[19 April 2009]
The two songs that were ubiquitous during the 15 nights of the Allman Brothers Band’s 40th Anniversary celebration were “Little Martha” and “Statesboro Blues”. Each is a personality—one a slice of tender country soul, one a ribald blues shuffle—that between them suggest most of what made the Allmans in their heyday—and make them now in their best incarnation since that ‘60s and early ‘70s heyday—such a potent, remarkable, enduring band.
Most everything about this year’s Beacon Theater run felt right: A dazzling array of guest stars ranging from blues greats to talented buffoons, male and female, young and old, forceful and gentle; a long list of songs both familiar and new; and due acknowledgment that for some time now, this annual summit at New York City’s gilded Upper West Side music palace has an aura—and an importance—all its own.
It was a panorama of fake ZZ Top beards, high fives, wide grins, brutalizing jams, hot women, badass blues singers and lubricated crowds. It was seeing Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks lock into one of those familiar guitar duels, and Oteil Burbridge leaning back with a beatific grin on his face as he locked a rumbling bass into a groove just so. It was Taj Mahal, Buddy Guy, and Susan Tedeschi… Sonny Landreth, Phil Lesh, Bob Margolin, Floyd Miles, and Sheryl Crow. It was Eric Clapton and Bonnie Bramlett and John Hammond and Trey Anastasio. It was Stanley Clarke (momentarily). It was Gregg Allman’s loaded “Goodbye, baby!” in “Trouble No More” and his “Wake up, Mama” blast-off in “Statesboro Blues”. It was the beautifully refurbished Beacon Theatre, the walk to the subway in night air, the drinks on Amsterdam, and the 1 am pizza after “Little Martha” had died down. Sure, maybe we didn’t need Kid Rock, and maybe an “Instrumental Illness” (or another ultimately ignored latter-day Allman highlight) would have been great, or, when Clapton finally showed, a little more variety in song selection over the course of two shows might have been better. It’s splitting hairs. We paid through the nose (Beacon seats started at $69 before fees), and the band delivered, demolished expectations and put a big fat “W” next to the column that says whether it kicked things into high gear in a most important celebration of their storied legacy.
By now, describing the intensity of a guitar tandem like that of Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks seems rote. Haynes is an all-meat student of the old school; he can cut heads with the best of them, plays guitar like it’s the only job he’s ever had or will ever need, and pops out licks and speed-picking, give-it-to-me solos with serious firepower. Trucks is the phenom; his solos are art, and in every extended improvisation he seems to find new explorations for licks he’s played a thousand times. I’ve heard him play hundreds of solos on “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”, “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More”, “Whipping Post”, and the rest (both within the Allmans and outside), and no two have ever sounded alike: Each not only its own set of ideas, but occasionally, its own little world.
At the Beacon, however, it was everything—not just the Haynes and Trucks contributions—that felt fresh. Gregg Allman sang with vigor and soul throughout. I can’t recall any other point in the past decade where he actually sounded that excited to sing “Done Somebody Wrong”, or “Statesboro”, or “Black Hearted Woman”, or any of the other classics with as much heart, and if he choked a few lines of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” one night, well, that’s an omelet with broken eggs, pal. Oteil Burbridge remains an X-factor in the Berry Oakley Jr. mold: A stylist he is, a mere timekeeper, he ain’t. A bass is a guitar? Watch Burbidge pound that thing. And the drum corps? Yes. So on point throughout: Butch Trucks the driver, Jaimoe the color commentator, still a factor despite a hand injury that appeared more than a bit painful, and Marc Quinones the encyclopedia of rhythmic cadences, with an array of percussion pieces at his disposal.
I took in three shows at this year’s Beacon run and, in the most earnest compliment I can muster for the band that also sounds accurate, felt better about life for doing so.
The anticipation was almost as thick as the tension, and just as palpable: Eric Clapton was going to sit in with the Allman Brothers Band. That March 19th and March 20th would be the nights of said sit-in was just about the worst kept secret of the whole run, reported everywhere from band message boards to Rolling Stone. It’s been chief notch on the rumor mill ever since Derek Trucks toured as a part of Clapton’s band in 2005, and would have made sense from a historical perspective really any time since, oh, 1970.
