Allman Brothers Band, Beacon Theater, NYC 3/21
Well, shit, folks. This was a special night a tasty, truly magical bit of Allman Brothers Band history that's already worthy of "lore" status and while peppering a review of it with adjectives seems only to cheapen the effect, any writer wishing to explain the enthusiasm, the shock value and the elan that came with those shocks is hard-pressed to stay even-toned. Nights like this inspire long, Bangsian screeds filled with digression and extrapolation and hyperbole and faux-religious testimonial not the least of which concerns the Allmans faithful and their never-ending devotion to the Beacon, the gilded, ancient palace that hums back to life every March with the closest thing its ever had to a springtime house band.
Don't get me wrong, now. The Big House Benefit was an epic, too everything it was expected to be, a somewhat disappointing Trey Anastasio sit-in notwithstanding but this night, March 21, was the type of show wherein you felt those strands of magic beading their way through the audience instead of just hoping everyone is having as good a time as you (or attempting to convince yourself that you are). You want to hug somebody who you don't know (I did, and they hugged back), and ramble on for hours in the afterglow, and tell everybody you know what just happened, and what you were privileged enough to see, and … well, by then you're carried away again. Objective eyes and ears, out the ol' window. But just look at the set list, dude! There was magic in the room.
So did it work? Did it live up to what's on paper?
With a shocks-aplenty, asterisk-drenched setlist like this, the answer would more often than not be "kinda." But this is the Allman Brothers they of the Full Blown Revival Part Three (year 2001 and counting), they of the slowly and thoroughly evolving setlist, they of the time spent to carve a truly musical, Zambi experience out of every show and that of course means the gravity, restraint and gumption to acquit and deliver on all of the promises of a show like this without making it feel like a mere stunt, breaking out rarity after rarity, and a gallery of special guests, for shock value. Each guest was marvelously integrated, each surprise was fully developed and expertly delivered the ABB would never coast on shock value alone, though admittedly by playing "Little Martha," "Jessica" and "Blue Sky" all in the same show circa 2005, they could probably have gotten away with it.
So we open with a sassy "You Don't Love Me" with the jazzy, swinging intro. It's a warm-up really, and the first solo of the night rings from Warren's guitar, smooth, short, sweet. We're not hitting any notes yet, but this old Willie Cobbs is one of a handful of ABB tunes that can fit anywhere in the set. Elastic enough to provide an embracing, pistons-firing opener, a mid-set jumpstart, or a show-closing throwdown.
Then, curiously, the first guest of many isn't even announced a washboard player who with no fanfare hauls his equipment in and begins scratching away for "Statesboro Blues." A spare, no-frills version, not a lot of meat on it, but it keeps the pace a-flutter, and the washboards are a raw and snappy country blues effect. "Midnight Rider" follows, and again, by-the-book, but then if there's spirited little number in the ABB catalog that never requires more than a stable run-through to be effective, it's the one.
Now we're getting interesting: the lights go dark and a spotlight pinpoints Warren, who briefly comments on what a special night it is and mutters something about New Jersey, and then the five-strong horn section from Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes strolls on stage, crowding tightly 'round five mics just in front of Oteil. The first notes of "The Same Thing" hit like a whip crack, and the brassy blast of horns two trumpets, a bone, a tenor sax and a bari sax ignite the thing like a powder keg. The arrangement of this Willie Dixon classic has long been one of Warren's most effective contributions to the ABB repertoire, having evolved into a surly, yet nuanced jammer without losing any of its curled-lip raunch or roadhouse grit.
Each horn, save for trumpeter Chris Anderson, gets extended solo space as the tune opens up, with Derek jutting his own live wire licks in between. Warren belts the last verse, and then the hand-off goes to Oteil, who plucks a very Wooten-y solo as the Jukes horns step to the side to give him room. Warren picks up the last solo baton, and then shoots a look to the trumpet players, who start the horns playing accompaniment as he calls Derek out for the first duel of the evening. Back and forth, faster and faster, you know where it goes, and what it does, and the horns are bouncing and Derek has that tightly controlled look on his face and Warren is intense and trilling away and the drummers are smacking and Oteil is thumping like crazy and Gregg is nodding in approval and…we're officially in orbit.
