2014 marks the 45th anniversary of the Allman Brothers Band and it has become their final year. The band did not embark on an extensive final tour. Instead they played their annual residency at the Beacon Theatre in New York City, which was cut short due to Gregg Allman being ill, plus they played a handful of festival dates and scheduled no more shows until the make-up dates were announced for the Beacon run. The Allman Brothers Band is now in the midst of its final 6 shows, including make-up dates from March plus a few extras, all being played at the Beacon Theatre. Fans, like me, hoping for a big blowout at a large venue have been left disappointed. The band has not even made arrangements to stream the shows on line for their worldwide legion of devoted fans, many of whom have never seen the band live due to the limited geographical area of their yearly touring over the last 15 years.
In many ways it seems like the band is going out with a whimper and catering to the most affluent among their fans. The tickets sold out quickly, yet as of Tuesday October 21, 2014, Stub Hub had 1193 tickets available ranging from $177 to a whopping $11,005. Obviously the band doesn’t set prices on Stub Hub, but if they played a big venue with 20,000 seats available they could have curbed the costs and made the final show more accessible to their fans. Yes, I’m a little aggravated by the demise of my favorite band and their nonchalant attitude as they fade away. Maybe it’s best they’re calling it a day. They may play different sets every night but they lean heavily on their first four albums, play way too many Van Morrison covers, and in recent years have performed the At Fillmore East album in full several times as well as their first two records and Eat A Peach. The band regularly ignores a large part of its discography, for personal and musical reasons, and often so does the press. It’s almost like the band stopped making new music in 1973. While the band has made musical missteps since 1973, it has also made incredibly vital music, and some of it, especially in the 1990’s, eclipses the classics and radio staples.
As a tribute to The Allman Brothers Band on the occasion of their retirement, I am taking a look at some of the reviled and under-rated records in their catalog. We’re looking at the first reunion, “Arista years,” and the live albums that stand in the shadow of At Fillmore East – which, for the record, is not titled Live At Fillmore East, Live At The Fillmore, Fillmore East, or any of the other variants I’ve seen and heard fans use. If you’re going to claim an album as your absolute favorite, learn the title of it!
The Allman Brothers Band
Released February 1979
Enlightened Rogues, named after Duane Allman’s description of the band, is a buried masterpiece in the Allman Brothers Band’s discography. From the gritty opening slide notes of “Crazy Love” to the final mournful strains of “Sail Away,” the record delivers the perfect balance of its first two eras – hard blues and swinging jazz rock. The tracks are streamlined and there are no long jams, but there never really were on the studio albums. On Enlightened Rogues, everyone seemed focused on making the best possible album and it paid off for a while.
The band had been split for several years and made their first appearance together on August 16, 1978 as part of a Dickey Betts & Great Southern show. Shortly after they decided to regroup and pick up where they left off. Chuck Leavell and Lamar Williams declined to rejoin, instead focusing on their band Sea Level, so the first reunion lineup added Great Southern members Dan Toler and David “Rook” Goldflies on guitar and bass, respectively. The legendary Tom Dowd was brought in to produce the album and pulled a terrific album out of a band learning to fly again. The overall sound and the tightness of the musicians on the record owe much to the two previous Great Southern records. Dickey Betts had put together a twin-guitar band modeled on the original Allman Brothers lineup and been on the road playing bluesy rock boogie tunes and mega-jams with Toler and Goldflies. When it came time to get down to business, the front line of guitarists had been playing together for a while.
The band tears through a host of bluesy tunes on Enlightened Rogues, momentarily stepping away from the country rock sound of Win, Lose, Or Draw. Gregg Allman is menacing on B.B. King’s “Blind Love” and plays a spirited Hammond B3 solo. The guitar team burns bright and hot on “Need Your Love So Bad,” and they funk up the John Lee Hooker boogie on “Can’t Take It With You.” Gregg Allman’s only composition on the record is “Just Ain’t Easy” which is a scathing look at his time lost in Los Angeles with Cher. It is harrowing, haunting and beautiful. “Try It One More Time” is a bit of a mission statement from the band and a mark of solidarity between Dickey Betts and Gregg Allman. The two share lead vocals which had not been done before. The sound of their voices together on this rollicking, defiant rocker is perfect. Given all we know now about their relationship it’s a wonder they were able to pull it off.
