The Road Goes On -- and On and On
Even if it’s to Lynyrd Skynyrd that the Allman Brothers Band will always be measured against, their pioneering Southern rock has always been closer, in substance and even sound, to the Grateful Dead. And as someone who would pick Skynrd as the Southern rock band, I’d also place the Allmans, finally, as a good—maybe very good—band below Skynyrd and the Dead, in that order.
Lynyrd Skynyrd, including even their umpteen officially released live versions of “Free Bird”, were never a jam band so much as a band that occasionally played that really long song. Sure, “Freebird” had those lengthy solos, but solos in the traditional rock sense were still what they were: the song itself was still a formal composition meant to be played as such, not a springboard for improvisation ad infinitum. One wouldn’t have mistaken Lynyrd Skynyrd, after all, for a jazz band.
Between the three bands, the Allmans definitely had the most skilled virtuoso in Duane. But jam bands, unlike guitar solos in a verse-verse-chorus-verse song, are at least as much about chemistry as individual heroics. Moreover, jamming aspires to transcendence in a way that many good compositions don’t. Jamming aspires to hold your attention without benefit of lyric or being anchored to a steady beat, instead relying on sheer sonics to so entrance the listener that they won’t think about leaving. Though the Allmans are praised for their earthiness (for a jam band!) and even though I appreciate earthiness as an abstract standard over hippie trippiness, even I admit that the Dead are greater than the Allmans exactly because their flights of fancy were more unfettered. When they really took off with a song, Garcia and company wouldn’t come down again until they’d taken that song to new, completely unexpected melodic and rhythmic domains. I don’t listen to much psychedelia or even much freeform jazz but, when I do, that’s what I expect all that jamming and improvising to do.
So why was Lynyrd Skynyrd the Southern rock band? Because, for rough-hewn jamming, I’d take the Dead and, for message, Ronnie Van Zant offered a more complete, aggressive, and controversial vision of the New South than the Allman Brothers. Beyond the sheer pleasure of their music, the Allmans’ South was much closer to the near-mythic Americana of the Dead than the recognizably contemporary locale of “Sweet Home Alabama”. What is their greatest song, “Ramblin’ Man”, if not a reiteration of the joys of the open, timelessly American road, one filled with dirt roads, Greyhound buses, and sweet country girls, a reiteration told by Huck Finn a decade older and 130 years later? Which is to say that, when they hit the nail on the head, they were as American as Mark Twain; when they didn’t, they could be, well, clichéd.
I also have my doubts as to whether this is the better two disc Allman Brothers Band compilation than The Road Goes on Forever. Sure, thanks to tracks licensed from other labels, you get the Allmans’ entire career and 32 as opposed to 30 tracks. But after the 1975 cutoff date for that classic compilation, the Allmans sound became increasingly generic and, though they never had much message, they gradually had even less. If their blues leanings (not to mention actual covers) gave their earlier songs the grit that made “Whipping Post” more than just another do-wrong woman number, they gradually sink into fairly mundane stories of regret and love and hardship, usually filtered through the persona of the world-weary traveler that legions of bluesmen and rockers have been adopting at one time or another for the last several decades. At least, earlier, the Allmans themselves had spiced up that persona with their youthfulness, making explicit the connections that had always existed between youthful assman and weathered bluesman (Check out their take of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “One Way Out” and compare Gregg’s breathless tension with the original’s hurried-but-unworried drawl).
It’s been almost 30 years since Road, so one can’t exactly call this new compilation profiteering. Casual fans no doubt will appreciate a distillation of more than two decades of merely passable albums. But for quality of music alone, stick with the time-tested compilation instead.