Allman Brothers Band, Beacon Theatre, NYC- 3/26
14 of 14
And so it was a kind Sunday night in New York that we returned to pay annual homage to the Upper West Side temple and found our spring-harbinger heroes in superb fettle for the fourteenth of 14 three-and-half-our plus Beacon throwdowns.
The Beacon, for me at least, is a tractor beam. I think I'm going to deny it every year, because of expense, or convenience, or even experience (have we seen it all with the Allmans yet?). Then, without fail, the band tacks on a final show to whatever shows have already been announced and are already close to sold out, and I reclaim my near-vocational yearning for getting to the last night.
Unlike last year's full-length run ender, the night before the Big House Benefit that yielded such wad-shooter breakouts as "Jessica," "Blue Sky," "Les Brers" and "Little Martha" as well as an inexhaustible roster of guests, tonight's close was a less-scrutable animal. It was just as rewarding, however (maybe even more so) for the discriminating Allman Brothers palette. It wasn't as if the band scrimped on the guests 'n' surprises quotient either; there were four add-ons that had come and gone even before the first set wrapped, and the night's only announced guest, John Hammond, hadn't even appeared yet.
A sense of history pervaded this year's Beacon run. It always does, of course, to a certain extent (the Beacon is always about family, friends and past Beacon runs), but the selection of new songs, curious renderings of old favorites and the staggering overall guest list suggested an embrace of timelines: the Allmans more consciously linking the original band with the band of today in more direct and fitting ways than merely providing top-notch versions of all the ABB live warhorses.
The circle remains unbroken, in other words, and folks who complain about too many guests or too many new covers didn't quite pick up what the band was trying to lay down, what with so many of its stylistic progenitors, "classic rock" peers, family members and younger-guard turks stepping up. Former King Curtis Kingpins showing up for "Memphis Soul Stew" wasn't just for the hell of it. "The Weight," "Shake for Me" and "Anyday" weren’t selected just ‘cause they’re classics. Devon Allman being the one to sing "the road goes on forever" line during his appearance on "Midnight Rider" probably wasn't an accident. These types of things were in many ways seemed as fitting and deliberate as playing "At Fillmore East" front to back on its 35th anniversary (March 13).
And how about the heavy, heavy prevalence of jazz in all that the Allman Brothers of 2006 do? It was more dominant than ever this year, and not merely because the band chose to collaborate with not one, but two former John Coltrane drummers, in addition to the sax legend's progeny.
What the Allman Brothers lack is definitive new original material—it's been three years since "Hittin' the Note" and feels like a decade—and no band is more effective at obscuring that fact by sounding so fresh and re-realized every year. In lieu of that, however, the band is starting to mess with both the old and latter day catalog again, even if it's just little things, like Haynes taking over lead vocals on "Maydell," or the grittier feel of "Who to Believe," or the emergence of "Can't Lose What You Never Had" and several others as potential-packed longform jam vehicles.
A new intro for "Done Somebody Wrong" was the only misstep on this night: essentially unfocused noodling in a swing tempo that came to a dead stop with the melody's first pummeling notes, not really the tension-filled lead-up it's probably intended as.
Other experiments proved far more successful: a slow, swampy delivery of "The Same Thing" (close to the way Gov't Mule used to play it) threatened to drag and then exploded on the strength of searing guitar work to silence any naysayers. The always-rousing "You Don't Love Me" has for years now been rendered as a chugging swing, but for this run the band has played it in a style closer to the legendary "At Fillmore East" version—sloppier, less refined, with Haynes charging right into the melody and the closing jam sprawling into a series of small-jam convergences instead of coming to a quick, tightened close. Tonight's version closed the first set, complete with the "Soul Serenade" protraction at end. Tasty.
"Afro Blue" was the jam-crux of the first set. Ravi Coltrane's solo was assured—Like His Father, elegant histrionics are a forte—but it felt somewhat cursory and a mite truncated also. The real fireworks were left to Derek and to Living Colour skin beater Will Calhoun, bookending his March 11 appearance in Butch's stead by playing, again on "Afro Blue," opposite another legendary Coltrane drummer. It had been Roy Haynes the first go-round; this time it was Jimmy Cobb, making his second onstage appearance with the ABB.
And of course there was Ron Holloway, who's logged so much time now with both the ABB and its family bands he deserves some sort of honorary membership merit badge. He'd return at the end of the show, but after the "Blue" guests departed met the thick R&B of "The Weight" head-on. Scorching, greasy sax is the former Dizzy Gillespie sideman's raison d'etre.
After a long wait for the back half of the show, Butch Trucks stepped to the mic to announce John Hammond, to whom the band yielded the stage entirely for "My Mind is Rambling." The cheerful, virtuosic Hammond—one of the vanguard interpreters of acoustic blues and a friend of Duane Allman's—was a fun addition, and he was quick to praise his hosts as Derek stepped up on acoustic slide (it had been Warren on Saturday night) to help out on "Stone Pony Blues." The full band then grouped in for a sizzling "Shake for Me," which, like "The Weight" (and Hammond) has Duane-related significance and has proven a well-chosen repertoire addition during the run.
Then, a narsty little surprise: a dirty, dirty "Spoonful" breakout, with Warren playing up the raunch and splitting vocals with both Hammond and Allman, who got a roar of approval when he offered up the song's last verse. Fans who live by the pre-ABB version recorded on the "Dreams" box set got theirs, in other words, and there was more guitar-as-religion from Haynes, who brought the house down with his solo, and the blatty, buoyant brilliance of another perennial guest, the great trombonist Dick Griffin, appearing at stage left next to Oteil.
As the home stretch unfolded, "Melissa" was as sweet as ever, even for the third night in a row, and a dark, thick-spread "Dreams" gave way to "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," that most elastic of Allman Brothers concert warhorses.
Unlike say, "Mountain Jam," which is more a coagulation of ideas and a shifting jam-blob, "Liz Reed" is a serpent: many musical markers that prompt crowd anticipation, including the opening drop into the intro from the three-beat drum hit; the precipice look-and-leap into the fiery, almost Latin boogie the song becomes; the stepped progression that each guitarist uses to signal the end of his improvisational tear; the recalibrating "one-two-threeeee…one-two-three" at the close of Gregg's keyboard solo.
It's similar to "Whipping Post" in those types of aural cues, but because its an instrumental can expand to as long as the band sees fit (drums in the middle of "Whipping," by comparison, would sap all of that song's throttle), and encompass lots of shifting tones and musical textures. "Liz Reed" might be where Derek does his most consistently galvanizing work—his excursion tonight was a coarse, swarthy mindbender of note flurries and bent tones—and it was what lingered, even with typical excellence from Warren and Holloway and an above average thrilling, if typically overlong drums breakdown.
And at last, the "Whipping Post" benediction as encore: rumbling to life, Oteil and the drummers locked in a pulsating, wicked groove as Allman had at the vocals. For Derek, "Whipping Post" seems as of late to become a grand playground for blazing distortion and fuzz-bomb madness, but it was Warren's statelier, no less intense solo that owned it, and it was the crowd's to savor, as another year at the Beacon came to an end.
The founding members of the Allman Brothers Band are gettin' on in years, and the question of exactly how long the band can remain intact is one that can't really be ignored anymore. But then again, seeing Gregg Allman stand up behind his organ, salute the crowd and holler "Same time, next year!" might have created enough of a frisson to outdo any song played that night.