Did that make it any less significant—or any less enthralling—when Gregg stood up halfway through the second set and introduced Clapton as a man who needed no introduction? Of course not. The place went crazy, and the music was marvelous. Clapton stayed on for five songs from Derek and the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, the album in which he first forged a relationship with Duane Allman and without whom, Clapton would later comment, in his 2006 autobiography, one of the unimpeachably great rock albums in history might never have come out so well.
All five songs were moving for different reasons: A meaty “Key to the Highway” to establish intentions and get the three-headed guitar attack going, a rocking “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad”, a humbling, stupefyingly rich version of “Little Wing” that found each guitarist soloing and each besting the one or two who’d improvised before him, with Haynes coming out on top, a lilting “Anyday” with Susan Tedeschi on always-welcome backing vocals, and in the encore, the expected “Layla”, blowing out and then soaring into the heavens on the wings of a spacey Derek Trucks solo. Somewhere in there came the Allmans’ “Dreams”, in which Clapton was a little more muted relative to the songs he ostensibly knew better, but by no means reticent, locking into the song’s emotional, slightly psychedelic jam segment by taking the first solo: A knotted, probing little wonder that set up Derek’s apocalyptic, fuzzed-out fusion workout a few minutes later.
Maybe what was greatest about this show—of the three I saw, the strongest musically—was that the band raised its game throughout, and made every number feel like the showpiece. The first set drew some serious drama and energy out of songs like “Woman Across the River” that tend to serve more as placeholders—bridges between the warhorse jams and tender soul nuggets—than self-contained highlights. On that song (and to a lesser extent “Revival”), Haynes and Trucks pushed themselves, and each other, to bend tones, explore melodies, and push the tunes out beyond their usual melody-jam-melody-dueling call-and-response jam confines. Gregg did the same thing vocally throughout the show. His uncorked angst on “Done Somebody Wrong” and the sad beauty of his solo spot, “Oncoming Traffic”, bookended a whole spectrum of singing emotion. And Gov’t Mule’s Danny Louis—a quiet and unassuming virtuoso if there ever was one—was his usually commanding self, lending aggressive piano to a filthy “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” and leading the sparkling coda in the “Layla” finale. A deep and humbling show from end to end that was far superior to even what was advertised.
With some reservation, I enjoy seeing guest artists at the Beacon Theater. They’re part of the scenery and part of the fun. The blending is the hard part. Some guests conform so seamlessly to the Allmans—an anonymous guitar solo on “Southbound” say, or a drum colorist who’s slipped on and off the stage without proper acknowledgment—you’re left questioning whether their addition got you anywhere you hadn’t been before. On the flipside, some guests add even less by adding too much, making the Allmans come to them instead of the other way around. In doing so, they are interrupting a true Allman Brothers Band experience with a mini-set that essentially turns the Brothers, for better and for worse, into a backing band.
But here’s a band where the exact right guest at the right time in the right song can push the band into a once-in-300-shows stratosphere on a particular song or jam. I’d already seen it happen once with Clapton, who struck a good balance between being a featured guest with the Allmans behind him and becoming the third point of a three-pronged guitar assault.
It happened again at this nearly-as-great show, and the guest spot came not from any of the King Curtis’ Kingpins heavyweights who showed up, or from old friend Thom Doucette blowing agile harp on ancient blues tunes, but from Jimmy Herring—onetime replacement Allman Brother, longtime friend (and at various points, bandmate) of Warren, Oteil, and Derek, and one of the most fluid and exciting guitar players on the planet.