The musical highlight of Enlightened Rogues is “Pegasus.” This instrumental is the return to form every fan was hoping for. The lilting Dickey Betts melody played by two lead guitarists, churning drums, and scorching solos all contribute to the greatness of this lost highpoint. The combination of the title and music give it a feeling of flying above the Grand Canyon on the mythical beast. If you do one thing today, find this song and listen to it. A lot.
My only problem with this album is the lack of distinction in the guitar tones of Dickey Betts and Dan Toler. Dan Toler was a hell of a guitar player and you’ll see this if you watch live clips of the band or listen to the Gregg Allman band records from the 80’s, but on Enlightened Rogues he sounds like Dickey Betts. Dickey plays a lot of slide guitar on the record and has noted that the Allman Brothers’ sound was built on Duane’s slide mixed with own iconic tone. Maybe the band was trying to capture this. It didn’t quite work because Dickey’s tone seems to come out of him whether he’s playing a Les Paul, SG, or Strat so on Enlightened Rogues we end up with Dickey Betts and a guy who sounds like Dickey Betts. It’s a damned shame because the playing on this record is red hot and I’d like to know who’s who without studying it. Still, the songs are solid and the performances are spirited. Enlightened Rogues is stands on equal footing with the bands early records. Unfortunately, the band doesn’t think so and has all but ignored it since 1982. Don’t be like them, check it out.
The Allman Brothers Band
Reach For The Sky
Released August 1980
1979 to 1982 was a crazy time for the Allman Brothers Band. It is an era that has become known as The Arista Years and the band, as well as many fans, never acknowledges it. I became a fan in the 80’s while the band was defunct. I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to like the Arista Years. I found the two Arista albums and Enlightened Rogues early on and enjoyed them quite a bit. I still do. It was a tumultuous time for the band and the new record company wanted the band to modernize its sound. As the 80’s crept in so did the synthesizers – and the dreaded Keytar. However, if you take away the poppy synths there’s a pretty solid rock and roll record underneath.
Even with their lives in total disarray, these guys managed to write good songs with some even bordering on great. The record starts with churning organ and gospel “oohs.” It’s a tent revival in Macon, Georgia folks and the Reverends Forrest Richard Betts and Gregory Lenoir Allman are about to start a Pentecostal fire under your ass that will most likely end in a fist fight. The two men share vocals on this semi-autobiographical funky gospel romp. The words include the phrase “they might even name a street after us one of these days.” The line sums up the entitled rock star attitude they had at the time, but this year (2014) Duane Allman had a street named after him in Macon, GA so it was slightly prophetic as well. “Mystery Woman” starts off sounding a little lightweight, but it turns into a punchy tune. It has excellent vocal work from Gregg Allman and backup singers. “I Got A Right To Be Wrong” is a rocking tune from Dickey Betts, but unfortunately it confirmed that his guitar playing was growing stagnant. It marks the second album in a row to use the same slide riff as a primary lick. The riff is the same one used on “Crazy Love,” which itself was derived from the Dickey Betts & Great Southern song “Out Ta Get Me.” You hear stock Dickey Betts licks all over Reach For The Sky which is a shame. It does make it easier to know when Dan Toler is playing since his tone remains the same as Dickey’s. Most of the fiery, hard hitting soloing is Dan’s.
Once again Dickey Betts crafted a terrific instrumental for the record. “From The Madness Of The West” is a sonic poem, traveling in the air over the American plains. The drumming is superb. Butch Trucks and Jaimoe have said this song was the only time they composed their drum parts. Their work on this track is probably the highlight of the album. Dickey Betts and Dan Toler go for the speed records during the transitional phrases between the melodic themes. It sounds like Al DiMeola jamming with the Allmans and it’s terrific. The song is marred only by Mike Lawler’s synthesizer solo. The keyboard was not meant to have its notes bent. Stop doing it. Immediately. Thank you. I now return you to Dickey and Dan. Rip it up boys.
A lot of side two suffers from the pop-rock movement desired by Arista Records. “Famous Last Words” would be a cool stomping rocker if not for the horrible synthesizer ruing the riff. “Keep On Keepin’ On”is a tune that would seem at home on one of Gregg Allman’s 80’s solo albums. It’s a solid song with a sweet guitar solo. “So Long” also sounds like it would have fared better on I’m No Angel. It’s a mournful ballad that comes alive nicely with an extended jam as a coda. Unfortunately the harmonica player sounds like he may have never heard of Little Walter, which is just criminal.
