The Big House Benefit, Beacon Theater, NYC- 3/22
In past years, the Allman Brothers Band have pumped the Sopranos’ theme through the PA before each Beacon Theater performance. More than a nod to a quality television show, this Sopranos’ anthem doubled as the ABB’s unofficial soundtrack —- a tale of hard living and even harder partying. In fact, in more ways than one, the Allman Brothers Band itself feels strangely reminiscent of a mafia-organization—-a collective of blue-collar wise guys linked more like family than business associates.
So, it's a shame that the Allman Brothers Band didn't play the popular show's theme before its late March benefit at the Beacon Theater. One of two high profile "family gatherings" —-the other being April's Wanee Music Festival——The Big House Show brought a handful of Allman Brothers offshoots onto a single stage: Jaimoe's Jasss Band, Oteil and the Peacemakers, Derek Trucks Band and Gov't Mule. And, in addition to offering seven hours of near-continuous music, The Big House Show served as an all-family sendoff, closing out the Allman's eleventh multi-night spring run at the uptown theater. While numerous stylistic sects exist with jam-nation, the Allman Brothers Band is one of the few acts to spur a sub-genre comprised entirely of its own extended family. Indeed, for the many fans who shelled out nearly $1000 in ticket fees alone to witness the Allman Brothers' entire run, this evening must have felt like a single day Bonnaroo, compacting the overstuffed excitement of the festival season into a single evening event.
One of the most tightly organized concerts in recent memory, The Big House Show clicked like clockwork, starting on time (actually a bit early) and gradually expanding its set lengths to meet each performer's demand. Boasting five acts, the benefit's "cheap seats" seemed like a steal ($70 bucks a pop, plus surcharges), especially when compared to the Allman's usual ticket price ($65 bucks a pop, plus surcharges). Yet, for some reason, this Beacon show actually felt empty, with scattered seats available in the balcony well past show time. Perhaps, after nine performances and numerous post-shows, even the hardcorest core Peach-heads needed a break. Or, more likely, the previous evening's guest-studded, break-out heavy performance convinced a good portion of the walkup crowd to stay at home and wager on another type of March Madness. But, either way, it seemed strangely fitting for the Big House Show to be a more intimate gathering, comprised of longtime friends and family, instead of big name celebrities like Bruce Willis and the Sopronos’ Big Pussy.
For those unfamiliar with Big House, the story goes something like this: In 1969, Linda Oakley, eager to move out of the small apartment she shared with her husband Berry, rented a turn of the century tudor house located at 2321 Vineville Avenue in Macon, GA. Inviting several members of the Allman's extended family to move in, including Gregg and Duane, the Oakley's created a fraternal living environment which, in turn, helped cement the Brothers' familial-feel. Dubbed The Big House, the three-story home served as the Allman Brothers Band's communal stomping ground for much of the early 1970s.
20-years later, Kirk and Kirsten West purchased The Big House and have spent the past 12 years refashioning the tudor as a three-dimensional shrine. And, on this night, the Big House Foundation made strides towards turning the Brothers' former estate into a proper museum, hosting a guest-laden benefit concert at the Allman's unofficial New York home, the Beacon Theater. In addition to performances by Allman-offshoots Jaimoe's Jassss Band, Oteil and the Peacemakers, Derek Trucks Band and Gov't Mule, the Allman Brothers offered an abbreviated two-hour show, which stretched from midnight until nearly 2 AM.
The evening's early highlights arrived in small bundles. Dressed in a collared shirt and slacks, Allman Brothers drummer Jaimoe led a small ensemble through a series of horn colored jazz numbers. With the house lights still on, Jaimoe's group played a cocktail style set, soothing audience members as they made their way into the historic theater. Perhaps the Allman Brothers' most reserved member, Jaimoe has been the group's bedrock since its inception, staying true to his bandmate's despite their rocky career paths and struggles with addictions. Performing in front of an evening's worth of gear, Jaimoe's solo set is likely the closest the drummer has come to the lip of the Beacon's proscenium stage, smiling quietly like a proud grandfather watching his extended family gather together for the first time. Oteil Burbridge followed with a set by the Peacemakers, a spiritual jamband layered with bits of southern funk and gospel. Besides getting the bassist's often repetitive vocal scats out of the way early on, Burbridge's abbreviated set served as a showcase for his compositional abilities. Containing several numbers originally intended for the Allmans, but nixed in favor of the new tracks that compose Hittin’ the Note, Burbrige’s solo canon is actually quite ripe. While his bass style in the Peacemakers is reminiscent of his work with the Allmans, Burbidge’s solo material leans more heavily on gospel and light blues—-numbers which sonically match the tie-dyed cross which colors his shirt. But, without sounding preachy, Burbridge delivered a strong religious message, turning out a set of tight, heartfelt gospel set. Perhaps the highlight of the evening’s four openers, Derek Trucks Band offered an hour-long performance, highlighted by the slightly world-beat jazz drumming of Yonrico Scott. A choice reading of The Sound of Music’s "My Favorite Things" served as a single-song highlight, while Trucks' slide-guitar remained consistently excellent throughout the evening.
