmy Herring came out for Southbound, we all knew we were in for a treat. The newest member of the Grateful Dead is a local favorite in Atlanta, and his bond with Derek and Warren makes any appearance with them special. The triple-guitar attack on this song was truly something to behold. All three got to take awesome solos, but the real reason to hear this jam is the unison jam at the end, where everybody joins forces to create an incredible wall of guitar. I can only hope that CDs can recreate this incredible moment. This HAD to be the last song, right? How could they possibly top THAT?
With Whipping Post, that’s how! This will sound extravagant, but this was the best version of Whipping Post I have ever seen, my friends. I feel that the tapes will bear me out on this one. This was a truly epic performance of one of the greatest pieces of 20th century American music, jammed out with the wild abandon of the famous Fillmore East version. The band touched on many different flavors over some 20 minutes of mindbending jamming, showing a musical curiosity and dexterity that was nothing short of amazing. Derek’s began with a solo that pulsated with waves of pure intensity, searching through realms of Eastern tonality for the perfect note. It’s not just that Derek has good technique and tone, although he does. It’s that he is inventing a whole new way to play guitar every time he hits the stage. With his absolute command of the different tonal structures of blues, jazz, and Eastern music, he can create sounds that nobody else has even thought of yet.
Warren followed with a solo that was rippling with emotional power of its own. Warren always seems to rise to the challenge, and he always plays with such soul. After a nice classical interlude, the band dives back into the Post jam, hungry for more. Playing as one, they drove the crowd higher and higher with seemingly endless energy until the second half of the jam was played over the screams of an ecstatic crowd. When it came time to return to the lyrics, Gregg delivered them with passion and spirit. You can’t fake the blues, but Gregg doesn’t have to. The probing, restless spirit of the song continued through an extended ending, full of wordless cries of anguish from Derek and Warren.
The Revival encore was almost redundant, although it did feature some nice variations on the standard Revival pattern, and I always enjoy the song. After the show, all anyone could talk about was Whipping Post and the new instrumental, plus the incredible Southbound. My wife Tammy said she felt like parts of this show were “touched by the Holy Ghost,” and I think she’s right. Any minor complaints I had about the setlist of the first part of the show seemed whiny and inconsequential by the time this show was over. The second half of this show was as good as any music I have ever seen, bar none. From Dreams on, the intensity level was set on 11, and the band could do no wrong. Since Derek and Warren are getting a lot of my attention, I should take a minute to say that Oteil was sensational, always playing the right thing at the right time. The drum section was very strong, especially on the New Instrumental, where their swinging rhythm made the whole thing work. I could only hope for more of the same on Saturday in Alabama.
OAK MOUNTAIN JAM
The title really says it all about this show. Song for song, it wasn’t as strong as Atlanta, but Mountain Jam is always reason for celebration. More on that later. This crowd was more subdued than Atlanta, as the threat of heavy rain kept a lot of people home. Oak Mountain is one of the most open amphitheaters in the country, and there is no place to hide from the rain. Even despite the mellow vibe of the audience, the band opened very strong with Leave My Blues At Home, a rarely played classic from the Idlewild South album. After that they launched into No One To Run With, and I was initially disappointed at the repeat from last night’s show. This was above and beyond the Lakewood version, however, with Derek taking the slide jam at the end to unprecedented heights. Introducing Eastern modes to the songs tension/release formula, Derek created new possibilities for this jam that I would not have thought possible. Once again, it was not just his technique, but his imagination and creativity that blew me away. Already, the drive from Atlanta in the rain was worth it.
Don’t Keep Me Wondering followed, with Warren and Derek sculpting an ever-climbing series of slide crescendos that finally got the crowd appropriately excited. The band then shifted gears with Worried Down With The Blues, creating a dark, smoky vibe. This song is such a classic blues tune that I originally thought it was a cover, but it is one of Warren’s new songs, and shows the depth and quality of the new material. Warren was aflame with intensity on this one, howling the blues and playing stinging guitar runs that at times reminded me of the late great Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Firing Line is another great new song with a catchy guitar hook, and also has somewhat of a SRV flavor to my ears. Strong vocals and tight playing make this one a possible single. One thing that came across very clearly to me this weekend is that whatever else you might say about this band, they are not coasting through a Greatest Hits set, as they easily could. Like any healthy band, they are most interested in their newer material, and luckily for us it’s good stuff. Done Somebody Wrong was a welcome blues tune after a couple of newer songs, and Derek was indeed getting more slide work today than he was in Atlanta.
