On April 1st, one of the greatest shows from the Allman Brothers Band‘s most incendiary year on stage — a live radio concert from A&R Studios in New York on August 26th, 1971, aired over the free-form FM station WPLJ — will finally be released in official form by the group’s own label, Peach Records. “Oh, man, I’ll never forget that one,” drummer Butch Trucks says when reminded of that broadcast, which came six months after the New York shows recorded for the iconic 1971 double LP At Fillmore East, has been long treasured by Allmans fans on bootleg and is now remixed for the first time from the original multi-track masters. “We were set up in that studio just like we did on stage,” Trucks says of the band, then in its original, classic formation: founding lead guitarist Duane Allman; his younger brother, organist-singer Gregg Allman; second lead guitarist Dickey Betts, original bassist Berry Oakley; and drummers Trucks and Jaimoe.
“But it was better,” Trucks goes on. “Rather than having their backs to me, the front line — Duane, Dickey and Berry — was facing us in kind of a semi-circle, which made it even easier to communicate. When I play, I stare at the left hand of whoever is playing lead. And I get to know what people are playing well enough that when they start going somewhere, once they arrive, I’m already there.”
That was especially true at A&R Studios, when Duane took the occasion to pay tribute to a recently fallen idol: the R&B saxophonist King Curtis, who had played on many recording sessions with Duane and was murdered on his New York doorstep on August 13th, 1971, two weeks before the Allmans’ broadcast. In an extensive, exclusive interview, Trucks explains how Duane turned his grieving into an epic-medley requiem of Willie Cobb’s 1960 blues “You Don’t Love Me” — an Allmans stage feature — with Curtis’ 1964 instrumental “Soul Serenade.” Two months later, on October 29th, Duane — just out of rehab for drug addiction — died in a motorcycle accident in Macon, Georgia, the band’s hometown. He was 24.
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The Allmans are also reissuing five previously released, vintage gigs through a new distribution deal, including two other, classic Duane-era shows at American University in Washington, D.C., in 1970 and at Stony Brook, New York, in 1971. Meanwhile, Trucks has been busy since the last version of the Allmans, with guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks, played its final concerts in October 2014. The drummer leads a group, the Freight Train Band, that features his son Vaylor on guitar — “He’s the little kid on the cover of [1973’s] Brothers and Sisters,” Butch notes — and Berry Oakley Jr. on bass.
And on March 20th, Trucks will be back in Macon with a group called Les Brers — after the song “Les Brers in A Minor” on 1972’s Eat a Peach and derived from a Southern colloquialism for “brothers” — that includes Jaimoe, recent Allmans bassist Oteil Burbridge and percussionist Marc Quiñones and ex-Allmans guitarist Jack Pearson. “We are of the opinion that even though the Allman Brothers broke up, there is a void to be filled,” Trucks explains. “Whatever songs we write and play, it’s going to be coming from that direction, with a lot of improvisation and dynamics — and not knowing where you want to go next.
“It’s the kind of thing the Allmans did all the time.” Trucks says. “It could turn into a total train wreck at times. But you don’t find new territory by not taking chances. If you’re afraid to dive off the cliff, you’ll never soar with the eagles.”
How big was the audience at A&R Studios that day?
It was no more than 200. It’s one of the reasons the station chose A&R. Not only were the acoustics great, it was big enough that you could set up a band like the Allman Brothers.
Did you have enough room for your regular stage rig?
We cut everything down. Duane didn’t have his full stack of Marshalls. He went with what he would use in a studio. If there’s anybody who knew how to play in a studio, it was Duane Allman.
Did it bother you that most of the people you were playing for were miles away — that they couldn’t see you?
That the crowd couldn’t see us didn’t mean a damn thing. Duane had two very iconic statements he used a lot. One was “This ain’t no fashion show.” The other was “This ain’t no ballet.” We were up there to play music. All you need is ears. You don’t need to be able to see it. We weren’t putting on a show. And those fans that made it into A&R were, I would imagine, the ones who came to see us at the Fillmore East every time. And they were there to hear what we had to play, not to see how cute we were or how big our dicks were.
The set list has some inevitable crossover to the Fillmore East recordings in March: “Statesboro Blues,” “You Don’t Love Me.” But there is a surprising omission: no “Whipping Post.”
We had a time limit. Once we started headlining at the Fillmore East, we were free to play all night, at least for the second set. “Whipping Post” could get lengthy. So we decided, “Let’s go with some other stuff.” That being said, we had no clue that Duane was going to do what he did with “You Don’t Love Me.” That was what “Whipping Post” would have been.
The set was pretty much what we did every night. Maybe half of our sets were structured songs like “Statesboro Blues” and “Trouble No More.” They were all three, four minutes at best. The other half of a set would be no more than four or five songs, but each one would be 10 or 20 minutes.
By this point, “Statesboro Blues” was a signature number in your shows. But even though you recorded it for your second studio album, “Idlewild South,” you didn’t put it on that record. What was wrong with the studio version?
That’s a good question. I really don’t know. It really wasn’t our song. Of all the songs we played, “Statesboro Blues” was the most ripped-off. We played it exactly the way Taj Mahal did it on his first album [Taj Mahal, 1968]. Jesse Ed Davis’ slide guitar on that version is what started Duane on his path as the best electric-slide player of his day. It opened the door for everyone that followed.
Your version was basically an homage to Taj and Jesse.