Loud, loud cheers, and then the gorgeous chill-down, as the horns stay for "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." Trombonist La Bamba leads them through a delicate, brassy, New Orleans jazz-flavored introduction (the arrangement here sounds very similar to the one Allen Toussaint gave to the Band for The Last Waltz), and away we go with the drumbeats, and the story of Virgil Cain, former steward on the Danville train. Sing-a-long city in the chorus, and the verses sung with Gregg's usual knee-weakening gravitas.
Exeunt the horns, and now we're on another journey: the "new" instrumental (it's actually a reworked version of an Oteil composition) called "Egypt," complete with a sphinx-and-pyramids backdrop and plenty of swirly, ethereal mysticism Pharaoh Sanders re-imagined for southern rock. Intriguing, to say the least, this 12 or so minute version, with lots of ripe jam space and an abundance of the Middle and Far Eastern textures that are staples of Trucks' band, subtle elements of the Mule, too, and until now vague hints in the ABB. On the night of this song's debut 10 or so days earlier, a post on the ABB's web site described the backbone and rhythmic underpinnings of this tune at least in its head, before the jam segment as resembling the Grateful Dead's "The Eleven" (or even "The Other One") and that's a fairly accurate assessment: pulsing, layering stuff that builds in peaks followed by small valleys instead of a straight-climbing, linear progression.
The melody, intertwining lead guitars sidewinding between major and minor chords with the keyboard layering, first reminded me of Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia," though slower and closer, in the mystical, free-bordering sense to the Coltrane version of "Afro Blue" (natural, given the tune's history with members of this band). The tune's jam segment has yet to find an identity with the same slow-cook-to-fiery-blast guitar sections, it too closely resembles "Whipping Post" but of course our fearless axe slingers delivered a few pulse-quickeners, and overall, all the potential is there for the tune to become, as "Instrumental Illness" did after beginning similarly as a looser, indefinite shape, a unique ABB jam-vehicle experience.
The horns return, and we're "Into the Mystic." Pretty, poetic, gorgeous especially with Trucks and the Jukes playing in unison the punchy, falling series of staccatos that define the chorus. The Jukes guys are a riot: loose, laughing, dancing, grooving, and then peeling off fills with Swisswatch-exact timing and professionalism. The ABB has always been good at accommodating horn sections it's a lot harder than it looks, which is hard to begin with and these guys are an especially good fit.
Enter Chuck Leavell stage right, to a spare piano setup positioned next to Oteil's rig. It's an expected sit-in most knew he was in the house but damn if it doesn't feel refreshing to see the sixth Rolling Stone shoot his cuffs underneath a sleek black blazer, accept a bear hug from Mr. Burbridge and reverent smiles from Warren and Derek, and then proceed to craft intensely gorgeous solos inside "Come and Go Blues" and the rare (and very much welcome) "All Night Train." "Come and Go" features Gregg's best vocal turn of the first set impassioned, gritty, the right melange of controlled sage and free spirit.
The crowd goes nuts for the next series of wonderfully familiar chords, and a soaring "Blue Sky" bounces the first set to a close, with the solo hat going first to Derek, shooting high and hitting the target in his first major league excursion of the night, then to Chuck, whose twinkling runs rewind us back to 1973, and then to Warren, who does enough of the job if he cuts himself a bit short. Gregg's vocals are again superb, though one senses he's still trying to decide exactly how to fill this one out. His pipes fit anywhere, but less comfortably to country balladry too hard, and it's not "Blue Sky," just lyrics, but too soft, and it's too dreamy. Will they keep this one in occasional rotation?
Set break. Scattered chatter, sweaty people, more beer, laughs, heads shaking, "the first set that felt like a second set," everything. Techies fiddle and tweak on stage, but the piano stays and the horn section mics stay. Chuck and the Jukes will return. Later.