A second headliner of sorts, Gov't Mule offered a ninety minute performance packed mostly with its own anthems. Perhaps a conscious move to distance his band from the Allman Brothers, who performed next, Haynes' setlist leaned on the darker, more rock- oriented material first presented on Deja Voodoo. Also the evening's first three-dimensional personality, Haynes stole the crowd early on, forking his fingers into a peace sign and shredding "Blind Man in the Dark" into two distinct numbers. While the current Mule configuration is a departure from Haynes' original Cream-influenced power trio, drummer Matt Abts remains the group's backbone. Firmly grounding the quartet in rock-and-roll, and filling in much of the group's sound, Abts is a powerful player, whose elevated rig further adds force to his muscular style. A piece of fun trivia from Warren Haynes: Shortly after Gov't Mule's inception, Allen Woody, Matt Abts and Haynes took a trip to The Big House to tighten their early repertoire. During their visit, Haynes stayed in Duane Allman's room, while Woody occupied Oakley's former living quarters. Forging another connection to the Allman Brothers past, Haynes also invited ex-Allman Chuck Leavell onstage for a version of "Soulshine," proving that this Allman anthem unquestionably belongs to its author: Haynes.
More than a fine appetizer, each opener act dissected an element of the Allman Brothers' collective sound. While over a dozen musicians have passed through the Allman Brothers ranks since 1969, few have fully intergraded themselves as much as the Brothers current crop of "second generation" players. Between his six-string axe and his melodic bass plucks, Burbridge is the perfect Allman Brothers bassist—-a lead instrumentalist willing to work within a two-guitar configuration. Often called the reincarnation of Duane Allman, Derek Trucks has mastered the slide cry of his forefather, perhaps even surpassing his role model's technical skill. While the addition a young would question another band's authenticity, Trucks' blood ties to drummer Butch Trucks and a decade of occasional appearances make him the perfect candidate. The Allman Brothers de facto frontman, Haynes has proved his weight time-and-time again—-reviving the Allman Brothers after a sluggish few years which ended in Dickey Betts' untimely departure. Like the mafia, it takes years of casual collaborations to truly enter the Allman's family.
Speaking of Betts, the group's former lead guitarist floated around the Beacon like a ghost, appearing on camera during a televised Big House history lesson and spiritually guiding a revival of his best-instrumental, "Jessica." And, while the crowd screamed his name between each set, Betts seemed to "sleep with the fish" in the minds of his former bandmates. In fact, Betts is the only former founding Brother not interviewed during the Big House's retrospective and remains conspicuously absent from the foundation's board of directors. While the modern day Allman Brothers are unquestionably tighter and more adventurous than the 1990s incarnation, Betts' departure severed the country-rock coloring which is an essential ingredient in the Brothers' patented sound. His absence also forcibly retired a handful of the ABB's best compositions, including some of its biggest hits: "Ramblin' Man" and "Blue Sky" (revived for the first time in years this fall). Even a rare reading of "Jessica" colored by Leavell, its original pianist, lacked the high refrain chirp of Betts' signature guitar.
But, judging by its performance, it's hard to argue with the Allman Brothers Band's current lineup decision. A quick setlist scan reveals any number of anthems: "Revival," "Ain't Wasting time No More," "Melissa," "Dreams," "Jessica," "Statesboro Blues," and "One Way Out." Nodding to the evening's overriding theme-family, former Brother Leavell signed autographs in the lobby pre-show before appearing on "Stormy Monday" and "Jessica." Later in the evening another Allmans-alumnus, Johnny Neel joined for a set-closing take on "One Way Out." A grand gesture, Oteil Burbridge offered his bass to Berry Oakley Jr., son of the late-Allman's founder, on "Statesboro Blues" and "One Way Out." From afar, the Allman Brothers' setlist looks standard. With the exception of "Jessica," played only during Leavell's occasional cameos, the group left the oddball breakouts on the previous night's setlist. Instead, the septet relied on the somewhat melancholy blue-rock which has characterized its sets since at least 2000.
Though still a vital organist, these days Greg Allman's voice is his chief instrument. Once a young, blonde rock-star, Allman has aged into one of the many world-wary wonderers who color his words. Stepping out from behind his organ to play guitar on an elegent rendition of "Melissa," Allman appeared closer in size to the late-great Pig Pen, his organ foil in the Grateful Dead, than the skinny hippie pictorially fossilized in a swamp along with his Brothers. Yet, despite his years of addiction and self-abuse, Allman remains an engaging icon, able to channel his age through his throaty voice. And, though on occasion he may rein in some of the group's jams, Allman's dedication to song craft has helped the Brothers age into a consistently tight unit, able to balance improvisation with more carefully composed moments.
Given the evening's abbreviated format, several Allman show staples were edited out of the group's set: drum jams, acoustic ballads and war-horse runs through "Whipping Post." Yet, the Brothers added enough spectacle to give the evening a bit of extra umph Late in the evening, Trey Anastasio made his first appearance with the Allman Brothers Band, adding his guitar to an encore version of "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed." Essentially regulating himself to a support role, Anastasio's presence reinvigorated an upper balcony comprised mainly of teens and twenty-something's. Yet, like many of the former Phish guitarist's visits with elder statesmen, he remained in the shadows—- using his appearance more to pay his respects than to truly make his presence known.
After the song's final note, the Allman Brother's Beacon run itself became a memory and the theater's staff began to pack up the large, inflatable mushroom which fills its lobby each March. A handful of fans paraded to nearby waterholes, creating their own encores, as "Midnight Rider" spilled out of countless west side juke-joints. In an ever changing city, it's comforting to know that the Allman Brothers will always return for a month of March Madness. It's also nice to remember that jam-nation is capable of producing fully realized songs, which have survived for over three decades. And, even though the Allman Brothers Band has changed its opening theme, it's nice to know that its closing credits remain the same: the sweat guitar plucks of Dunne Allman's "Little Martha" —- a haunting encore preserved on record by a long lost founding Brother.