Old Before My Time was the third brand new song of the night, and this hauntingly emotional ballad shows Gregg Allman getting his second wind as a songwriter. Frankly, Gregg hasn’t written this many good songs in a two-year period since 1969-1971. Woman Across The River was another repeat from Atlanta, but much like No One To Run With, I feel that the Oak Mountain version was stronger. It built up to an incredible climax, with Warren letting out an energized “YEAH!” at the end of the song, and helped pick up the energy level after the slower Old Before My Time.
Come and Go Blues was the only song of the night from the band’s late 70’s output, and it sounded much livelier and more dynamic than the more laid-back studio version. Next, Butch’s son Vaylor Trucks hit the stage for a great You Don’t Love Me jam that began with an extended intro, which featured some powerful ensemble playing in full guitar army mode. Vaylor’s sprightly jazz chops added new colors to the standard ABB palette, but Derek stole the show as usual with a scorching solo that had tone to spare.
Soulshine was another repeat from Atlanta, but at least they were repeating songs I like. What followed was a legendary slide exchange between Derek and Warren, as a prelude to Hoochie Coochie Man. Each would play about 30 second bursts of the most ridiculous slide guitar I have ever heard, then step back to see what the other guy could do. More playful than competitive, this little game of “Can you top THIS?” went on for several minutes and had the audience staring slack-jawed in amazement. The energy of the intro carried over into the song, which rocked fiercely. Warren and Derek both play with a kind of rawness that gives their playing that much more power, and Hoochie Coochie Man was definitely a highlight of the show.
The “New Instrumental” followed, but it was a shorter version than Atlanta, and ultimately seemed like the lesser of the two. It just didn’t have the incredible energy of the Lakewood version. Some people have claimed that this tune is better in a shorter version and doesn’t have the depth to sustain a 30-minute jam. Based on the shows I saw, I think it needs to stretch out in order to reach its true potential, which I think is very large. The Midnight Rider/Statesboro Blues combination that followed was a sure crowd-pleaser, and the audience was finally warmed up properly for what would follow.
While Atlanta may have been the better overall show, possibly the best jam of the weekend was the Rocking Horse>Mountain Jam extravaganza on Saturday night. Rocking Horse was another repeat from Atlanta that didn’t seem superfluous because it was better. The jam seemed more extended and spacious, without losing the urgency and power that make this a great song. Derek’s solo in particular seemed really inspired, absolutely unbelievable, and breathtakingly intense. Warren stepped up with some awesome playing of his own, and as the song faded, the unmistakable strains of Mountain Jam began! Everyone had been hoping that the name of the venue would make this an obvious choice, and we got our wish!
This version had a long intro that featured a very cool uncle-nephew exchange, with Butch on the tympani and Derek on slide. The whole band soon joined in the groove, creating a luminescent opening jam that absolutely took me away to another place. Again, it was the group dynamics more than any one solo that made this jam so special. I felt that the drums and bass segments, while good, weren’t as strong as Atlanta. However, the second half of the jam was driving and intense, even by the high standards of Mountain Jam, and showed Derek at his very best. He led the band through a 5-10 minute jam excursion that was much less pretty and melodic than usual second half jam, but incredibly powerful. Then, just when you least expected it, he expertly guided the band back to the Mountain Jam theme. Simply put, one of the most amazing improvisations I’ve ever seen.
Much like Whipping Post in Atlanta, this Mountain Jam was hard to top, but One Way Out was jammed out ferociously as the band tried anyway. Warren was particularly good on a longer-than-usual intro that really set the stage for a great jam. By the time it was all over, the rain had stayed away, and those of us who made it were rewarded with a very strong show, if not quite as spectacular as Atlanta.
After the show I had the privilege of spending some time on the bus with the drummers and participated in a lively discussion about music. Jaimoe said that he had been listening to a lot of New Orleans drummers lately, which is always a good thing in my mind. Meanwhile, Butch lamented the monopolistic state of the music business while several people waxed nostalgic about a band from the 70’s called The Tall Dogs. Marc was a live wire, making wisecracks and trying to find a DVD that was worth watching for the long ride to Memphis.
The overall impression was one of brotherhood and friendship. There were unmistakable signs of road fatigue, and living in a bus for months at a time can get pretty old, especially when you have been doing it for thirty years. However, even if the band was sick and tired of the tour grind, they weren’t sick and tired of each other, which is a testament to the bond between them. Just when the bus was getting ready to leave, Oteil and Warren came aboard like some munchies-crazed pirates to raid some brownies that Oteil’s wife had made, and there was laughter and good-natured joking all around. As long as they can keep up that group dynamic, this band will just get better with time, and they’re REALLY good already.
The last thing you should know about this band is that at this moment, Derek Trucks, may very well be the best guitarist on Earth.