This is the Allman Brothers' sixth album, one many people never expected to see. Their last release, Brothers and Sisters, came out two years ago, and since then band members have seemed to be spinning off in separate orbits. When work on this album began in the spring, fans sighed in relief.
Win, Lose or Draw continues in the tradition established by the ABB from their first record — funky originals and ballads spiced with classic blues and spacey, jazz-tinged instrumental work. Rather than self-consciously trying to break new musical ground here, the band just adds more and better tunes in the veins they mine so well.
All but two of the seven tracks — the first and the last — are original. The core is ABB all the way. "Can't Lose What You Never Had" is a Muddy Waters song (in an interview Waters once named it as his favorite composition) and it's given full Brothers treatment here. Their version is more throbbing and ominous than the original, with insidious slide guitar fills. Allman personalizes the classic lyric a bit, over pulsing and entwining syncopated backing. Betts takes most of the solo rides, stretching out with driving slide and finger work.
Both the title song and "Nevertheless" were written by Gregg Allman. The latter sounds like a stepchild of a couple of songs from the Brothers' second LP. It has touches of the melancholy melody of "Please Call Home" and some of the oddly accented and convoluted lick lines of "Leave My Blues at Home." Once again, Betts does most of the solo spots.
"Win, Lose or Draw" is the song that hits most people hardest on first hearing. It's an interior monolog movie of a man in jail and the changes he goes through. "Oh I'm so farrrr away," Gregg sings with a clear and aching vocal (his voice here isn't as gravelly as usual, which also helps set the mood), and Betts responds with subtle and moving slide work. The picture is of a man locked up, watching his woman slip away, lost in futility ("cold desperation I feel") in an anonymous cell with a stranger. Though not a blues in style or structure, it's sad and moving.
Richard Betts does vocal leads on his two songs, and as you might expect, they're more country tinged. "Just Another Love Song" is close in spirit in Betts's Highway Call album though the lyrics are touched with bitterness. It's a woman leaving-home song, and though Betts's guitar has its usual fleet and lilting sound, there's pain in his playing, too: "Just another lonesome guitar ringing, only difference is, this time it's one of mine."
Percussion shines on "Louisiana Lou and Three Card Monty John," a bouncy, gambling-man saga. Drummers Butch Trucks and Jaimoe work on and off each other, like syncopated jumping beans. Their interplay pops, and you can almost see the grins on their faces.
The instrumental, "High Falls," runs almost 14 minutes — but it seems more like four, Another Betts composition, it's a perfect example of the kind of dynamics that sets the Brothers instrumentally so far above most bands. The guitarist's theme sounds like it could be a soundtrack for an Italian move or a big-sky Western — Betts has a knack for finding new but instantly familiar riffs that you'd swear you've heard before but haven't. Like most of their instrumentals, this is kinetic; the theme is stated, improvised on, abandoned, rediscovered, intensified and finally mellowly resolved. (Especially smokin' bass by Lamar Williams and building keyboard rides by Chuck Leavell.)
The album closes with "Sweet Mama" by Billy Joe Shaver (who wrote most of Waylon Jennings's Honky Tonk Heroes album). Betts does the vocal and, once more, most of the solos on slide guitar, but I swear I hear the ghost of Brother Duane in this song. Betts learned his slide playing from Duane, so naturally there were always similarities, but each had his own distinctive. touch — in spots here, the sound and feel is so close to Duane, it's almost eerie. Still, the song is a good-timey and rocking close to the album.
This is a record that grows on you. The more you hear it the more neat little subtleties you hear — the interplay is as tight as ever. If you're into rumors, you'll believe what you want anyway, but the Brothers just began an extensive tour and, on the evidence of this LP, they are together and riding high once again.