Reach For The Sky is not a great record but it is an enjoyable record. Fans clinging to the glory days of At Fillmore East will find nothing to like here. However, if you can get past the fact that Duane and Berry are dead, the music business is a business first and foremost, and sometimes you just have to do what the record company wants you might enjoy this album. You also have to get past the Keytar. Did I mention the Keytar? Stick with side one and “So Long” from side two and you won’t feel like you’ve ventured too far from “Enlightened Rogues” territory.
The Allman Brothers Band
Brothers Of The Road
Released August 1981
Gregg Allman in a Hawaiian shirt, a guy in camouflage, and no Jaimoe on the cover pretty much signifies the end of the line for most people. It looks like they took everybody from the DMV waiting room outside on a hill and took their picture. If you never got past the cover I can’t blame you. It’s horrible. But again, it is not a bad record. Yeah, maybe it’s a bad Allman Brothers record but when taken in context of the business at the time, the state of the members, and the sound and styles of their collective output – including solo albums – up to this point, it is quite Allmany. And hey, the Keytar seems to have been boxed up and sent to Hell where it belongs.
“Brothers Of The Road” starts off with some terse chords and an answering riff. The synthesizers of Reach For The Sky have been replaced with a piano, there are harmony guitars all over the place, and Dickey and Dan both put a few blisters on the fingers from the heat coming off their fretboards. This is one of my favorites from the Arista Years. “Leavin’” has a churning riff and bass line and Gregg Allman delivers a tough vocal performance. “Leavin’” is a great song and I always thought it would kick all kinds of ass in the hands of the modern line-up. “Leavin’” is also the last song performed live before the band broke up in 1982. They played the song on Saturday Night Live in January 1982 and this lineup was never heard from again. Who said “good riddance?”
Gregg Allman is the star of this record even though he only wrote three songs for it. He delivers strong performances throughout. He gives his all, even on a song like “Straight From The Heart.” Again, if you look at his solo output, you’ll see Gregg likes this kind of song – a wistful love song. Yes, it’s a little poppy, and they lip synched it on Solid Gold but why let that keep you from enjoying it? His composition “Never Knew How Much” became a staple of their live set for a while. Usually Gregg, and Dan Toler would perform it on acoustic guitars. It’s an excellent song and it too deserves your attention.
Would you like to hear the “Out Ta Get Me/Crazy Love/ I Got A Right To Be Wrong” slide riff again? You get the chance in “The Heat Is On.” If Dickey played any other slide lick, this song would be a hundred times better. He does play some nice slide fills in “Things You Used To Do” which is another solid track. Dickey did come through with some good tunes though even if his leads are lacking anything bordering on new. “The Judgment” is a barnstormer. Dickey sings his ass off. His voice is strong and proud as he sings about standing your ground.
Of the two Arista records, Brothers Of The Road is stronger. The synthesizers are almost completely absent. Mike Lawler plays a lot of piano on this record and it makes everything sound better. The songs are well crafted and played with energy you wouldn’t expect from a band in turmoil. Again, if you’re someone advocating playing At Fillmore East for the aliens when they land, you’ll probably hate this record. The moral of the story is this: the Allman Brothers Band is more than their first few albums. All of their albums have memorable moments and musical magic. You do yourself, and the band, a disservice by ignoring it.
The Allman Brothers Band
Wipe The Windows, Check The Oil, Dollar Gas
Released November 1976
Wipe The Windows, Check The Oil, Dollar Gas was shortly released after the Allman Brothers Band dissolved in a stew of acrimony, drug addiction, Federal convictions, rock star egos, and record company avarice. Unfortunately this meant the band had little or no input in their second live album. When the band broke up they were still riding the wave of popularity created by “Ramblin’ Man” and the Brothers And Sisters album. They were one of the most popular bands in the United States and were selling out stadiums around the country. To many, this was a hasty, rough-shod album slapped together to make money off the band’s name and it probably was exactly that. However it contains incredible music.
