Dickey Betts & Great Southern, Gold Strike Casino, Tunica, MS- 3/12
It's always tough to go to a concert of a former member of a band and not compare the new act to the old one. This is especially true when going to see Dickey Betts' new project, as he was one of the founding members and a major contributor to the sound of the Allman Brothers Band, a band he played with for three decades. While every ounce of me would love to have gone with no expectations, it was near impossible. When Dickey was "removed" from the Allman Brothers in 2000, there was a large outcry from the band's faithful, with much reason. However, for anyone who has merely listened to his last officially released effort, Peakin’ at the Beacon, it's clear that his playing was not what it once was for one reason or anotherI'm not going to speculate why. What I can say is that whatever issues he may or may not have had, they have been worked out, and I walked away from the concert Friday night knowing that what I had witnessed was not some cut-rate off-shoot band, but a machine whose gears were well-greased, one that was hitting on all cylinders.
Dickey came on stage at around 9 o'clock and immediately said that they would be playing a short set, and that they would be playing only one or two new songs. Whether or not this is because the casino wanted the crowd back at the blackjack tables (most likely) or because there were only a couple of hundred people in attendance, I don't know. Regardless, murmurs could be heard across the room, wondering exactly what a "short set" meant. The band ripped into "Steady Rollin' Man," with keyboard player Mike Kach on vocals. Mike's voice is fairly good, but where he really exceeded expectations was on his keys. Aside from Dickey's co-lead guitarist "Dangerous" Dan Toler, I'd never heard any of the band play, and Kach had skills on the ivories. "Blue Sky," an all-time favorite that the Allman Brothers don't have in rotation any more because it's one of Betts's songs, followed, and the band really cut loose at this point. Dickey's playing has cleaned up immensely since the late 90's, and it was clear from this point on. He and Toler clearly have developed a great rapport on dual lead guitar. As an Allman Brothers fan, it was great to hear this, as it's a tune that's been missing from their setlists the past several years (again, with the dreaded comparison between the two acts). A new song, the only one of the night, followed, one that Dickey said has been around for only a few months. "Girl With the Deep Blue Eyes" is a ballad, and one that clearly has potential. Dickey tore into a solo towards the end, and I'm certainly curious to hear this song develop.
After an interesting take on the Robert Johnson standard "Come On In My Kitchen," Dan Toler took over on "Back Where It All Begins." I've never been a Dan Toler fan, perhaps because my experience with him is pretty much limited to what I've seen of him on the "Brothers of the Road" video, where he presents himself in all his 80's glory, aviator sunglasses, big hair and all. However, if there was one band member that I walked out truly blown away by, it was Toler. His chops have improved dramatically since his time in the Allman Brothers in the 1980's. His solos were phenomenal, as he tore up his Stratocaster, dropping jaws around the room. At one point they even had to bring him a second guitar, not because he broke a string, but because, as Dickey put it, "he wears one or two of those things out a night." I went in a skeptic, but came out a Dan Toler fan.
A fifteen-plus minute "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" followed, and the whole room blew up. Drummer Frankie Lombardi, a definite hard hitter, got a chance to show his stuff with a nifty little drum solo as the whole band left the stage mid-song to take a breather, as there was no set break during the night. After wrapping up Liz Reed, Great Southern tore through "No One to Run With" and wrapped their set up with "Ramblin' Man," with the crowd singing all the words. After a few brief moments off stage, they returned for the encore, a torrid take on Betts's opus, "Jessica." This band has clearly meshed, and it wasn't any more evident than during the encore. As the crowd rushed towards the stage and filled the aisles, getting out of their seats for the first time all night, Dickey and Great Southern soared through the Allman Brothers favorite, ebbing and flowing for minutes at a time, building momentum and then pulling back. Mike Kach brought to the table what Gregg Allman was never able to after Chuck Leavell left the Allman Brothers Band—strong solo work on the keyboards during the song. After the song concluded, Great Southern left the stage an hour and a half after starting the show.
The people next to me had driven in from Illinois, and they were clearly not pleased at the short duration that Dickey and Co. were on stage. The setlist was almost exclusively songs that Betts wrote for the Allman Brothers Band, so for the casual fan, it was perfect. Personally, I would liked to have heard more new stuff, but at least Dickey came on stage at the beginning of the night and announced that wouldn't be happening. The disturbing thing about the evening was the lack of people filling the seats. Perhaps if he had played 30 minutes north in Memphis, he would have been able to fill the room. Tunica is a casino town, and I don't know what the exact population is, but to get to the show the majority of the people drove from somewhere outside it's city lines. If I had driven several hours instead of 30 minutes, I'd have been fuming just like the people I was seated by. However, what the band did deliver was strong tunes, great musicianship, and a short hour and a half of tight play. I left wanting more, and that's the aim of every band when they take the stage.