Counterbalance No. 120: The Allman Brothers Band's 'At Fillmore East'

The 120th Most Acclaimed Album took all my money, wrecks my new car. Now it's with one of my good time buddies, they're drinkin' in some crosstown bar. A double live landmark is this week's Counterbalance.

The Allman Brothers Band

At Fillmore East

US Release: 1971-07
UK Release: 1971-07
Label: Capricorn

Klinger: In the world of list-making rock snobs (a milieu in which I am certainly more than comfortable), there is really one serious taboo: greatest hits/best of compilations don't count. That's, in part, why the Great List—that compendium of acclaimed albums from which we take our marching order—features only regular albums. In fact, if someone's all-time top 50 list contains something like ChangesOneBowie or CCR’s Chronicle, that person should expect some degree of mockery from the nerderati. (I've made one exception over the years for a young woman who put Ringo Starr's Blast from Your Past on her list. I not only made an exception—I married her.) But this week, we see another example of a rare loophole—the live album.

The Allman Brothers' At Fillmore East is the first live album we've covered since James Brown's Live at the Apollo, way back at No. 40, and both albums are a good example of why we can allow live albums in our list-making. Not only do they provide an overview of the artists' careers up to that point, but they also demonstrate the ways they had come to be adapted over time (punchy, turn-on-a-dime shifts for Brown, longform jams for the Allmans). Mendelsohn, you've professed a certain fondness for these extended blues exercises in the past, so I'm interested in how you've taken to this particular double-disc of in-concert extrapolations is hitting your ears.

Mendelsohn: I could listen to this record all day. Mostly because that's how long it takes. Seriously, this album just goes on and on and on. Every 20 minutes or so the band takes a break to catch their breath and rehydrate but then they jump headlong into another half-hour groove. All told, I don't a problem with longform blues, but in my defense, I made that statement in regard to Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile", which is heads and shoulders above anything the Allman Brothers ever did.

Klinger: Although to be fair, you also waxed poetic about Derek and the Dominoes, who have even more in common with the Allmans than Hendrix—most notably, they share producer Tom Dowd, who helped form the raw Fillmore tapes into a more digestible double LP. Interesting story: it was Dowd who grabbed Duane Allman by the lapels and made him get rid of the horn section that was supposed to be on this record. They were allegedly an out-of-tune mess and would have been the ruination of this record. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Tom Dowd was a freakin' genius—and apparently quite the strong persuader.

Say, you're not listening to the Complete Fillmore Concerts dealie that's making the rounds these days, are you? Because I could see how that's like eating an entire chocolate cake in one sitting.

Mendelsohn: You mean there is more? My main problem with this record is that in some places, but not all, it sounds like any other bar room blues band knocking out an extended jam. The Allman Brothers seem to be the template that every bar room blues band seeks to emulate with Duane Allman's crisp guitar, Greg Allman's smooth organ playing, and the combined, inoffensive vocal stylings of Greg Allman and Dickey Betts. I like the double drums of Butch Trucks and Jaimoe Johanson—ain't nothing wrong with that.

I understand my critique is unfair. I shouldn't fault the Allman Brothers for being the architects of southern rock, or generic blues or even the insidious jam bands that litter the back water college bar landscapes. Had I come into the project with less prejudice toward those things, I would probably be much more effusive with respect to the Allman Brothers' massive musical journey they laid down on wax one spring weekend in New York City back in 1971.

Klinger: I understand coming into this week with prejudices—I was less than excited about the prospect of 20-minute guitar solos and bluesish whatnot myself. I've seen enough crappy bar-band puffery to last me a lifetime. But to blame these guys for what followed in their wake is like blaming The Simpsons for Family Guy (cue separate nerd argument). The way that these guys are able to thread their way through some pretty intricate changes throughout the same song is pretty fascinating. Listening to "You Don't Love Me" and the way it goes through countless shifts in tone, tempo, and mood before finally breaking through with the striking "Joy to the World" coda, it's hard not to be impressed. This band was tight and fully in sync with one another. In fact, I suspect it was easier to get them to collectively navigate their way through a half-hour of "Whipping Post" than it was to get them all on the bus at the same time.