Herring’s guest spot up until the end of the show had felt a bit removed; comfortable, perfunctory solos on non-Allmans songs that served to justify a solid, though somewhat unnecessary guest vocal from John Bell, lead singer of Herring’s current employer, Widespread Panic, and outside of the confines of Panic (where he’s spectacular), to these ears never seems to sound quite right. After a long drums segment buried in “Leave My Blues At Home”, Herring returned—finally!—to kick off one of the most intense and impassioned renderings of “Les Brers In A Minor” any version of the Allman Brothers Band has ever played. Hyperbole, it wasn’t: Trucks and Herring each torturing their guitars on stemwinder solo spots flavored with hot-skillet R&B, propulsive jazz-rock, and twisted, mutant licks that seemed to grow larger every few bars. Finally, when the two old friends pulled aside to converse through a spectrum of guitar sounds in every style from blues lick to bird call, Haynes (figuratively) threw up a hand and said “my turn,” forcing his way back into the interplay and bringing “Les Brers” to exhausting catharsis.
It was a towering moment, even far above a three-song suite in the first set that brought out Bernard Purdie, Jimmy Smith, and Jerry Jemmott from the Kingpins, that saluted the shared legacies of the two bands with “Soul Serenade”, “Memphis Soul Stew”, and (why not?) Buddy Miles’ “Them Changes”, and lacked only because it meant a long stretch of the show without Gregg or Oteil on stage.
The final night of the 15-show run did feel comparatively lacking: An uneven show with spotted moments of A-level exploration. The reason? Mostly (and probably only) because the band was visibly exhausted: They allegedly shot their wad during the March 26th no-guests anniversary show, a now-legendary night described by those who were there as one of the singularly transcendent Allman Brothers experiences of the modern era. Sure, they were “on” during the first set, but “Rocking Horse”—with its key-changing, tone-shifting, adventurous jam segment—was one of few numbers that pushed the envelope to the way Beacon observers had grown accustomed in the previous 14 shows. Maybe they were just out of gas. Or maybe they gave a little too much of the show over to Phil Lesh and Bob Weir: Three songs to open the second set, all from the obvious Grateful Dead playbook, none seemingly shorter than 12-15 minutes, and admittedly momentum-killing.
That’s not to say the Weir/Lesh sit-ins were weak; quite the opposite, and the synergy of once again seeing the surviving members of decades-old rock ‘n’ roll innovators and consummate road warriors plucking some nostalgic heart strings was pleasant. But “Sugaree”, “I Know You Rider”, and “Franklin’s Tower”? Only the third choice lived up to its promise: A summit of talents, a little bit Allmans, a little bit Dead, infused with both bands’ unique mojo and peaks of the type of fiery, balls-out, rethink-my-reason-for-existence jamming both versions of both bands can achieve when everything’s firing en masse.
By contrast, “Sugaree” and “Rider” were sprawling and noodly: They felt good, for the recognition, but they didn’t feel necessary. Weir and Lesh departed the stage not seeming to have meshed with band so much as provided an hour-long interlude, and the “Black Hearted Woman” that followed as soon as they were off felt like a switch to a different band entirely. What potential a cross-band “Mountain Jam” would have had, and what fun (although probably a logistical nightmare), to have not just Phil and Bob, but Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann out there, too, or an Oteil/Phil bass showdown, or Gregg singing “Sugaree”, or Bobby singing something from the Brothers, or… anything that didn’t feel like a fun and remote Dead walk-on divorced from the rest of the show.
No, the happiest moments of this evening—besides the group curtain call and a foot-stomping “Statesboro” to tie up the encore—belonged to songs that included Chuck Leavell. The first thing I saw onstage when I sat down in my seat was Leavell’s electric piano positioned stage right; I broke out in a knowing grin, thought heartily of the “Jessica” we were bound to enjoy at some time in the night, and felt satisfied that one truly essential guest would get ample time to contribute. And did he ever: An unnervingly spot-on solo in “Stormy Monday”, some call-and-response with Warren Haynes during “Come and Go Blues”, the wondrous “Jessica” that found him teasing “Little Martha” before heading into the cascading piano progression so familiar from classic rock radio, and ace contributions to both “Franklin’s” and what was still an earnest “Mountain Jam”.
When the show ended, the bows were taken, the lights came up and the acoustic “Little Martha” that provides a recessional at every Allmans show began, the afterglow felt right. That’s how you execute a 40th Anniversary: As proudly, as loudly, and as heavenly as possible.