Exactly. The song wasn’t ours. And we knew that. I think we decided not to use it [on Idlewild South] for that reason. And we had plenty of other material that was ours.
How come “Revival” from that album never took root in the live set? Was it too hard to recreate the vocal-choir effect on the record?
That’s a good question too — because with this last version of the Allman Brothers, we played it all the time. You may be right about the harmonies. When we recorded “Revival,” Gregg was the only one in the band singing other than Berry doing “Hoochie Coochie Man,” which was more like him talking the words. Dickey wasn’t singing yet. The first song he ever sang was “Blue Sky” [on 1972’s Eat a Peach]. And the second was “Ramblin’ Man” [on 1973’s Brothers and Sisters]. To do “Revival” on stage, each of us would have needed a microphone. When we did it in the studio, every member of the band was around one microphone, doing the harmonies.
The Allman Brothers Band were on the road almost non-stop in the first half of 1971. By the time of this broadcast, you were coming off the Fillmore East recordings and your famous sets during the theater’s closing week. How were you feeling — dazed, tired, energized?
We were in another universe. We were out spreading the gospel of this music we had discovered. We never thought that we would be more than an opening act. Atlantic Records was riding our ass constantly to get Gregg out from behind the organ, stick a salami down his pants and jump around the stage like Robert Plant. We told them to go fuck themselves. “We’re playing this for ourselves. We’ve tried it your way before. We didn’t make any money and we had a miserable time.”
This time, we decided, “OK, we don’t care if we don’t make any money. We’re having the time of our lives.” Little by little, people started understanding what we were doing. But it had to start with us. Once the crowd got in and we could feed on their energy, we’d feed it back to them.
King Curtis died two weeks before the WPLJ broadcast. Did Duane say anything before the band went on the air about doing something in Curtis’ memory?
No, that just popped up. But from the time he came back from the funeral, up to that show, he talked about Curtis a lot, about the funeral — and about mortality. I think Duane understood that the way he lived life, he wouldn’t live a long one.
That day, on the air, was the first time we knew we were doing a tribute or, actually, “You Don’t Love Me.” I don’t recall a set list. But if we had one, “You Don’t Love Me” wasn’t on it. Duane was at the microphone, talking about King Curtis. You can hear him: “Have you guys all heard ‘Soul Serenade’?” He played a bit on guitar, then you could almost see a light bulb go off in his head. He stopped and start playing that riff [hums the opening lick of “You Don’t Love Me”].
We knew what was coming then, although we didn’t now when or exactly how. Duane played “Soul Serenade” a little slower than I was expecting. I was ready to kick into something more uptempo. But Duane was still so torn up by the fact that King was dead. It ripped him apart. When he came back from the funeral, that’s when Duane started talking about his own funeral. He really did.
Actually, it was about a month after the A&R Studios broadcast — and right before his death — that Duane went into rehab for heroin addiction. Did drug use affect his playing?
It did for awhile. It was one of the few times I actually got in Duane’s face. But you have to know Duane to know how something like this could happen. You ever read Faust by Goethe? His Faust — all he wanted to do was experience everything life had to offer. Good and bad didn’t matter. His deal with Mephistopheles was, “The minute I tell you I am content where I am, that is the minute you can have my soul.”
Duane Allman was very much Goethe’s Faust. He wanted to try everything. When I first met him, he was eating Black Beauties [diet pills with amphetamine and benzadrine] like they were going out of style — just wired out of his gourd, until the night he realized it was messing with his music. That’s the night he stopped. I saw him go through many periods where he would experiment with some drug — psychedelics, whatever — until he realized it was messing with his music. Duane had this laser-like focus, and it was his music. He was also living life to the fullest.
I remember we were playing in San Francisco [in early October 1971]. Duane followed me back to my room, walked in, closed the door, looked me in the eye and went, “Butch, what the fuck is going on with you guys? Every time I start to play, you give me nothin’. When Dickey starts playing, you guys are kicking ass.” I stared him in the eye and said, “Duane, you are so fucked up that you’re not giving me anything. How can I give you anything if you’re not giving me anything to play off of? That’s the way I play. I follow you, every single thing you do.”
He stood there, it seemed like forever. It was one time when he knew I was right. Finally he turned around and walked out. It was almost right after that — he grabbed Berry, [roadies] Red Dog and Kim Payne and checked into rehab in Buffalo, New York. Then Duane walked into the common room there, saw Red Dog laying there out of it on methadone. Duane went nuclear: “We didn’t come here to get fucked up. We came here to get straight.” They slipped out that night, back to Macon. But that was the last time Duane touched heroin — from that night in San Francisco, when I told him that shit was screwing with his music and he believed me. He was that strong as a human being.
Several important live albums have been released from the Allmans’ archive in recent years. How did the A&R Studios broadcast escape scrutiny until now?
We have so many recordings of unreleased shows that absolutely smoke. We were putting out two recordings a year for awhile, old stuff with Duane and Berry; one with just the five of us before [pianist] Chuck Leavell joined the band [Macon City Auditorium; Macon, Georgia; February 11th, 1972]; and with Chuck and [bassist] Lamar Williams [Nassau Coliseum; Long Island, New York; May 1st, 1973]. For some reason, we stopped putting them out.
Are there other vintage shows that you would like to see released?
There are some nights we did at the Warehouse in New Orleans that I’d give anything to have out. And we have ’em. Also pretty much anything from the Fillmores [East and West]. But definitely the Warehouse — every time we played there, it was magic.