Gregg Allman's blues-wolf growl and soul-church charge on the Hammond B-3 organ are so identified with — and perfect for — the electric improvising brawn of the Allman Brothers Band that it is a shock to hear Allman's voice and instrumental stamp in any other setting. But Low Country Blues is a tailor-made stretch, to an earthy turmoil that feels like homecoming: a trip with the spirits that shaped his band's sound and mission — B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Skip James, Otis Rush — with all of the healing that implies.
Produced by T Bone Burnett, Allman's first solo album since 1997 is virtually all covers, and the one exception nearly qualifies. "Just Another Rider," co-written with Warren Haynes, is an obvious sequel to the Allman Brothers staple "Midnight Rider," infused with brass and more regret. Otherwise, Allman sticks to down-home and downhearted fundamentals such as Junior Wells' "Little by Little," Amos Milburn's "Tears, Tears, Tears" and Rush's "Checking on My Baby," while Burnett whips up his trademark shanty-party stew: crusted-treble guitars, bull fiddle and swamp-water reverb. When Allman turns on the snarling impatience in Waters' "I Can't Be Satisfied," it feels like business as usual, except for the stark hard-rubber stride of bassist Dennis Crouch and drummer Jay Bellerose, which suggests a skeleton rushing to catch a bus.
It's the shades of blue in Allman's vocals, amplified by Burnett's austere, consciously antique production, that make Low Country Blues an eerie pleasure with quietly persistent emotional conviction. Allman's plaintive, serrated howl in Sleepy John Estes' "Floating Bridge" isn't very different from that of the much younger man who tore through "Statesboro Blues" on 1971's At Fillmore East; Allman always sang like he wore a lifetime's scars. But Estes wrote his song, which he cut in 1937, about his near-death by drowning. Allman, who's lived some serious blues, including a liver transplant last summer, easily finds himself in there too, investing Estes' tale with his own humbled authority as guitars, bass and Dr. John's piano dart around Allman like black crows in a sheet-metal sky. Later, Allman sings the Delta dread of James' "Devil Got My Woman" as if he can still see hellhounds in his rearview mirror. Behind him, Bellerose hits his drums like he's throwing suitcases around on a railway platform, and Doyle Bramhall II's rudely fuzzed guitar sounds like hellish mocking laughter.
Low Country Blues could have used some variety in repertoire — the way Allman took stone-country possession of Jackson Browne's "These Days" on his 1973 solo album, Laid Back — and less of that echo. It's as if Burnett tried a little too hard to create the illusion of empty bedrooms and roads that go on forever, when it's all in that voice — still in front of one of rock's great touring bands and curing blues across the land since 1969.