Gregg Allman may not look like Lazarus, but he sure acts like him. Allman’s astonishing resurrection here seems less an act of heroism on his part than a miracle on someone else’s. After all, in the space of a few years, this artist went from being an exceptional white blues singer and the leader of one of the best American rock bands to being a laughingstock, a pathetic churl apparently unaware of the humiliation he suffered at the hands of Hollywood and the glitzy Cher. The proposed Allman Brothers, and reunion promised to be a ghoulish joke, the musical equivalent of Night of the Living Dead.
Yet Enlightened Rogues, the product of that reunion, takes its place not beside the empty, last-gasp Win, Lose or Draw, or even the slick and calculated Brothers and Sisters, but ranks with the group’s greatest albums, The Allman Brothers Band and Idlewild South. Of course, the current twin-guitar sound falls short of the rich contrast between Duane Allman’s fat, explosive tone and Dickey Betts’ sweet, incisive harmony work on the earlier LPs, and Gregg Allman’s once terrifying singing has been humbled by tragedy. But whatever Enlightened Rogues lacks in virtuosity, it makes up for in emotional intensity.
This record practically throbs with pain. The remaining band members’ determination to continue after the deaths of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley was noble but rote, but they’ve obviously reached the bottom of their despair and come through to the other side. The sense of loss that informs Enlightened Rogues is counterbalanced by a newfound ability to stare that loss in the face. The Allman Brothers started out deeply rooted in the blues, and they’ve returned to those roots with new commitment.
The key to Enlightened Rogues’ gnostic embrace of blues feeling is in Gregg Allman’s vocals. He sings of lost love and shattered promises from a moral stance born of horror, not self-delusion. The fearsome, wine-drinking Allman of Idlewild South‘s “Leave My Blues at Home” has become a grim man who now understands his needs and failings. He can sing Little Willie John’s “Need Your Love So Bad” (the first track the band cut on these sessions) not from admiration or aesthetic smugness, but from recognition.
Allman wrote only one song on Enlightened Rogues: “It Just Ain’t Easy.” He didn’t have to write another. The references to his life in Los Angeles, his private and public hell, are right up front. The forceful image of a sleepwalker trapped in a recurrent dream has mythical resonance from Sisyphus to Bob Dylan’s “Memphis Blues Again,” but Gregg Allman amplifies his terror through the knowledge of why he stays: ” ‘Cause midnight’s calling.” Allman’s warning at song’s end, sung over and over as the languid guitar lines spin out the punctuation, rings with the power of someone who’s come to terms with his own disgrace: “When you leave there you got your hat down on your face Well, well.”
Most of the numbers were written or cowritten by Betts, who now has nominal control of the band since the two new members, bassist David Goldflies and guitarist Dan Toler, were drafted from his post-Allman Brothers group, Great Southern. But Dickey Betts can’t match Gregg Allman as a vocalist, and “Sail Away,” a tune that sounds like it could have been on either of the last two albums, suffers as a result. In “Crazy Love,” an uptempo rocker built around vigorous slide-guitar solos, Betts’ singing is better, probably because Bonnie Bramlett covers him so well with strong backup vocals. The Betts compositions on which Allman sings lead, “Blind Love” (a revised “Statesboro Blues”) and the modified boogie, “Can’t Take It with You,” are especially good. Allman’s tough, raspy vocal and the searing guitar accents at the climax of the latter provide one of the LP’s high points.
If there’s a miracle here, it’s worked by the band’s much-improved percussion section. Drummers Jaimoe Johanny Johanson and Butch Trucks were always the bedrock of the Allman’s relentless swing, and these two propel Enlightened Rogues with a rare combination of strength and subtlety. The delicate rhythmic accents in “Try It One More Time” are phenomenal as Johanson and Trucks wield magic on their cross-rhythms during their brief break.
“Pegasus,” the long Betts instrumental, compares favorably with his previous efforts in this direction, “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and “Blue Sky.” The group sweeps effortlessly through the tune’s eight-part evolution. After the theme and first guitar solo, Allman displays the finest organ playing of his career. At the end of his solo, the organ fills out the progression with a warm resolution that recalls Steve Winwood’s magnificent music on Traffic’s John Barleycorn Must Die. Betts enters for his solo, and the drummers move freely into orbit until the guitars and organ state the bridge in unison before the theme is again evoked, releasing the tension. Then the coda extends in enveloping filigrees, recapitulating the melodic ideas in a jazzinfluenced approach reminiscent of the days when Duane Allman and Dickey Betts would stretch out an ending far beyond its possibilities, searching for that last ringing resolution, that perfect final note.