In the recording industry, “Best of” or “Greatest Hits” has come to mean much the same thing as “News Alert” has on CNN, absolutely nothing. Two Gregg Allman collections were released this year, one by Mercury on their 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection series, and one by Epic/Legacy. Both are terribly incomplete. The Mercury release says nothing about best or greatest and therefore has made no major transgression, just a mediocre and small collection of songs. Epic/Legacy, however, does use the phrase “Best of” and has failed miserably in delivering on that claim.
Gregg Allman has been making records since John D. Laudermilk discovered he and his brother Duane playing in the Allman Joys in a small club in Nashville, Tennessee in 1966 and took them into the studio to record Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful”. He’s been making his own albums since the release of Laid Back in 1973, arguably his best solo effort to date. The songs on No Stranger to the Dark: The Best of Gregg Allman only span the years from 1985 to 1998. Thus the consumer has already been misled.
One would assume that a best of Gregg Allman CD would include songs like “Queen of Hearts” or “Midnight Rider”. One would also assume a best of Gregg Allman CD would include Allman’s early recording of Jackson Browne’s “These Days”, a staple of his live shows to this day. Instead, what we receive here is a previously unreleased, lackluster, and poorly mixed live version of the song from a December 1998 show during which Gregg’s vocal is obscured by an overzealous harmony singer.
In contrast to “These Days”, there is a previously unreleased live, acoustic version of “Melissa” which sounds somewhat inspired. As one has come to expect with all things Allman, there is a fiery and melodic extended guitar solo on this classic rock gem, which the audience rewards with exuberant applause.
The other previously unreleased track on the album, “Hopelessly Miss You”, is the oldest recording in this collection, from 1985, and, hands down, the worst. The opening lyric is “I’m sick and tired of it / I’ve had my fill of it / I’m really bored with it /Yeah / I’m so aggravated / Disillusioned and frustrated / I can’t get motivated / No”. Precisely. It sounds as if Steve Vai or Yngwie Malmsteen played guitar on this one, both examples of guitarists whose styles are horribly incompatible with Allman’s laid back and bluesy vocals.
There are, it must be admitted, some of Allman’s best songs here. The CD opener is “I’m No Angel”, the title track of his successful 1987 release. The song is a slick rocker and, though it has that tinge of ‘80s polish, has somehow managed to stand the test of time. It was refreshing to hear the song then, and it is refreshing to hear it now. Looking back, it almost seems as if the song foreshadowed the back to basics and roots movements that would be so prevalent in the rock music of the ‘90s.
One thing Gregg Allman has usually managed to do is play with wonderful musicians. Two such musicians are Dan and David Toller, brothers who contributed a great deal to the making of both I’m No Angel and Allman’s 1988 release Just Before the Bullets Fly. Dan Toller is one of the best guitar players with whom Allman has ever worked. Without him neither of these albums would be what they are. Toller’s guitar work is tasty, dangerous, and absolutely essential. He also shares many of the songwriting credits with Allman.
No Stranger to the Dark: The Best of Gregg Allman starts out strong with “I’m No Angel”, “Island”, and the acoustic version of “Melissa”, but then begins to peter out with such dross as “Face Without Names” and “Evidence of Love” on which Allman, unfortunately, shares lead vocal duties. Both are from I’m No Angel. The pace picks up again on “Demons” and keeps a healthy, enjoyable stride with “Ocean Awash the Gunwale”, “House of Blues” from 1997’s Searching for Simplicity, “Just Before the Bullets Fly”,” The Dark End of the Street”, and “Slip Away”, the old Clarence Carter song. Then things get weird again.
On the tune “I’ve Got News for You”, a blues the Allman Brothers used to cover quite a bit, Allman falls into the same trap Clapton has fallen into repeatedly for the last decade or so. He and his cohorts have, in a sense, mastered the blues, an accomplishment to be commended. The problem with this is half the fun of hearing white guys play the blues is in listening to the struggle. The incompetencies and indiosyncracies are what make the music unique and surprising and worth listening to. All the proper blues licks are here, the horn arrangements, the inflections in Allman’s delivery. What it equals up to is one big yawn.
“Brother to Brother” was a duet recorded in 1989 for the Patrick Swayze film, Next of Kin. In the liner notes Allman admits his voice sounds a bit strained. It does, but he lost me before he even started singing, with the bagpipes.
Allman gives a blurb about each song, which is nice and somewhat informative. For example, he tells us where he got the name for the song “Melissa”. And it’s not the story I recall hearing decades ago. There’s a good bio. But this is no “Best of” album. Far from it.