Sometimes it all seems to come down to the question of survival — and learning to live with loss. Rock and blues have lost a lot of people in the past five years, but the death of an artist always diminishes the music more than the death of a “star” — and Duane Allman was an artist. He lived for and in music, loving it with the kind of possessed passion that sometimes leads people to believe that bluesmen have traded their souls to the Devil for the magic of their music.
When Duane was killed in a motorcycle accident last fall, the other five group members went off in separate directions for a few weeks — but they soon found themselves calling each other up, wanting to get together and jam. Most voids ache to be filled, and music can fill many because it can contain so much; sorrow, celebration, anger, love — and always the joy of just plain getting it on. So soon the five-man Allman Brothers began to play again — what else could they do?
One of their first gigs after the tragedy was Thanksgiving night at Carnegie Hall. The trademark dual guitar harmonies and inter-play were missing — but the band still boogied hard, strong and soaring. It was as if each of the five had expanded some to fill the empty space, and a different kind of internal structure started to grow. Dicky Betts guitar smoked for sure, prodded by Berry Oakley’s driving bass it drove into new regions. Since then the band has grown even tighter. “The brother spirit is there,” Berry says. “And the bond is really strong.” Work had begun on their fourth album, and three tracks were completed with Duane before the accident. According to Dicky, the original idea was an album with a “light, airy, free kind of feel” to go along with the title, Eat a Peach (Capricorn ZCP 0102). The music on this double album is drawn from three different sources; live tracks from Fillmore East (most cut at the same gig that resulted in the earlier live album), studio sessions done with Duane last fall, and one whole side from the “new” band, recorded in mid-January.
Chronologically, the album really begins with Side Two, “Mountain Jam.” (You can hear its opening notes on the fadeout of “Whipping Post,” the last track on the last side of Live at Fillmore East.) The instrumental jam is based on Donovan’s “First There Is A Mountain,” but soon leaves it to stretch off into more expansively soaring riffs — always anchored in solid rock, but also swirling smooth in clouds of jazz-like improvisation. Everybody gets some good rides flowing, taking themes and circling them from inside out; Dicky Betts walks some jagged edges while Berry cooks and bubbles below, joined by Duane who puts an encouraging aura around Dicky’s urgency. And typically, the whole band merges into one organism, one master musician with 30 fingers and six instruments to play on. The side ends with a pulsing drum riff by drummers Butch Trucks and Jai Johann Johanson followed by the beginnings of a bass solo. Side four is the second part of the jam (it runs 35 minutes) — the ending of the drum riff is overlapped on the two sides so there is no sense of loss at the transition. Berry struts in hard at first, then begins to interweave rhythmic intricacies with the groundwork laid by the drummers. Duane and Dicky join in lacing guitar lead lines like electric snakes — and Duane takes off on a truly possessed solo, walking that knife-edge between mellow and madness — the old devil/saint demon that exists in every artist pouring out through his fingers. The tension/struggle is resolved as the music melts to a riff on “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” which builds with what can only be called grandeur, into a rising affirmation. Finally, back again to the “Mountain” theme, lilting and climbing home with ending chords that wash over you like ocean-spray at sunrise. The set closes with Duane calling off the band members names and saying “thank you” — I can see him loping off, and it feels as if he has just walked off his last stage, forever.
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If you flip the record stack over, on side three you’ll find the band back at the Fillmore, rocking on Sonny Boy Williamson’s “One Way Out.” Duane plays harp-like lines during Gregg’s vocals, then follows a smoking solo of Dicky’s with some stinging slide guitar — they trade off short riffs that flat burn. Muddy Water’s “Trouble No More” is next, with Duane on slide again — like the version on their first LP the groove funky, but lined with velvet.
“Stand Back” (by Gregg) is the first of the three studio tracks with Duane. The bar-room riff jumps right along as the lyrics lay down a tale of a lost but not too lamented love. “If I ever see that woman walking down the street, I’ll just stand back — and try to move away slowly,” Gregg sings with finality. Once again, Duane is on slide.
