Butch Trucks is not only an original member of the Allman Brothers Band, he is also the most seasoned.
“I have,” he notes, “the distinction of being the only member of the Allman Brothers who has never missed a single show. I have played every single show the Allman Brothers have ever played.” Proudly, Trucks then adds, “I’m the only member of the band that can say that. I feel like the Cal Ripkin of rock n’ roll.”
You would think that a man who can say such a thing might sound a bit tired of it all. After all, the Allman Brothers Band is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Nowadays, most bands do not survive one decade, much less four. The internal frictions, creative differences, financial pressures ...
Keeping a band together must be like keeping a marriage together – times the number of people in the band. And when you add to that list the death of members, personnel changes, the passing of musical fads, a fickle and collapsing music industry, and an increasingly disloyal music audience, you can see just how difficult it would be to keep a band together over the course of forty years. But Butch Trucks is not ready to walk away from it all. In fact, he’s thrilled to still be in the Allman Brothers Band. “When we’re playing, when we’re really, really going ... you’re just in the moment. You’re not thinking about yesterday, tomorrow, or anything else. The brain gets out of the way. Your body just does what it knows how to do, and it’s just ... it’s like a religion.”
To commemorate their anniversary, the band is dedicating this year’s string of shows at New York City’s famed Beacon Theater to Duane Allman, another of the founding members who died at the premature age of 25 in a motorcycle crash in 1971. The Beacon shows have become an annual tradition for both the band and its fans, known not only for the band’s extended and experimental jams, but also for the notable guests who show up to play with the band each night. This year, the guests have included such icons as Levon Helm, Taj Mahal, Trey Anastasio and Page McConnell of Phish, Buddy Guy, and Dave Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos. And that was just during the first half of the shows.
Trucks can’t help but be overjoyed when talking about the company the band keeps. “And then last night,” he says, “Sheryl Crow was there. And then Scott Boyer and Tommy Talton from Cowboy, they were last night, and that was so special. And the night before Bonnie Bramlett and John Hammond, and then Bonnie’s daughter, Becka. We got Susan Tedeschi and Bonnie Bramlett and Becka Bramlett out and did ‘The Weight’ and I mean it was like a revival meeting. It was incredible.”
In fact, the speculation over the possible guests has become as much of the Beacon run experience as the music itself, and Trucks enjoys keeping the fans guessing. Convening in chat rooms and blogs, they act like kids on Christmas Eve, their predictions about who might show up not that different from a child shaking a wrapped gift and guessing about its contents.
“We try to keep the sets fresh and new every night,” he says, “and if we’re gonna repeat a song, we’re gonna change it, and play it different. And, like I said, we like to have people just pop in and surprise people. And it’s not that any of the guests – there’s a couple of pretty big names showing up – and they didn’t ask us to keep it secret. It’s just what we do.”
This year, heightened by the band’s 40th anniversary and the dedication of the shows to Duane Allman, the speculation has reached a fever pitch. Names abound, but the one mentioned the most in all the Internet chatter is Eric Clapton. When asked about whether or not the guitar god would appear, Trucks was deliberately evasive.
“We still got some people coming that are gonna ... and I ain’t gonna tell you who. There’s rumors flying around. Some of them are true, and some of them aren’t. But, like we try to do every year when we play the Beacon, we like to surprise people.”
Clapton, it turns out, did show up to play during the March 19th show. After a first half of the show that included an official dedication to Duane Allman, Clapton came out and honored his former Derek and the Dominos collaborator by joining in on “Key to the Highway”, a Big Bill Broonzy tune they covered on the Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs album.
The highlight of Clapton’s appearance, though, was his interplay during several songs with Derek Trucks, Butch’s nephew, who has been with the Allman Brothers Band for almost a decade now – even though he’s not even thirty. The younger Trucks has also toured with Clapton, and he took the last part of “Layla”, showcasing his slide guitar skills.
When speaking of his nephew, the elder Trucks beams, and while the accolades are warranted, they are nonetheless indicative of an older relative proud of his younger kin.
“I saw Derek four times [playing with Clapton], and during all four shows that I saw him with Clapton, the only time during the show that the crowd came up on their feet and started screaming was at the end of Derek’s solo. And, believe me, I am not in any way at all ...”
Trucks trails off, obviously both grateful to and respectful of Clapton, but still unable to conceal his pride in his nephew. “Eric Clapton has earned all of our respect. He is the greatest. He opened the doors for us. Without Cream, there is no Allman Brothers. But he even said in his autobiography ... he writes about Derek, and the fire that he brings to the stage, and that he’s the best of the new generation.”
But while Trucks is excited to be in the Allman Brothers Band, he’s a bit sour on the music industry, particularly the way fans no longer see anything wrong with downloading music for free, or buying a copy of an album and then burning copies for friends.
“It just drives me crazy because I get people talking about, ‘Well, it’s there,’ and I ask them, ‘Well, what do you do for a living?’ ‘Well, I sell shoes.’ And I say, ‘Well how about I walk into your store, pick up a pair of shoes and walk out without paying for them?’ ‘No, you can’t do that.’ [And I reply], ‘Yeah right, you can’t make a living that way, can you?’ And then I say, ‘Well that’s the way it is with us. We make music.’”
