The Allman Brothers band live on because live performance is what they’re about. The call of the road and the thrill of collective improvisation are the animating forces behind this rock institution, ever since 1971’s live At Fillmore East confirmed their reputation and provided their commercial breakthrough.
2nd Set, the sequel to the 1992 concert disc An Evening With …, documents the miraculous revivification the Allman Brothers have undergone since reconvening in 1989. They’ve survived the losses of guitarist Duane Allman and bassist Berry Oakley more than 20 years ago, not to mention a few lost years in between. In fact, they’ve managed to retain and refine their musical identity.
The continuity is provided by the seemingly indestructible core of Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts. These men have endured the ravages of rock & roll and emerged strengthened, with the kind of world-wary depth and wisdom that informed most of the great blues musicians.
Allman’s chillingly roughed-up voice carries a bittersweet conviction. He takes charge on songs of experience like “Sailin’ Cross the Devil’s Sea,” “No One to Run With” and the great R&B ballad “Soulshine.” Guitarist Betts takes center stage for the neopsychedelia epic “Back Where It All Begins,” a warm tribute to the newer, younger legions of fans. These kids clamor for what the album’s spoken introduction aptly calls “the real thing.” Throughout the album, Betts’ silvery blues-to-bluegrass soloing is pitched (right channel) against the phenomenal slide and lead-guitar work of Warren Haynes (left channel) and the supple thunder of bassist Allen Woody. Haynes can sing the blues, too: He renders Willie Dixon’s “The Same Thing” with earned authority.
Haynes and Woody have also combined in a spinoff band, Gov’t Mule. Simply put, this is the most exciting major-group offshoot since Hot Tuna evolved out of Jefferson Airplane in the early ’70s. Taking a further cue from the glory days of the power trio, the Mule kick with punishing metal force. Woody and drummer Matt Abts hammer out a bottom-heavy platform from which Haynes can grandstand.
As formidable as Haynes is with the Allman Brothers Band, he soars in this sparser setting. He pits an astonishing slide solo against John Popper’s guest harmonica on “Mule” and then bridges the not-too-distant gap between Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis on the modal jam “Trane.” Gov’t Mule gallop through a gamut of power-trio tropes from the steel-spinning ecstasy of Cream to the otherworldly effects of ZZ Top, from the light-heavy dichotomy of Led Zeppelin to the sonic taffy pull of Mountain. All the while, Haynes focuses these elements through his own distinct personality — the true mark of a guitar genius.