The only note of sentiment during the Allman Brothers Band's October 28th concert at New York's Beacon Theatre – their last at that venue and anywhere else, at least for the foreseeable future – came after more than four hours of music: three sets and an inevitable encore, "Whipping Post." The seven members of the group – the surviving trio of founders, singer-organist Gregg Allman and drummers Butch Trucks and Jaimoe; the long-serving guitar team of Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks; and often overlooked veterans Oteil Burbridge on bass and percussionist Marc Quinones – lined up onstage and took a bow: a first at any Allmans-Beacon show I'd ever attended.
Then Gregg, pressed forward by the others, gave a short speech, another first, recalling the day 45 years ago that he first sang with the original Allmans lineup – led by his late brother, guitarist Duane Allman, and including guitarist Dickey Betts and the late bassist Berry Oakley – at a jam session in Jacksonville, Florida. Gregg cited the precise date, March, 26th, 1969, then said, in a low, worn voice, "Never did I have any idea it could come to this." He gazed gratefully at the crowd, still on its feet, clapping and cheering, at nearly 1:30 a.m. "Now," Gregg added, "We're gonna do the first song we ever played."
The Allmans got back in position and tore into "Trouble No More," the Muddy Waters rumble from Side One of the group's 1969 debut album, The Allman Brothers Band. It sounded nothing like goodbye: tight and gnarly, Derek and Haynes riding the triple-drum-kit surf with avenging poise. But it was.
The Unbroken Circle
Until that late acknowledgement of the occasion, the show was most remarkable for what didnt't happen. There were no special guests – a signature feature of the Alllmans' Beacon shows over the last decade – and the group did not throw in any of the extended-family covers (the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Dr.John, Derek and the Dominos) that came, often in medleys without warning, during the Allmans' annual spring runs at the Beacon. The closest they got to the latter: an elegaic swerve, at the end of the first set, through King Curtis's "Soul Serenade" in "You Don't Love Me," quoting a segue I've got on an August, 1971 live-radio bootleg; and the chase-scene extension of "Black Hearted Woman" in the second set, when the rhythm section switched accents and Derek and Haynes hit the chattering riff of the Grateful Dead's "The Other One."
Otherwise, the Allmans – who announced their retirement from touring after Derek and Haynes issued a statement earlier this year that they were leaving to concentrate on their own careers – made sure they performed as much of their classic catalog, from the five albums made between that '69 bow and 1973's Brothers and Sisters, as could be fit in one night. The end of the road actually began with a poetic rewind of Duane-time flashbacks: An introductory flourish of the guitarist's last composition, the acoustic "Little Martha" played by Derek and Haynes in electric harmony, quickly broke into "Mountain Jam," the guitarists citing Donovan's source melody, "There Is a Mountain," in languid, treble sighs. It was a literal replication of the closing sequence, on Sides Three and Four, of 1972's Eat a Peach, the album the Allmans were making when Duane died the previous October. That coupling erupted into another: the one-two punch of the Spencer Davis Group's "Don't Want You No More" and Gregg's eerily prophetic blues "It's Not My Cross to Bear" at the beginning of The Allman Brothers Band.
The Allmans' recurring cycles of ascension, tragedy, crash, recovery and determined performing triumph, in every era, were directly addressed in a first-set reading of "The High Cost of Low Living," from 2003's Hittin' the Note, the only Allmans studio album to feature Derek and Haynes. The third set was a loosely narrative charge through pilgrimage and celebration – "Revival," "Southbound" and more "Mountain Jam." The last gently dissolved into the Carter Family hymn "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," sung by Gregg as ragged pleading with Haynes riding shotgun, in decisively sunny harmony. But the finish extended the circle, taking everyone back to psychedelic church with another flash of "Mountain Jam" at "The Other One" velocity.
The End of the Road?
The talk in the balcony, before the show and during the breaks, was of Betts, who was fired in 2000: Was there a chance he would come out and play, completing one more circle on the last possible night? He didn't but was present in the songs – "Blue Sky," "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" – and in Derek and Haynes' ties, through their harmonies and soloing, to the standards of fraternal lock and empathic dialogue set by Duane, with Betts, right out of the gate, in 1969. As he did on other nights in this October run, Derek played Duane's own gold-top Les Paul – in the first set during Elmore James' "One Way Out" and Sonny Boy Williamson's "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl."
But there was a lot of blues-power Dickey cutting through the Duane in both Derek's raga-panic breaks and Haynes' modal skids during "Elizabeth Reed" and in that "Whipping Post." The younger men both played with Betts at different times in the Allmans, then together in the band for nearly fifteen years, five times longer than Betts and Duane did. There was never a suggestion – when Derek joined in 1999 and Haynes came back after Betts' dismissal – that either player had replaced the elders. The lightning, frenzy and swan dives in "Hot 'Lanta," "Statesboro Blues" And "Dreams," tonight as at every other Beacon show I saw, were acts of acknowledgement and summation, charged with pursuit of the unfinished.
That work, it seems, will stay undone. During the intermissions, a curious message appeared on the large video screen behind the band: "The road indeed goes on forever. So stay calm, eat a peach and carry on . . ." The individual members of the Allmans will certainly continue to play in some form and combinations. There may even be reunions. As for the guitarists, Derek's R&B juggernaut with his wife Susan Tedeschi, the Tedeschi Trucks Band, recently played a transcendant Beacon run in September, and Haynes' group Gov't Mule will make their traditional holiday stop at that stage on December 30th and 31st. I went to the former; I don't want to miss the latter.
But it will take more than a peach to get me through next March. It was never spring, I always said, until I saw the Allmans peakin' at the Beacon. Tonight was a generous, continually thrilling farewell. It will make the leaving that much harder to bear.
"Don't Want You No More"
"It's Not My Cross to Bear"
"One Way Out"
"Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl"
"The High Cost of Low Living"
"You Don't Love Me"
"Ain't Wastin' Time No More"
"Black Hearted Woman"
"The Sky Is Crying"
"Don't Keep Me Wondering"
"In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" (with drum solos)
"Will the Circle Be Unbroken"
"Mountain Jam (reprise)"
"Trouble No More"