The prime of the Allman Brothers Band came and went so quickly so long ago that it's easy to underestimate the tremendous importance of the band. For a brief time, roughly from the release of the landmark album At Fillmore East, in the summer of 1971, to the death of guitarist Duane Allman that autumn, it seemed as if the Georgia sextet's knowing, deeply felt recastings of American country blues and British Invasion stylings, coupled with the band's insatiable appetite for extended jams, would simply conquer rock. With Duane Allman, a six-string master whose only peers were Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, and Gregg Allman, a tremendously soulful singer, leading the way, the Allman Brothers Band created Southern rock and changed the landscape of American music for hundreds of bands.
But after a year of immense popularity, the group's unique mix fell out of favor as its extended boogies began to meander. Since then, periodic reunions (another of which is shaping up for the summer) haven't offered much more than nostalgia and the occasional serviceable tune.
It's been twenty years since the Allman Brothers' debut album, so it's a sensible (if arbitrary) moment for the reevaluation offered by Dreams, a sprawling, five-hour-plus retrospective (spread across four CDs and cassettes or six LPs) that reclaims the place of the Allmans in the first rank of American bands.
On the surface, proving the worth of the Allmans is an easy task. The band's first four albums, especially At Fillmore East, remain sprightly and inventive. (Compiler Bill Levenson, who also programmed Eric Clapton's Crossroads box, knows these are the best: More than one-third of the tracks come from the 1969-72 heyday.) On the lengthy versions of "I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town," "Whipping Post" and "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," Duane and fellow guitarist Dickey Betts sketch out directions that guitar experimenters have frequently retraced. Yet Duane and Betts rarely soared so far away from a song's essence that the solos became ends rather than means: They expanded, but they didn't try to force a song to accept a solo it didn't need.
The finest example of this method is a previously unreleased jam of "You Don't Love Me" and "Soul Serenade" recorded live in 1971. Intended as a tribute to Duane's friend and occasional collaborator King Curtis, the great saxophonist who had recently been murdered, the nineteen-minute medley displays Duane's ability to transform his playing to accommodate a song's changes and his fellow performers' demands. Along with his session work for Derek and the Dominos ("Layla") and Boz Scaggs ("Loan Me a Dime"), this jam stands as one of Duane's finest moments.
There are great, unreleased tracks culled from the nonheyday years surveyed in Dreams, most notably a cover of "Rain," recorded by Gregg with the Charles May Ensemble in 1985, that owes more to Ray Charles than the Beatles. Even Gregg's 1977 duet "Can You Fool" with his then wife Cher, from the pair's album Two the Hard Way (on which they were billed, unfortunately, as Allman and Woman), is not without its charms. And "I'm No Angel," the 1987 hit single that solidified Gregg's return, sounds completely up-to-date, yet it is a logical extension of the pop side of the Allman Brothers Band. The set closes with "Duane's Tune," a recent instrumental by Dickey Betts that evokes his former partner's triumphs without retreading old steps.
Five hours of the Allman Brothers in one collection may be too much for all but historians and die-hard fans, but those who dig — selectively — will come up with some gold. The band's early demos reveal an infatuation with the Yardbirds and Cream that it would soon outgrow. Of course, Gregg sings rings around Keith Relf on a 1966 version of "Shapes of Things," credited to the Allman Joys, but Duane's style is still embryonic. Much better is a 1968 medley of three tunes associated with B.B. King ("Sweet Little Angel," "It's My Own Fault" and "How Blue Can You Get"), which gives Duane room to pay homage to a seminal stylist and then start blazing trails on his own.
Much of the reunion material from the late Seventies suggests that the surviving members came together because they couldn't think of anything else to do, although some tracks offer up some of the group's original energy. Not surprisingly, the latter-day performance by the band that sets off the most sparks is a second live version of "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," recorded in 1979, that manages to be celebratory and contemplative at the same time.
There's enough first-rate material on Dreams to fill at least two CDs and half of a third, no small achievement. Even though Dreams isn't the ideal introduction to the Allmans (At Fillmore East remains definitive), Levenson traces the band's rise and fall with the commitment and care of a true fan, and Dreams does offer some tremendous material, particularly the King Curtis medley and some extra live performances, which you simply can't get anywhere else. Most of all, Dreams provides an important service, flaws and all: It returns to prominence a band whose early achievements deserve no less.