The Old Man Of Southern Rock
I don’t know exactly what I was doing on March 12 and 13, 1971 except that I was not-yet-a-teenager studying in Class 6 in a Calcutta school. Of course, I had not even the faintest idea that on the other side of the planet on those two dates, rock history was being made as a band played what is one of the best live concert recordings that I have heard. On those two nights, at New York’s Fillmore East venue, The Allman Brothers Band played two gigs that were later turned (along with another gig there that they played in June the same year) into The Fillmore Concerts album.
The Fillmore East was promoter Bill Graham’s venue in New York’s East Village and operated between 1968 and 1971. In fact, the June gig that the Allman Brothers’ played there was probably the last one to have been staged at that storied venue. I, obviously, never had the opportunity to see a concert at the Fillmore East but every time (and I can’t remember how many times that is) I have heard The Fillmore Concerts I have mentally conjured up my version of what it could have been like had I been in the audience one any or all of those three nights.
You can’t help but do that. I have not met anyone who has heard the 12-minute and 59-second version of In Memory of Elizabeth Reed on that album by a band that was among US southern rock’s all-time stars and has not been deeply moved. I heard it the first time on a scratchy taping off a damaged vinyl on a Maxell cassette tape in 1976 and it moved me. I pop in my 1992 CD versions of those recordings now and it moves me. I hear it on my iPod and it does the same. As does Stormy Monday (10-min and 19-sec) and You Don’t Love Me (19-min and 24-sec) and Whipping Post (22-min and 37-sec) and Drunken Hearted Boy (7-min and 33-sec) and as do each one of the other seven tracks that make up The Fillmore Concerts.
The Allman Brothers Band, as they were till October 1971, were high up on my favourites list but The Fillmore Concerts album was right up on top of the heap. In October 1971, tragedy struck the band when it lost one of its two lead guitarists, Duane Allman, whose duelling with the band’s other lead guitarist Dickey Betts, made much of what The Allman Brothers’ guitar-driven, blues-
fuelled music was all about. And, although the band continues to play even today, it has never grabbed me the way it did when Duane was alive. A little over a year after Allman died in a motorcycle accident, bassist Berry Oakely was killed in a similar motorcycle accident. The band reformed with new additions over the year and was led by Duane’s brother and prime vocalist of the group, Gregg Allman, but I never really got big thrills out of them anymore. For me, besides The FC, Allman Brothers’ albums translated into some of their really early ones: the eponymous The Allman Brothers Band (1970) and Eat A Peach. Why? Because those had the super slide guitar riffs delivered by Duane.
That’s not quite true, really. I did like the later albums and gigs on which Gov’t Mule’s Warren Haynes played or the brilliant blues guitarist, Derek Trucks, joined the band, but even then the Allmans without Duane were not the same again.
So it was with a bit of skepticism that I picked up Gregg Allman’s latest solo effort, Low Country Blues, which came out last month. At 63, Gregg Allman isn’t a spring chicken. And years of rough living— drug excesses in the early years, a liver transplant more recently and six marriages (one of them to the singer, Cher)—have taken their toll. I’d heard a couple of Gregg Allman’s earlier solo efforts and hadn’t really found them overwhelming. So, it was with some apprehension that I began listening to Low Country Blues. And surprise! Gregg’s voice was soulful and as distinctive as it had been on the early Allman albums and the set of songs he has chosen (including compositions by Muddy Waters, Sleepy John Estes and B.B. King) is unadulterated blues. To add to the experience, the legendary T-Bone Burnett is the producer (he also plays guitar on the album) and Dr. John is on piano besides a couple of other musicians and, of course, Gregg Allman on his trusty Hammond keyboards. Low Country Blues won’t redefine the way the blues are played but it is an album that, at least for me, marks the resurgence of Gregg Allman. And I look forward to sequels from the old man of southern rock.