[9 October 2003]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
With all due respect to the Grateful Dead, no American band has embodied the spirit of live jamming more than the Allman Brothers. Led by the gritty vocals and keyboard work of Gregg Allman, and the stellar guitar playing of sibling Duane, the group successfully harnessed an organic musical energy that was perfectly suited for the stage. Where the Dead’s music was grounded in trippy psychedelic explorations, the Allman Brothers’ extended jams resonated with an unusual sophistication and polish.
The brothers were ably supported by band mates Dickey Betts, Berry Oakley, Jaimoe and Butch Trucks, and quickly forged their own brand of sound; one that boasted aspects of country, delta blues, and straight ahead rock and roll. In the process they created the template for what became known as “southern rock”, and paved the way for countless acts ranging from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Molly Hatchet and the Outlaws.
Debuting in 1969 with their outstanding self-titled album, the Allman’s were barely a year into a storied career when they appeared at the Atlanta International Pop Festival in the summer of 1970. Held over the sweltering Independence Day holiday, the gathering drew in upwards of half a million fans and featured an impressive roster of musicians. The Allman Brothers were hometown favorites, as the native Floridians had previously migrated a short distance northward to Macon, Georgia, literally a stone’s throw from the festival site. Playing in their own backyard bode well for the band, as the impressive two set performance established them as legitimate rock heavyweights and a formidable live act.
The new twin CD release offers 150 minutes of vintage Allman Brothers on that hot summer stage, featuring a list of songs that would soon become classics. Disc one, (from 3 July), opens the show with the rollicking cover tune “Statesboro Blues,” as the band tears through the first set with precision, effortlessly changing tempo with each song. The energized “Trouble No More” is contrasted by the slow blues of “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin;’” the soaring guitar work of “Hoochie Coochie Man” is juxtaposed against the powerful drumming of “Mountain Jam Parts I & II;” the expansive treatment of “Dreams” is rivaled only by the more expansive rendition of “Whipping Post”. This first disc captures the band in fine form, and would stand prominently on its own as an individual concert performance. For Allman aficionados however, a second helping is a welcome gift.
Disc two features the Allman’s festival closing appearance from 5 July. Although the song list is slightly different, the seventy-five plus minutes are no less potent than the first set. “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” is as beautiful a rendition as ever recorded, and is appropriately followed by the nine-minute cover of T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday.” The bulk of the second disc comes by way of tracks six and seven, 14- and 28- minute versions of “Whipping Post” and “Mountain Jam” respectively. The length of these musical journeys belies their quality, as the Allman’s penchant for jamming never seems forced or contrived, rather their explorations on stage culminate in amazing natural progressions of music and spirituality.
The importance of the Atlanta Pop recordings to the Allman’s legacy cannot be overstated. The twin discs predate the historic Live at Fillmore East double album by nary a year, offering initial proof of the band’s brilliance on stage. Additionally, the festival footage captures the original lineup at its early peak, providing a rare glimpse back into history as the band dynamic would be changed soon after with the tragic, and eerily similar, deaths of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley in 1971 and 1972.
Although Gregg Allman continues to tour with a ragtag incarnation of the group three decades after the Atlanta festival, there is no substitute for the real thing. With the new release, Epic/Legacy has done Allman fans proud. Now it’s only a matter of firing up each disc, sitting back and enjoying the show.