Mendelsohn: That's the part of this record I really love. There is an intricate, almost exacting science to those 30-minute jams. Once they get beyond the generic blues material and into the more detailed spaces of the songs, you can really start to see the jazz influence and that is just spectacular. Yes, the Allman Brothers' stock and trade was in the blues and southern rock, but as they start to incorporate the jazz elements, the songs take on an epic, almost prog-rock quality. Take a listen to "Mountain Jam". That song is not 30 minutes of improvisation and noodling, it's a suite in the vein of classical music, composed of movements as the band works from set piece to set piece.

I think "Mountain Jam" also perfectly encapsulates that notion of duality that goes into making great art and what really makes this album a standout. There is beautiful give and take in the dual guitar work of Duane and Dickey. And if the dual drum solo in the middle of that song doesn't make you sit up and take notice, then you are probably dead. That duality extends to the mix of low blues and high jazz and that, of course, leads us right back to Mr. Dowd, who mastered his production craft recording the likes of John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk. Coincidence?

Klinger: Well, the Allman's forays into jazzier territories do make their music a good bit more intriguing, and that may well be what led Dowd to them. However, the fact that you're referencing "Mountain Jam" tells me that you are in fact listening to the Deluxe Edition Fillmore Concerts version of this rather than the initial double LP from 1971. And now I feel like the kid who read the wrong chapter for the test. Tell you what, I'll go track that number down and we'll meet back here in about a half an hour.

Mendelsohn: Sorry about that. I thought you are referring to the At Fillmore East Deluxe Edition, which is different from The Fillmore Concerts, which I found out just tacks "Mountain Jam" and "Drunken Hearted Boy" on to the back of the original At Fillmore East (which in turn is slightly different from the UK version of the record, but only in track list order). And here I was wondering why the band decided to also put "Mountain Jam" on Eat a Peach, the record they released in 1972 following Duane's death. Interesting side note: on Eat a Peach, "Mountain Jam" was originally split down the middle, starting on the end of side one and ending at the beginning of side two.

Don't feel bad, Klinger. If anything, I'm the over-achiever in class who reads chapters that were not assigned (or unwittingly listens to half of Eat a Peach) and starts asking questions in regard to those chapters much to the ire of my classmates. But I would maintain that the songs the band wrote, the songs that aren't reinterpretations of blues standards, "The Whipping Post", "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed", and "Hot 'Lanta", showcase a very sophisticated application of jazz styles within the blues rock format.

Klinger: You know, I think this might be one of the most interesting side effects of our little Counterbalance project. Two years ago, I would have shrugged off the Allman Brothers as being not really my thing and never would have picked it up. Today, I'm still able to say that lengthy jazz-blues-rock extrapolations are not technically my thing, but I can honestly say that I appreciate the artistry that goes into creating something like At Fillmore East.

We've talked about this before but it really does bear repeating. Whenever someone slaps together a greatest album of all-time list, some bunch of people kick up a stink because of this choice or that or why Dream Theater isn't better represented or some such thing. But in the end, these bits of column inch filler can end up being a benefit if it causes someone to try something new with their ears wide open. That person may decide not to pursue it much further, but they still stepped outside their comfort zone long enough to try.

Mendelsohn: Before we embarked on this little journey I would have been the first to refer to the Allman Brothers as column inch filler. But as we get further into the list, I'm beginning to understand, at least a little, how the canon of great albums is constructed. I might not always agree but usually there is something special about each record, something that sets it apart from its contemporaries. I don't think At Fillmore East is any different. And knowing that now, gives me a much greater appreciation for a band that I've long blamed for some of the worst clichés in rock music. Live and learn I guess, Klinger. Live and learn.

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