[19 January 2011]
PopMatters Features Editor
Despite their (often excellent, but also often cloying) forays into “Southern rock”, the Allman Brothers has always been a blues band at heart. And not just a pretty good blues band, either, but an innovative, boundary-pushing, genre-redefining blues band. Their dueling/harmonizing guitar formats have influenced a generation of garage wailers; their interweaving of deliberate song structures and tension/release instrumental explorations has defined the sound of countless jam bands; and their expert blend of traditional formats (Chicago, Delta, Country, Swamp, Appalachian) verily re-imagined the contours of the blues song. But, if your only exposure to them has been through radio staples like “Ramblin’ Man”, “Melissa” or “Blue Sky”, these points could have been easily missed. Their blues acumen may have been diluted, in your mind, by their stoner associations, their magic mushroom marketing campaigns, their (mostly) long-haired white-guy-ness. “Bob Seger with longer guitar solos”, was how a colleague once dismissed them (and, specifically, Gregg Allman’s distinctive drawling vocals). But, I am here to tell you, this would be a mistake.
And, strangely enough, it’s Gregg Allman’s first solo release in 14 years that might be the way to fix this mistake, to show you the way back in. This may just be the re-entry point music lovers haven’t known that they’ve been looking for. A straight-ahead Americana masterpiece, Low Country Blues is warm, homespun, and yet packed with firecracker performances. Backed by a dream band comprised of Doyle Bramhall II on guitar, upright bassist Dennis Crouch and drummer Jay Bellerose, horns arranged by trumpeter Darrell Leonard, and Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack on piano, Gregg tackles 11 (mostly) forgotten tracks from his dusty old record collection, including songs by Muddy Waters, Skip James, Little Milton, and Sleepy John Estes. (The one original composition here, a co-write with Allman guitarist Warren Haynes, feels amazingly in synch with this 60- and 70-year-old material.) In every case, Gregg’s incomparable vocals take centre stage; it’s astounding that the man’s voice hasn’t lost an ounce of its emotive power in these past 40 years. (“I have an evolved throat”, he explains in his press release!) It rasps, it sweeps, it snarls, it bites, and it does it even more effectively today than back in his younger days.
Equally powerful on rollicking numbers like Muddy Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and slow burners like “Tears Tears Tears”, Allman’s delivery manages the feat of combining a world weariness with an immediacy, a spontaneity that approaches (and perhaps surpasses) the effectiveness of the original performances. Pushed, we are told, by his band and producer to accept his first and second takes rather than spending hours trying to hit perfection, he has achieved something even more special (and elusive): honesty. The reason much blues music that has been produced in the past 30 years or so has been totally dispensable is that it has been so slick as to seem like a lie. The blues needs, thrives on, rawness. In concert, Gregg Allman has always been a rousing powerhouse of a vocalist, moaning his blues and making us all believe, but too frequently on records he’s sounded flat, washed out, insincere. Not here, not this time.
Produced by T-Bone Burnett, the master of Americana and apparently tireless studio gnome (he was behind ten albums last year, and has at least three more due in 2011), everything here sounds enormous and full. The rhythm section is tight (which is not always the case when Gregg’s jamming with the Brothers), and the guitar/piano interplay is thrillingly groovy. But, for all the beauty and clarity of the production, the sense that this is a group of dudes jamming in a smoky living room still permeates. It’s a joyful, terrifically accessible record, and a no-nonsense blues album that even Allman himself has been referring to as among the best things he has ever recorded.