The Allmans Brothers Band has been the central musical group of my life, their uvre most vital to my worldview. From that perspective, their longtime lead guitarist, vocalist, and key songwriter Dickey Betts emerges as the greatest guitar hero since the 1950s birth of rock ‘n’ roll and the 1960s global stalking of power-mad axe “gods” from Jeff Beck to Mike Bloomfield. The Skydog aka Duane Allman is also a great idol of mine, his contributions to knowledge of the guitar and rock history undeniable. Yet Skydog, dead the year of the Brothers’ Live at Fillmore East (Capricorn) and my birth, essentially vanished with the 1960s—a benevolent ghost now gone to Glory who inspires and protects us. And the competing pantheon of guitar greats, including Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, Jorma Kaukonen, the aforementioned Beck and Bloomfield, were largely only stars, figureheads in bands that meant a good deal to their followers yet whose legacy rarely extends beyond the realms of nostalgia and commerce. Yes, Jerry Garcia became a version of an Acid Rock Buddha (to his peril) and Jimi Hendrix, while a best-selling poster boy for superspade kool exploited by the likes of Guitar World et al, has a shadow afterlife as chief metaphysical mentor to two generations of “crazy dada Negroes”.
However, Dickey Betts, in Skydog’s shadow during their briefly shared career, nearly oppressed by the onus of having to direct and support the Allmans in the wake of the latter’s (and Berry Oakley’s) death, deserves special commendation above and beyond these Woodstock Nation icons. Not only has Betts been the author of much revolutionary music (especially “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”) over the past 30 years—- music that reversed the fortunes of the New South, had a profound impact on race relations/consciousness, united disparate peoples the world over and launched a new genre and aesthetic into rock culture. He has survived—- perhaps the hardest task of all in the deathly world of rock ‘n’ roll. Never will I disparage Duane Allman, yet it has obviously been much more difficult for Betts to endure and compose into the new millennium than to burn out and leave a beautiful, omnipotent deity behind.
At his recent series of shows at Manhattan’s BB King’s in Times Square (six in all, culminating in two performances on the 16th for the club’s anniversary), Dickey Betts humbly and stoically allowed his adoring fans’ collective gaze to feast on the wages of his triumphs/pride/sins/sorrows. Throughout all of the sets, his dedication to the entire world of music and his commitment to his project was an awesome thing to behold. No evidence at any time of reckless abandon and substance abuse impeding his ability to play or sing, making the devils surrounding his abrupt sacking from the Brothers ever more suspicious. I had attended Betts’ last few runs with the Allmans at the Beacon, including the majestic 30th anniversary concerts, and from the backstage observed the inter-dynamics of lead guitarists Jack Pearson, Jimmy Herring, Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks and Betts seeing only peerless ability summoned ‘neath the proscenium night after night. There remain folk of my acquaintance who refuse to see the ABB without Betts, citing him as the heart of collective, adding him to an elite corps of seminal figures (like Keith Richards) who simply are Rock ‘n’ Roll, thus providing whatever outfit you’re witnessing with an indefinable and essential edge. And this absence, combined with the subsequent “letting go” of the legendary Red Dog, shrouds the mushroom enterprise in doubt.
Nevertheless, always the maverick, Betts continues moving on, operating from a place of envious strength resting on his mastery of the guitar and his uncanny songwriting gift. Flanked by the re-formed Great Southern featuring veteran axe man “Dangerous” Dan Toler, fine singing and keys playing from Matt Zeiner and Kris Jensen on fiery sax often doubling the role of second guitar, Betts revisited many of the highlights of his back pages and the hallmarks of his peculiarly southern sonic innovation. Covers included “Come on into My Kitchen” and Billy Joe Shaver’s “Georgia on a Fast Train”, while Betts palpably nodded to his influences like Charlie Parker and Django Reinhardt. Country blues, son, hillbilly, gospel, jazz and Celtic traditions (hear new composition “Beyond the Pale”) all swirl effortlessly in the mixed vision Great Southern offers both live and on the latest releases: 2001’s Let’s All Get Together (as the Dickey Betts Band) and the all acoustic Collectors Number One. From standards such as “Seven Turns”, “No One to Run With” and “Blue Sky” expanded by an homage to the late Garcia via the Dead’s “Franklin’s Tower” to newer favorites “Let’s All Get Together” and the largely instrumental Latin/jazz inflected “Doña Maria”, the septet kept the crowd gasping with delight, boogieing, singing along and frankly, getting wrecked to cause brief mischief and skirmishes between some patrons and the staff. Any concertgoers found the snakeskin-booted Betts in superb form, his between song utterances somewhat cryptic but his singing as pure a rallying cry as in years past. Armed with a vintage Marshall amplifier and a red-refinished 1957 Les Paul gold top, the Brother appeared on the verge of scorching himself and the guitar, contorting intensely, impassioned with flurries of notes as if he meant for his flesh to soar akin to the epic “Jessica”.
All this in a time when pop princess Britney Spears had to cancel her recent Lubbock, Texas, show when the power failed due to extraneous pyrotechnics . . . and you wonder why Betts’ New York City appearances have sold out? People want something larger than themselves to believe in—and they also want bona fide musicians who can still deliver and transport them when the dry ice and backing tapes lose their juice. Dickey Betts is that artist who will never sell you down the river, and the magic of his current tour suggests his capacity to make meaning in the lives of his listeners will continue for some time. He is a trickster blues man for the ages, when so few of the old masters remain (remember that we lost John Lee Hooker not so long ago; the Queen Koko Taylor is ailing) and hardly any of the young acolytes have bridged any worlds more dangerous than elite secondary schools and the sprawling suburbs. We need late modern masters with mileage and mysteries. If Dickey Betts’ road goes on forever then so does mine.