“Blue Sky,” written and sung by Dicky Betts is for his woman, and though filled with “running rivers” and “sunny skies,” has a pure and natural freshness that ten thousand folked-up troubadours will never reach — no matter how much straw they got in their boots. The guitar interplay between Duane and Dicky has a country cleanness, but stays solidly in the throbbing Allman groove — can you dig country/blues in a new kind of marriage? (Two of Dicky’s favorite musicians are Robert Johnson and Jimmie the singing brakeman Rogers.) On first hearing, this is the track many people flash on.
The last cut with Duane, “Little Martha,” is the only tune he gets sole writing credit for on any Allman Brothers albums. It’s an evocative, airy and rippling acoustic guitar duet with Dicky, and gives a glimpse of a side of Duane rarely seen on stage. (“Duane and I always talked about doing part of the set acoustic,” Dicky says. “But somehow we just never got around to it …”) Though Duane could get on a stage and burn holes in the sky with his electric fire, he was also capable of mellowing out any cricket-ridden nightwatch with this kind of back porch sound.
Side one, the last one chronologically, opens with “Ain’t Wasting Time No More,” the first track by the “new” band. Gregg’s lyrics and voice paint a picture of opposing sadness and defiance. “I ain’t wasting time no more — Time goes by like falling rain, and much faster than …” is the chorus, and one verse neatly sums up the survival hassle; “You don’t need no gypsy to tell you why, you can’t let one precious day slip by/Look inside yourself and if you don’t see what you want, maybe then you don’t — But leave your mind alone and just get high.” The cut ends with the wistful and melancholy lines, “Time rolls by like hurricanes…. and don’t forget the pour-our-ouring rain.” Dicky double tracks slide and lead guitars here, and though it wasn’t intentional, Duane’s feel is strong in his solo. “His spirit was there,” Berry says. Though a bit more introspective than most of their tunes, this track grows on you, rather than off you.
“Les Brers In A Minor” (by Dicky) is a nine minute instrumental masterpiece. It’s a highly cinematic sounding, almost symphonically majestic construction. which also boogies like a mother-fucker. It begins with two long and rising “suspensions” of swirling sound which make for a lot of mind movies (the “monkey skulls” make the woodblock-like sounds, by the way) — and the credits start to roll as bass and congas begin a popping riff, joined by a guitar line that is maddeningly familiar. (Dicky says it’s one of those lines that just came “out of the air,” but those who’ve heard it say it reminds them of something Greek, or Israeli, or “Midnight In Moscow,” or what-the-hell-was that? Send cards, it’s freaking me.) A soaring, nearly two-octave ascending scale explodes the song — it starts to drive with the same kind of midnight highway-riding power riffs that characterized “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” on the second album. Dicky slashes through some absolutely incendiary rides, then returns to the theme, which finally concludes with rolling chord-crashes. as “Fin” flashes across the mutual foreheads of everybody digging it. This track just destroys all the lame and pretentious classic-rock mixes that other groups have tried — and I suspect that that thought never crossed the Allman’s minds.
The concluding track, “Melissa,” is a ballad, strong on acoustic guitar. Gregg’s vocal is restrained, and the lyrics are an almost classic autobiography of any musician on the road; “The gypsy flies from coast to coast/Knowing many, loving none — bearing sorrow, having fun/But back home he’ll always run — to sweet Melissa.” And the truth that every rock and roll gypsy, strangely anonymous in his fame knows; “Freight train, each car looks the same/All the same, no one knows the gypsy’s name No one here has gone beside, there are no blankets where he lies Knowing people’s dreams, the gypsy flies — with sweet Melissa.” So going back home, knowing that love is all that makes it real.
No, the group is not the same without Duane (just as Duane was freed to soar by the group’s solid support, so they leaned into his fire) — but it’s still the Allman Brothers. It’s not a question of being “as good” or “not as good” — rather it’s just a difference, an expansion in several directions, still too early to name.
While Duane was with them, listening to the group was like getting laid by someone who loved you and knew how to love — not only getting you off, but getting you on as well. The new five-man group is like a new lover, with different passions, peaks and skills — and touches that may take a little getting used to at first, but satisfying just as surely.
The Allman Brothers are still the best goddamned band in the land, and this record with three sides of “old” and one side of “new” is a simultaneous sorrowed ending and hopeful beginning. I hope the band keeps playing forever — how many groups can you think of who really make you believe they’re playing for the joy of it?