Friday, October 23, 2009

Music review: Allman Brothers cook up blues-rock perfection

Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks play under the watchful eye
of the band's long-dead founder, Duane Allman,
seen on the screen behind them.
(Photo by Tom Craig/Seminole Hard Rock)

By Thom Smith

The night belonged to Gregg Allman.

He sits at his Hammond B-3 as if he's riding a chopped Harley, sometimes hunched over the keyboard as if he's looking for cops, sometimes laid so far back his foot barely reaches the pedal. On Melissa, he took a turn on acoustic guitar. But what really set the night apart was Gregg's vocals, an emphatic punctuation to the penultimate performance on the Allman Brothers Band's 40thAnniversary Tour.

From the plaintive “I have not come . . . to testify” on Not My Cross to Bear to the defiant “Might be your man, I don't know” of One Way Out, the only living Allman in the band sounded half the age of a man who'll turn 62 on Dec. 8. A man who's battled drugs, failed marriages, tragedies, the endless misery of hepatitis C, has been bent but not broken. Somehow he summons the strength, using the detritus as a palette to create aural art as inspiring as an Old Master's canvas.

It helps to be surrounded by men who've been with him in those hells and faced hells of their own. They know how to grab suffering and from it create art.

The nearly sold-out crowd was reminded of that early on as the overhead screen flashed photos of the band's iconic founder, Duane Allman, who died 38 years ago, just as they were hitting their stride. More tributes abounded with videos of ancient bluesmen and former band members capped by a Warren Haynes' solo in Nobody Left to Run With Anymore. It seemed eerily in sync with Duane's on-screen playing, although the song wasn't even written until 1994.

Of the 16 selections in the set, Gregg wrote seven, including a collaboration with Haynes on Soulshine; six were written by long-dead bluesmen Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Blind Willie McTell, Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Johnson. Curiously, two others came from one of the band's other tragic figures. Dickey Betts, who grew up in West Palm Beach, wrote the rousing Jessica in the early '70s and the prescient Nobody Left to Run With in 1994. Despite producing some of the band's best songs, Betts wouldn't cope with his own demons, and the other original members – Gregg, drummers Butch Trucks (who now lives in Palm Beach) and Jaimoe forced him out.

Gregg Allman at his Hammond B-3 organ Tuesday,
nging It's Not My Cross to Bear.
(Photo by Tom Craig/Seminole Hard Rock)

His specter still hovers over the band like a poisonous spider, but his songs can't be ignored, and Haynes and co-lead guitarist Derek Trucks did them justice.

Obviously, 40 years later, the skinny longhairs who posed naked in a forest pool for their first album are craggier, heavier, balder and, they hope, wiser. The entire band is sober and has been for years, Trucks said in a recent interview. They have children who now have their own bands and sometimes sit in with their folks.

Their bodies ache: “I wish I could retire,” Butch Trucks said in the back lot after driving down from Palm Beach with wife Melinda. But he knows Hollywood is the penultimate stop on the tour and he'll be able to make return to southern France to check on the old farmhouse he bought.

Drummer and Palm Beach resident Butch Trucks.
(Photo by Tom Craig/Seminole Hard Rock)

The “dream house” was built in the 7th century; a second floor was added in the 16th century; the walls are 3 feet thick. “I will build Melinda an artist’s studio where she can finally get away from the constant distractions endemic to Palm Beach,” he said recently, “and I will build a horse stable where I can get back to my love of playing cowboy. I also plan, when I retire in a few years, to do a lot of writing. I believe I have several books in me that are busting to get out.”

Except that the music and the band keep pulling him back.

The Allmans stay young in spirit – OK, they don't rap, and you won't hear any hip-hop or techno – but with the infusion of younger members such as Derek Trucks (Butch's nephew), who just turned 30, bassist Oteil Burbridge, 32, and percussionist Marc QuiƱones, 41, they've retained a youthful perspective and attitude.

Each goes his own way after the tours – Haynes, who may be the hardest working man in rock 'n' roll, to his other band Gov't Mule; Derek to a tour with his own band and with blues singing wife Susan Tedeschi or perhaps backing and even upstaging Eric Clapton; Gregg to his band, and so on.

But on this night, in an arena filled with love, they are the Allman Brothers Band, ripping through Trouble No More, Come & Go Blues, Leave My Blues at Home, Hoochie Coochie Man, Statesboro Blues and Desdemona as if they had just been discovered. Two and a half hours of relentless music/blues/rock 'n' roll.

The road may not go on forever, but the end still is beyond the horizon.

Thom Smith is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

The Allman Brothers at the Seminole Hard Rock
(Photo by Tom Craig/Seminole Hard Rock)

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