The Last Stand? The Allman Brothers Get Down to Business at the Beacon

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Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes of The Allman Brothers Band performs in concert at Beacon Theatre on March 7, 2014 in New York City.
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The first minutes of the Allman Brothers Band's March 8th concert at New York's Beacon Theater – the second of their 14 shows there this month – sounded a lot like goodbye: a free-form ascension of blues-cry guitars, rippled-drone organ and overlapping percussion dominated by Butch Trucks' rolling boom on a pair of kettledrums.

See photos of the Allman Brothers Band through the years

That rapture has been the signature climax of "Whippin' Post" since the 1971 shows recorded for Live at Fillmore East, and the Allmans encored with that song on March 7th, their Beacon opening. The effect on this evening, as overture, made it seem like the Southern knights had never stopped playing the night before – that they just held tight, on one chord, until the house turned over for the next show. Then Warren Haynes hit a familiar slide-guitar reveille and the band jumped out of that suspense into "Statesboro Blues," formally kicking off the first set.

The End of the Road?

Tenacity and continuity; the mending of broken lines; the constant testing and exploration of the emotional and musical ties that bind: Those are the story lines that traditionally run through the Allmans' spring hang in New York. Another comes with this Beacon run: that nothing, including this American improvising institiution, goes on forever.

Earlier this year, Haynes, who has done 23 years in the Allmans over two stints, and guitarist Derek Trucks, Butch's nephew and a 15-year vet, announced that they were leaving at the end of 2014 to concentrate on their own careers, including Haynes' group Gov't Mule and Derek's big band with his wife, singer-guitarist Susan Tedeschi. Subsequently, singer-organist and surviving namesake Gregg Allman said the band founded by his late elder brother, guitarist Duane Allman, in 1969 would retire from regular touring after this year. But note the variety of replacement and reunion possibilities hanging in those statements – and the fact that no one has used the word "last" to describe these Beacon shows. For now, there is still serious business to attend to, on that bandstand.

Peaks and Valleys

I have seen every double-guitar iteration of the Allmans that has passed through the Beacon since the band first settled into this former Depression-era movie palace in 1989, including Haynes with now-exiled co-founder Dickey Betts and the brief pairing of Betts and Derek, harmonizing across their age gap in "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" just weeks before Betts' dismissal in 2000. There have been plenty of nights for the books, like the 2011 magic show where the Haynes-and-Derek Allmans recreated all of Live at Fillmore East, vividly readdressing that soloing and searching in sequence and new joy.

The Beacon experience can also be intriguingly bumpy, depending on the turns in mood and set list. At times, March 8th looked and sounded more like a first night, with odd moments of distraction and languor. Jaimoe spent much of the Allmans' blues-haze cover of the Beatles' "Rain" fussing with the tuning pegs on his kick drum. During "Seven Turns," Allman apparently missed a vocal cue; Haynes sang the second chorus turned sideways at his mike, as if he was trying to catch Allman's eye. And Butch did not come out for the encore; percussionist Marc Quiñones sat at his kit in "Southbound."

But if this show was my last time around, it was great enough, often enough, in sudden explosions of inspiration and vitality, for me to go home on a high. In that "Statesboro Blues," Haynes played the slide role I've often seen Derek handle, reflecting their singular tandem of empathy and exchange in performance. Haynes' soloing was high and hard, his bottleneck skidding so far up the neck of his Les Paul it was practically over the pickup. Derek's break, on his Gibson SG, was more fluid in motion, just as cutting in tone, like he was channeling Betts from Fillmore East.

A first-half run of early-Seventies stalwarts – "Come and Go Blues" from Brothers and Sisters, Idlewild South's "Don't Keep Me Wonderin'" and the Fillmore East instrumental "Hot 'Lanta" – swerved into an Afro-Cuban conversation on congas and bass, between Quiñones and Oteil Burbridge, then a charge into Haynes' "Rocking Horse," with an extended digression into furious-waltz time and a whiplash-slide break by Derek. A jump back, later, to the Idlewild South arrangement of Willie Dixon's "Hoochie Coochie Man" was startling in its mounting-thunder intro: At 44 years old, in this band's grip, that turmoil is still a commanding, dazzling violence.

The second set started in quiet treble: Haynes and Derek playing Duane's acoustic lullabye "Little Martha" on electric guitars, taking the first couple of rounds together before the full band swelled behind them. Burbridge sang a lead vocal on "Seven Turns," in a robust boy-ish voice that suggested the song is just waiting for its country-crossover moment (maybe a cover by Eric Church?). But that was a fleeting thought, immediately shoved aside when "Black Hearted Woman," from 1969's The Allman Brothers Band blew up the room. Haynes and Derek hit the bridge lick together – the former singing it over Derek's sweeping screams on the SG. Then the rhythm shifted into the choppy-ocean time of the Grateful Dead's "The Other One" with Haynes, then Derek, soloing over the churn until Haynes cued everyone back into the last shredded remnants of the song.

It is inevitable at any Allmans show but especially at the Beacon: There is much turning back, in order to find new ways forward. During that "Statesboro Blues," the images flashed on the video screen behind the band included the song's author, the pre-war bluesman Blind Willie McTell; 1969 and '70 photos of the Allmans with Duane, Betts and the late bassist Berry Oakley; and a shot of impressario Bill Graham on his Fillmore East stage, a clear home-on-the-road precedent for the Beacon stands. And it was hard to miss the circular quality of the finish: "Jessica," with the Allmans back in that nervy family-band climb, with Butch back on the kettledrums, the way they opened the show.

This is a tale that can be told indefinitely. Like several recent Beacon runs, every show in this series will be available on CD and download from the Allmans' website. The group has just issued a two-CD set, Play All Night: Live at the Beacon Theater 1992 (Epic/Legacy), from the Betts-Haynes heyday. And Alan Paul's just-published biography, One Way Out: The Inside Story of the Allman Brothers Band (St. Martin's Press), is a thorough account of the group's birth, several implosions and multiple resurrections

But in his afterword to Paul's book, Jaimoe writes, "One indisputable fact is that whatever has happened to, and with, the Allman Brothers Band, we've persevered." There is still a lot of living and playing implied in that statement. The road may not go on forever, but the Allmans are still at the Beacon through March 29th. That story isn't finished yet.