Warren and Derek assume acoustics center stage no Gregg solo piano spot tonight, unlike the previous eight and yes sir, that's "Little Martha." Stunning. Full band, and yes sir, that would be "Les Brers in A Minor," which gets tonight's drums breakdown for its middle. We're rolling. We have "Good Clean Fun" a good, clean, fun placeholder and then Chuck returns for a scintillating, locked-and-loaded "Can't Lose What You Never Had," among several sturdy blues nuggets that seems with every playing a song Gregg should insist on wresting from semi-retirement.
Now we're way deep into this mofo. What next? Well, for starters, an unidentified individual, a real country blues looking fellow in a flannel shirt and suspenders, has climbed aboard the left drum platform, taking over for Jaimoe. He goes largely unnoticed, and you have to bloody well watch the drums and percussion stations because there always seems to be someone stepping up for a stealth sit-in. Turns out it's no less than Jimmy Cobb, who once anchored an obscure, y' know, ensemble with some trumpeter named, y' know, Miles, knocking fills into "Desdemona." It's a long, hefty, exhausting version of this ABB neo-classic, Chuck playing bar blues equalizer between Derek's dark, lilting sheets of guitar tone and Warren's murkier, down-to-earth counterweight.
About time for a rip-roaring closer. "Mountain Jam" is a heady possibility, but something more uptempo and Chuck-era "Revival" would be the betting man's guess feels closer. Then, "Jessica," and with the opening notes the audience hurls its collective joy and surprise at the stage, embracing the musicians for their well-placed audacity. It's heavenly, and giddily rocking away, and although both Warren and Derek knock it out of the park (and twine-up for a bit of "Mountain Jam" riffage toward the song's close), this is Chuck's tune, pure and simple. As the song's head ebbs into the cacophonous cluster of notes and licks that will yield the solos, he begins banging away, leading us to believe that he will take it slow and then when the tune picks up speed it will go to the guitars, and then suddenly, with the band surging behind him, tears into the familiar scale-climbing that has provided the soundtrack for so many buck-ten automobile joy rides down open-horizon highways.
Encore time, and we're pushing midnight, and the horns return. "Southbound" for sure, and Butch, Jaimoe and Marc begin a snappy, chugging pattern that proves it. Stage right piano seat is filled, but not by Chuck, and as the new figure becomes visible, Warren announces the one and only Page McConnell, who looks thrilled as all hell to be there. Mule anchor Matt Abts also creeps up behind Jaimoe's kit, largely unnoticed (you were warned about paying attention!)
It's a predictable blaster, and Chris Anderson, who missed the "Same Thing" solo train hours earlier, is first up to bat, leading off with a big, brassy blast of trumpet and some incendiary licks. Derek is next, all electric current, and then Anderson's co-trumpeter, Mark "The Loveman" Pender cocks his head back and proceeds to out-blat his colleague. Then, Page, who is too low in the mix and needs a few seconds to find his footing, but manages to keep the energy humming with some piquant, Squirming Coil progressions. A trainwreck threatens as heads turn wildly around, so La Bamba picks up the groove, while Warren quickly comes over to direct traffic, gesturing at the saxophones to do a little interplay before he solos. All goes swimmingly, and Warren toys for a moment with the idea of playing rapid pass-the-hat with everyone onstage, but then decides (wisely) against it and instead he and Derek start playing together and the whole ensemble starts whipping into a frenzy, paving the way for Gregg's vocal catharsis after about 20 seconds of swell.
They exit the stage, but lights still down. "They're not done!" Chuck returns, and there's no question what it's going to be. "Layla," during which, as the tune winds out of its pummeling front end, the crowd and guitarists look to Gregg, who in turn looks up, and gives the nod to Chuck, who brings the tune to a confluent, majestic close underneath a soaring, high register Derek solo. There's nothing more to say, and plenty of rich memories to bask in thereafter.