“It was a total celebration – everybody rose to the occasion and played their best,” guitarist Warren Haynes said the day after the Allman Brothers Band ended their spring 2012 residency at New York’s Beacon Theater on March 25th – without singer-organist Gregg Allman. He suddenly left the stage early in the second set on the 24th, suffering pain from what the group’s website called a “bulging disc’s painful flareup” in his back. As the rest of the band played, Haynes went up to Allman’s dressing room where he said he found the latter in “an excruciating amount of pain.”
The band finished the March 24th show minus Allman. He was taken to a hospital, where he was treated and released. A statement issued by the Allmans’ management on March 26th said, “Gregg is returning to his home in Savannah for evaluation and treatment. His condition is currently day to day, and he expects to meet all his confirmed obligations.” The Allman Brothers’ next scheduled shows are on April 20th and 21st at their WANEE Festival in Live Oak, Florida.
Some Help From Good Friends
The decision to go on with the March 25th show without Allman wasn’t made until just before the group went on stage. “But I kind of had it in my mind that it was a possibility,” Haynes said, and calls were made during the day to friends who were already in New York and could come by and help out. Bruce Katz, a keyboard player in Allman’s solo band, sat in on organ for the night, while Haynes took the majority of the vocals. He also got assistance and historical continuity from Jimmy Hall of the Allmans’ old Capricorn labelmates Wet Willie, John Popper of jam-band apostles Blues Traveller and Atlanta, Georgia cult legend Col. Bruce Hampton.
Hall’s two cameos, “Statesboro Blues” and “She Caught the Katy (And Left Me a Mule to Ride),” were a burly indirect tribute to blues singer Taj Mahal, who cut them both in 1968 and was a key influence on the late Duane Allman. It was Mahal’s version of the former song, with guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, that inspired Duane to take up slide guitar. Hampton, in turn, was a contemporary of the 1969-1971 Allmans, in the more dada-esque Hampton Grease Band. His second-set take on Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful,” with Haynes and guitarist Derek Trucks flanking Hampton’s robust snarl with dogfighting fills, was a tantalizing suggestion of what his old band must have sounded like live, with all that motor and a little less surrealism.
The Allmans have designated 2012 as the “Year of the Peach” – the 40th anniversary of the 1972 double album, Eat a Peach – and the band opened the March 25th show with its signature ballad “Blue Sky,” with Haynes putting a warm, growling spin on ex-guitarist Dickey Betts‘ original plaintive-country singing. Ironically, Betts was a prominent spirit in the opening set. His instrumentals “Les Brers in A Minor,” from Eat a Peach, and “Jessica” on 1973’s Brothers and Sisters, were featured at great, inspired length. At one point, in the former, Derek hit a blazing passage of slide guitar – fast sweeping rushes up the neck of his Gibson SG – pressed from behind by the hard insistent gallop of his uncle, drummer Butch Trucks.
The set list had a last-minute order and what-the-hell momentum that was mostly solid, often surprising. Haynes pulled the heavy-Stax anguish of “River’s Gonna Rise” from his 2011 solo album, Man in Motion, and his Gov’t Mule hymn “Soulshine,” now an Allmans standard and often an encore, opened the second set.
The thundering waltz “Hot ‘Lanta,” from 1971’s Live at Fillmore East, suddenly braked into a steamy-jazz roll through Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” with Haynes quoting licks from Jimi Hendrix’s cover and trumpeter Maurice Brown conjuring Miles Davis in his aggressive bleating breaks.
“We just started doing ‘Hot ‘Lanta’ that way,” Haynes explained, noting that trumpeter Randy Brecker and saxophonist Bill Evans had been the guest blowers when the Allmans played the medley earlier in this Beacon run. “We’ve changed the arrangements for so many of the classic songs, but ‘Hot ‘Lanta’ has been the same since it was recorded in ’71. It’s such a fun song to play. We wanted to find a new way of stretching it out.”
A second-set cover of Derek and the Dominos’ “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?” ended too suddenly, and a brawny-R&B number with more guests and a round of brass solos sounded too much like marking time. But the finale was the contemporary Allmans at their finest, even without their surviving namesake: the hammer and sizzle of 1969’s “Dreams,” sung by Haynes, then a long buoyant chunk of Peach‘s “Mountain Jam,” with heavy detours through “Smokestack Lightning” and Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused.”
“We’ve done both of those songs in ‘Mountain Jam’ before, but never together,” Haynes said. “It was a kitchen-sink approach that night, a chance for us to pull out all the stops. But that’s just how ‘Mountain Jam’ is – it can go wherever you want it to go.”
A Peach of a Night
“It’s weird that you ended up at that show,” Haynes said. “It was a strange night. But it felt great.” Haynes also noted that Allman’s prognosis is good for the immediate future: “They say his back should fix itself up with rest and care.”
Allman missed a great show. Diminshed in number, his group responded with a determination to excel, surging in empathy, improvising with furious glee. But the 43-year history of the Allman Brothers Band is one of magnificent peaks under stress, in the constant face of trial. Their closing night at the Beacon for 2012 was another high in that tradition.