The weather was lousy — cold, wet and windy — and the location was new, about a dozen subway stops north. But the Allman Brothers Band brought the springtime — sunshine, peaches and robust harmony guitars — to New York, as they have virtually every March since 1989, on the second night of their 2010 residency at the United Palace Theater in Harlem on Friday.
The Allmans opened with a dig at their usual home this time of year: New York skyline shots on the screen behind the band during the first-album medley of “Don’t Want You No More” and “Ain’t My Cross to Bear” included one of the Beacon Theatre with a red circle and a slash through it. (The venue has been taken over by a Cirque de Soleil production.) The audience booed accordingly. There have been troubles uptown too: The Allmans cancelled their March 22-27nd shows at United Palace because of an “unforeseen family matter,” according to a statement issued last week. The run ends on March 20th.
But the group was, from the start on March 12th, at peakin’-Beacon strength. Gregg Allman’s voice — precociously fierce and weathered in 1969, genuinely raw and vulnerable for the last couple of decades — carried “Ain’t My Cross to Bear” with scarred authority, against guitarist Derek Trucks’ snake-crawl lines of slide guitar and bursts of fuzzy sustain. Trucks and guitarist Warren Haynes hung together, spitting licks as the rhythm section built up to the segue into “You Don’t Love Me,” and ended the song by trading choruses like gunfire — an effect as familiar as the version on 1971’s At Fillmore East but fresh and stunning on impact.
In the Allmans, Trucks and Haynes — who have done their own lifetimes of playing — bring distinct personal energy and invention to the roles established by founding guitarists Duane Allman and Dickey Betts. You hear tradition, not recitation. In “Midnight Rider,” Trucks played a slide break that sounded more like the buzzing glide of a sarod. There has been a collective effect, too, on nerve and dynamics. The heart of the first set was a connected excursion through jet-black turbulence slashed with guitar lightning: Bob Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell,” Allman and Haynes singing the chorus in keening harmonies; an instrumental cross, in 6/8 time, between “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and John Coltrane’s “Afro Blue”; and Dr. John’s “Walk on Gilded Splinters,” propelled by drummers Jaimoe and Butch Trucks, bassist Oteil Burbridge and percussionst Marc Quiñones like a New Orleans graveyard march, detoured through central Africa.
For the second set, Trucks’ wife Susan Tedeschi stepped up — and out — on vocals and guitar for a couple of numbers, including Delaney and Bonnie’s “Coming Home,” and the Allmans marked the fortieth anniversary of their second album, Idlewild South, with “Revival” and “Leave My Blues at Home.” But the real ascension and deep blues came in a “Mountain Jam” that dropped, from elegant hovering guitars and jubilant drumming, to a mean electric-Mississippi roll through Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning,” then eased into a spell of Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone From the Sun” — Trucks and Haynes’ guitars rendering the melody with liquid yearning — before jumping back into the cocky delight of the Donovan hook from “There Is a Mountain.”
It was music at once absolutely familiar and vigorously new, with an impulse and telepathy bonded with muscle and experience and charged by a belief that the best work is not yet done. It was still raining and gusting hard outside after the show was over. But spring, at last, was here.