For a long time, I assumed the Allman Brothers Band were lame. I say assumed because I never got past the first few bars of “Ramblin’ Man” or “Whipping Post” on the local classic rock radio station without quickly changing the station. This was (read with thick Yankee condescension) “Southern rock”, where dirty white boy blues and walrus mustaches ruled. Plus they played that jam band crap. I mean, the Allmans just had to be terrible, right?
Then I went to college, bought my first pair of sandals, smoked my first joint and all of a sudden Live at Fillmore East sounded pretty damn suh-weet. I eventually saw the blatant class discrimination of worshipping at the altar of artsy fartsy guitar bands such as Built to Spill and Television and not paying homage to six-string saints Duane Allman and Dickey Betts, one of the greatest guitar playing duos ever. Not to mention digging all those white British blues bands seemed a bit sacrilegious when I was dissing the preeminent white AMERICAN blues band. Sure Gregg Allman ain’t Muddy Waters, but he is a helluva lot closer to the source material than Robert Plant.
But it was Messrs. Jai Johanny Johnson and Butch Trucks, the twin drummers, that really got me hooked. Why are the Allman Brothers Band always referred to as a guitar band when they really are a drum band? The massively killer rhythm parts on any Allman’s extended jam is what carries them beyond mere “Grateful Dead of the South” status. The skills Johnson and Trucks bring to the skins not only allow the band to navigate all those tricky blues-to-jazz, jazz-to-blues time changes, but they also make it all sound like rock ‘n’ roll.
I thought about Jaimoe and Butch whenever I found myself liking the new Allman Brothers’ album Hittin’ the Note way more than I thought I would. I fully expected to put it in my CD player once and never play it again, but here I am a week later still listening to it. Hittin’ the Note is the band’s first release since the firing of Betts for “personal problems”, a move that rivals Steven Adler’s drug-related ouster from Guns N’ Roses in the annals of rock hypocrisy considering Allman’s long history of chemical abuse. The guitar attack is now carried out by Govt. Mule’s Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks, Butch’s nephew, both able axmen that have the band’ s trademark harmonizing guitar stuff down cold but not the distinctive laidback country style of Betts. The purist in me also balked. The Allman Brothers Band was starting to look like a bunch of guys behind a battle-scarred Gregg . Then I heard the fluid polyrhythmic bed gurgling under the guitar and organ parts and I was suddenly reassured that this was close enough to classic Brothers to make the grade.
It should go without saying that the playing on Hittin’ the Note is uniformly excellent. These guys are so good at what they do that they transcend material that is otherwise blues by numbers. “High Cost of Low Living” sums up the album well: it’s a typical hard livin’ and hard drinkin’ cautionary tale with the pitfalls of whiskey drinking and butt kicking described in the most warmed-over manner. (“It’s bound to put you six feet in the ground” in case you didn’t know.) Other songs such as “Woman across the River” and “Maydell” are pure bar band material, while the slow blues “Desdemona” could be the product of any hack doing a semi-competent Stevie Ray Vaughan impression.
But if the songs are merely workmanlike, the easy roll and tumble of the ensemble playing is still highly enjoyable. The jazzy interludes and long guitar solos that stretch Hittin’ the Note to the 75-minute mark would bore me coming from most bands. I don’t get into the show-offy snooze-inducing showboating of most jam bands. But there’s a real warmth and sense of pleasure poring out of the laser-guided grooves here that comes from long-time mates locking into a groove and seeing where it takes them.
It also helps that Allman still sounds like the best white blues singer around. Like most blues singers, Allman has always tried to sound like an old man when he sings. Now that he’s 54 (150 in rock star years), he has the lived-in grace that a comically over-emotive blues belter like Jonny Lang would kill Kenny Wayne Shepherd for. Damn it if the she-done-me-wrong weepie “Desdemona” doesn’t hit you right there because Allman sounds so convincing singing it. You know he’s been there, man.