The tracks are taken from a handful of concerts recorded between December 1972 and October 1975. Sides one and two are taken from a now legendary show at Winterland in San Francisco on September 26, 1973. The full show has since been released as part of the Brothers And Sisters anniversary box set. The four songs make a tremendous case for the mid-70’s lineup of Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts, Jaimoe, Butch Trucks, Chuck Leavell, and Lamar Williams. The hard blues has been left behind and in its place is a softer, happier jazzy sound. “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” clocks in at 17 minutes and features extended soloing from pianist Chuck Leavell. In his hands the piece becomes a Latin jazz classic as his lines bop, dip, and swing over the caliente drumming of Trucks and Jaimoe. Dickey Betts proceeds to hold a master class in solo building that amply illustrates why he is routinely included in Greatest Guitarist lists. This is Allman Brothers Fusion at its best. “Wasted Words” spits venom in the lyrics but the music is upbeat and the band seems hell bent on having a good time. Leavell’s piano lines cascade like waterfalls and Betts lays down hot licks on slide reminiscent of his late sparring partner Duane Allman. “Ramblin’ Man” gets an extended treatment and Dickey soars with a roller coaster rush of hexatonic soloing that will leave you breathless.
“Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More” was recorded at The Warehouse in New Orleans on December 31, 1972, just two months after the loss of bassist Berry Oakley. Once again they defiantly picked themselves up and grieved through their music. Gregg Allman puts a lot of passion and pain in his singing, and Dickey Betts slide playing approaches the heavens. The album closes with a rousing version of “Jessica” that seems impossible given the bad blood in the band at the time of its recording in October 1975. I’ve heard many versions of “Jessica” over the years and while this one is not the best it is damned good and any version with Chuck Leavell is worth hearing. He gives us our money’s worth here. His piano work is supreme. This version of the band often gets over looked and while Chuck Leavell is known and loved by many fans, Lamar Williams gets almost no love. His bass playing is ferocious, funky, and harmonically interesting. He plays what every song needs and on occasion he drives the jams on Wipe The Windows… You can hear more of his great playing on the archival release Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, NY: 5/1/73 and on the Brothers And Sisters 40th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition Box Set.
Wipe The Windows… isn’t the heavy blues/jazz workout of At Fillmore East and it shouldn’t be. They already did that. Comparisons are ill advised and detract from the value of everything that has come since. Wipe The Windows… captures a swinging, jazzy, country-tinged, rock band at the height of its success. The record features great songs and many stunning performances from everyone in the band. To forget this album is to forget a masterful band and its beautiful music.
The Allman Brothers Band
An Evening With The Allman Brothers Band 1st Set
Released June 9, 1992
The Allman Brothers Band returned in 1989 for a tour to support their Dreams box set and celebrate their 20th anniversary. The surviving original members Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts, Jaimoe, and Butch Trucks were joined by newcomer Allen Woody on bass and Dickey Betts Band alums Warren Haynes and Johnny Neel. Warren Haynes and Allen Woody were students of the Allman Brothers Band, wearing out the old records and learning the songs front to back. No one knew where it would go but the tour was successful, the band was happy playing powerful music again and decided to record an album – Seven Turns. After a few years and another studio record – Shades Of Two Worlds – they were feeling pretty good about the band and decided the third record from this lineup, like the original lineup, would be a live album. Keyboardist Johnny Neel was gone and percussionist Marc Quinones was added. This new lineup recorded shows in Macon, GA, Boston, MA and New York, NY for the album. The result is a blistering tour de force of improvisation that crushed any doubts that the Allman Brothers Band of old had been resurrected.
The album leans heavily on newer material, with three of nine songs coming from Shades Of Two Worlds. This shows the band was confident about their new material and they had good reason. Opener “End Of The Line” has two incredibly bad-ass riffs. Gregg Allman sings from his soul about his continuing trouble with drugs and alcohol, Warren Haynes’s slide solo sings the saddest song you’ve ever heard, and the coda has Dickey Betts and Warren Haynes sparring like Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed. You can’t open a live album any better. “Get On With Your Life” is a modern blues classic from the band. Dickey Betts tone is so rich and thick and glorious it will make you cry.
The truly astonishing moments on this album come during “Nobody Knows.” “Nobody Knows” is one of the best songs ever recorded by the Allman Brothers Band. Its power is rivaled only by “Whipping Post” from which it drew inspiration and is a bit of a contentious point between Messrs. Allman and Betts. This fifteen minute workout extends the tune by half. If you play it too loud you may incite the apocalypse. Dickey Betts plays some of his greatest licks ever in this song. He builds crescendo after crescendo, pummeling you into submission. Just when you can’t take it anymore they kick back into the main riff just long enough for you to catch your breath and then boom goes the Warren Haynes. This is the dream team Duane and Dickey would have become if Duane lived. They are powerful, harmonic, melodic, and demonic.