The cumulative effects of people scoring music for free has even affected the way the Allman Brothers Band approach their albums. “In order to do what people call the traditional album ... that’s our money. We have to go into a recording studio and spend a lot of money making that album. And then we put it out, and most people out there feel like it’s theirs, for free. So they just steal it. The last album we made, we spent a couple of hundred thousand dollars in the studio making this album. We put it out, and sold maybe 150,000 copies. So we actually lost money making the damn thing, and I guarantee you there’s a million copies of that album floating around.”
If Trucks is anything, however, he’s realistic. He knows that complaining about people stealing music via the Internet or by burning CDs isn’t going to change anything. “We actually were having this debate a few years ago,” he notes, referring to the period when the average music fan felt some remorse for taking music carte blanche. “And now it’s just reached the point where everyone’s given up. There’s no point in even having the debate anymore. The average kid out there feels like they’re entitled to this stuff and they shouldn’t have to pay for it. What I’ve come to realize is that whether I think it’s theft or not, that is the world we’re living in now.”
To combat the impact of music piracy, particularly on the younger generation of bands trying to amass a following and make a living, Trucks has recently spearheaded the development of a new website, Moogis.com. The concept is simple, but nonetheless revolutionary: combine streaming video of live and archived concerts with the community-based interaction of social network sites. Moogis, then, is like YouTube meets MySpace, designed specifically for the jam band community. Since the jam band community thrives on social interaction, the website allows them to hang out and see shows online when not physically at a show.
“We’ve created this community,” Trucks explains, “and all these people that are going to watch the shows on Moogis, a lot of them gather there to talk to each other. A lot of them sit there and watch the show and keep open an extra window with a chat going so they can talk to each other about what’s going on while they’re watching the shows.”
While Moogis.com is a new venture, it’s already picking up steam. Fans are flocking to the site to catch the Beacon shows, but they’re also looking forward to being able to find new bands around the country that – with the death of the record labels and FM radio – otherwise would not be able to find an audience. Trucks, in fact, has big plans for the site, not only for the business opportunities, but mainly to give such bands exposure in an ailing music industry.
“The record labels are dead. Record labels made it and got to where they got because they controlled two things that they will never be able to control again. They controlled the exposure point, which is the radio stations. If you weren’t on a major label, it was just impossible to get played, even on FM radio ... and then they also controlled the distribution points, which are the records stores. And, if you haven’t been paying attention, the record stores are all closing.”
Detailing his plans for Moogis.com, Trucks says that “our next step is to spread out to the whole jam band scene. We’re going to wire six of the top jam band clubs in the country with four or five hi-def cameras and multi-track audio. And every night of the week you can go online at Moogis.com and watch a live concert. And now we get back to finally getting to a way to give exposure to all these young bands out there. A lot of them are goddamn good. They’re playing really good, new, modern progressive music. And they can’t be heard.”
Trucks becomes more passionate when talking about struggling young bands. “If we don’t give them something like Moogis to give them an expanded fan base, they’re gonna wind up having to sell insurance. They can’t go out and continue working the bars, playing for fifty people a night and make a living. It just doesn’t work. You have to give them some kind of exposure point. Radio’s gone, so what I’m hoping is that Moogis is going to be the model for what’s going to replace FM radio and give these guys a chance to get a broad, nationwide – even worldwide – fan base.”
Even with Moogis.com catching on, Trucks is most excited about playing with the Allman Brothers Band. “It is focused now on the music. The music – that’s all it’s about. It’s not about putting on a show. It’s not about being stars. It’s not about anything but playing the music. And that communicates. We’re up there and we know how to play.”
With the band reaching such a momentous – and unusual – milestone, some are beginning to speculate that the band might decide to bow out while on top. What, after all, could the band do to top a 40-year anniversary celebrated by a string of legendary shows? There could be nowhere to go but down, right?
Trucks, to some degree, agrees with this line of thinking. He’s not about to let the band jump the shark – not after reaching such great heights, falling to such miserable lows, and then climbing the mountain once again. “We are not,” he defiantly proclaims, “going to wait for it to collapse. When it’s not fun anymore and we’re not getting up there and having fun like we are now, then we’ll stop. Plain and simple. The first people that’s gonna feel it is us.”
But fans of the band need not worry. As Trucks explains it, the band may slow down a bit to allow members to explore side projects and to give everyone more personal time, but they’re not about to call it quits. So long as it feels right, the Allman Brothers Band will continue to perform in varying capacities.
“Our plan is, this year is gonna be a full-blown coast-to-coast tour, 60 to 80 shows. This will be the last year we do that. Next year, I think as long as the Beacon continues to be as fun as it is we’ll continue to do the Beacon every March. And then the summer we’ll cut back to, probably, 12 to 15 major shows and that’s it ... now, how much longer are we even going to do that? Who knows? Any two or three years? Another five years? Who knows? I mean, we put the band back together in ‘89 and we all would have bet the mortgage that it wouldn’t last five years. And here we are 20 years later and it’s going stronger than ever, so I’m not going to make predictions.”
Some things, it seems, were built to last. You can count the Allman Brothers Band among them.