The surviving members of the Allman Brothers Band, which regrouped in 1979 and recorded an impressive comeback album, Enlightened Rogues, must have known that making a go of things wouldn’t be easy. The Allman Brothers Band already had a long history of tragedy and tribulation, and, sure enough, two LPs and steady roadwork have kept the group’s name alive but failed to bring the overwhelming commercial success an outfit with such an illustrious past might have expected. Dashed expectations have been an Allman Brothers constant, from the deaths of guitarist Duane Allman and bassist Berry Oakley to the band’s original acrimonious breakup to more recent label and management hassles. These events may be discouraging, but at least they’ve furnished the raw material for some of the postcomeback Allman Brothers’ finest songs. In fact, dashed expectations are at the heart of Brothers of the Road.
On the back cover, there’s a statement that the album and its title tune are dedicated to “the musicians who have made southern rock a traditional art form in American music,” but as an in-group anthem, “Brothers of the Road” is too clubby to be stirring. The Allman Brothers Band cut closest to the bone when Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts and their various songwriting partners confront personal dilemmas. Allman’s startling confessional ballad, “Just Ain’t Easy,” was the highlight of Enlightened Rogues, and though none of his compositions on the new record manages to reach that plateau, the bitter, world-weary “Things You Used to Do” comes very close, while “Never Knew How Much (I Needed You)” is a deeply felt soul ballad that rings true.
“Things You Used to Do” is a tale about an old girlfriend who’s returned with the same shuck and jive a few years too late: dashed expectations in spades. Betts’ songs don’t carry quite as much weight or personal disappointment, yet “The Heat Is On” is a vivid portrait of a return home. The narrator’s old friends all seem to be in jail or staying out of sight. Again, one is confronted with how drastically the present has failed to live up to the promise of the past. It’s these cuts that convince, rather than the good-ol’-boys camaraderie of “Brothers of the Road” and the upbeat single “Straight from the Heart.”
More than any other LP with the Allman Brothers’ name on it, Brothers of the Road is singles oriented. The group’s trademark two-guitar interplay has been reduced to terse filler on most of the tracks, and there aren’t any of the band’s familiar instrumental raveup numbers either. Rhythmically, the departed “Jaimoe” Johanny Johanson is sorely missed. Johanson’s New Orleans strut was a perfect complement to fellow drummer Butch Trucks’ clipped, measured playing, and his replacement, David Toler, doesn’t seem to display much personality, at least not on this album.
Brothers of the Road is a little lacking in personality, too. At its best, it has both the instrumental finesse and soul that have always made the Allman Brothers Band special. But in too many of the tunes, the group sounds like it’s marking time as it rolls down that long, lonesome road.