Other high points include a funkier arrangement of “Southbound” with Dickey Betts singing and a colossal rending of “Dreams.” “Dreams” is a thing of beauty. It is a lullaby for giants. Warren Haynes captures the feel and spirit of Duane Allman’s original slide work and adds his own brilliance to it. Warren’s incredible talent, boundless energy, and immeasurable command of improvisation drove Dickey Betts to be a better player and in the early 90’s this guitar tandem was matchless. An Evening With The Allman Brothers Band 1st Set rarely leaves the CD player in my guitar room. It is without a doubt the Allman Brothers album I have listened to most. I love At Fillmore East and I understand its historic importance, and I agree it is one of the greatest live albums of all time, but it was a snapshot of an evolving band. They were young and still learning. If Duane Allman and Berry Oakley didn’t die who knows where it would have led? With 1st Set I think we get a pretty good glimpse of where it would have gone. The band is matured, playing better with the benefit of years on the road together and apart, and with injection of some young players the band is energetic, powerful, and soaring.
The Allman Brothers Band
An Evening With The Allman Brothers Band 2nd Set
Released May 9, 1995
Supposedly 2nd Set was to come out shortly after 1st Set but we’re talking about the Allman Brothers Band and one constant in their universe is trouble. Dickey Betts and Gregg Allman were drinking and drugging and not getting along. Warren Haynes put out a solo album in 1993 creating speculation he was leaving the band. Dickey Betts did leave the band on occasion for various reasons, sitting out a few tours here and there. All these things led to the delay. When Dickey came back full time, the band recorded the stellar Where It All Begins album and embarked on a tour. A few dates in summer of 1994 were recorded and in 1995 came An Evening With The Allman Brothers Band 2nd Set. This time four of eight songs would be from the latest album.
The baddassery begins with the thunderous drop-D riffing of “Sailin’ ‘Cross The Devil’s Sea.” Gregg Allman is in strong voice, belting out his tale of woe and Warren Haynes slides up and down the fretboard. Percussionist Marc Quinones adds dramatically to this song with his accents and flourishes. Betts and Haynes have the gain turned way up and the tones are as nasty as Tijuana toilet seat. “You Don’t Love Me” is shortened considerably from its At Fillmore East version and it is all the better for it. The Brothers deliver six and a half minutes of barnstorming blues, with Dickey and Warren upping the ante bar after bar. “Soulshine” has taken on a life of its own since its emergence. This live version is uplifting and heartbreaking and the interwoven solos at the end with cut you to the core. This is music as release; pure and simple.
“In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” is an acoustic performance and is simply brilliant. The recording is crystal clear and Allen Woody manages to bring the thunder even on acoustic bass. The Latin feel of the song lends itself to an acoustic arrangement and the band exceeds already high expectations for this song. Warren Haynes takes lead vocal on his arrangement of Willie Dixon’s “The Same Thing.” The arrangement features harmony guitars and riffs never heard in the original. It is a terrific re-write; at once a blues standard and Allman Brothers classic. The disc closes with the Grammy winning performance of “Jessica.” For as much as I love the Betts/Haynes duo, I still can’t get all the way into “Jessica” without Chuck Leavell. This is an epic version but it’s all guitar, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it’s got to have piano. I’d take the version from Wipe The Windows… over this one any day.
While this album is full of intense music, the best part for me is “Back Where It All Begins.” Dickey’s peaceful ode to the band’s audience turns into a churning juggernaut of full-band musical exploration. “Back Where It All Begins” is a perfect song. The melody is catchy, the structure is simple, and the lyrics invite a singalong. For my money, this song contains Warren Haynes’ greatest guitar solo. He spent years as an apprentice with David Allan Coe and in Dickey Betts Band. He came into the Allman Brothers as the hot young guitarist, fired up and ready to go. He went toe to toe with the master night after night and in “Back Where It All Begins” he brings everything he learned together in one epic solo that became part of the DNA of the song. Live he stretches the solo out but the changes from the studio version feel like they should have been there all along. He builds his solo to a crescendo and signals its end with a dynamic motif based on the main melody and chords of the bridge. It is brilliant. I almost feel bad for Dickey Betts having to follow it, but it’s Dickey Betts. He rises to the occasion beautifully. The heights achieved in this song and this album are a fitting cap on the legacy of this lineup.