The Allman Brothers: Shining at the Beacon
A next-gen 21st lineup sustains the Deep South rockers’ star power
By Robert Christgau
Special to MSN Music
The Allman Brothers have played New York's Beacon Theatre almost every March since reuniting in 1989. For fans of this Deep South band, Broadway and 74th Street in Manhattan is Mecca: By the time 2013's 11-show "Beacon run" ends March 16, they will have sold out the 2,984-seat venue well over 200 times. Personally, I think they've made their best music there, specifically preferring 2004's "One Way Out: Live at the Beacon Theatre" to the renowned NYC date that is 1971's "Live at the Fillmore." But I'd never seen them there till two Southern friends who make the pilgrimage annually took me to this year's second night on March 2.
The Allmans' current lineup has been stable since 2000: remaining original singer-organist Gregg Allman, drummer Butch Trucks, and drummer Jaimoe Johanson, all in their late 60s; 50-ish long-timers Warren Haynes on guitar, Marc Quinones on drums, and Oteil Burbridge on bass; and the new kid, Butch Trucks' 33-year-year old nephew Derek Trucks, who joined on guitar when he was just 20. Note: three drummers where once there were two, with salsa-based Quinones no longer there for texture and color because he now bangs his big Latin-style kit with sticks and mallets. Note: Given its D.C.-born black bassist and Bronx-born Puerto Rican drummer, the structure has long been three white-blues leads atop a rolling, African-identified rhythm base. Note: Derek Trucks is why this remains a great band.
Except for the "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" finale and the "Whipping Post" encore, the set featured few first-rank crowd-pleasers: the upfully hippieish "Revival," a few slow ones like "Come and Go Blues." But to me the music sounded awful strong, and my guides as well as the audience agreed. Both Allman, who almost died twice around when he had his liver replaced in 2010, and Johanson, who weighs 50-75 pounds more than a 68-year-old should, have been unsteady presences of late ‑- one reason Quinones now makes more noise is that the former lead drummer doesn't always finish. But neither flagged March 2, especially Allman, who in 2011 released one of the more impressive studio albums by this fabled aggregation of undistinguished songwriters, "Low Country Blues."
It's been two decades since the Allman Brothers Band itself bothered to record new studio material, and neither Haynes in Gov't Mule nor Derek Trucks solo-with-backup is much of a songwriter either. Indeed, "Low Country Blues” is mostly covers, and better for it. But looking at the worn, somewhat sunken-cheeked face of a guy who always projected a little too blankly for a blues adept, I felt like he was a different person ‑- a prophet who's seen the other side and come back to moan about it. Because he maintained leadership throughout, ceding fewer lead vocals to Haynes, the show retained unusual focus and power, with lean, mustachioed Butch Trucks, who replaced Johanson in the center drum chair, the symbolic middle.
There were highlights aplenty, including the surprise covers these shows are famous for: a first-ever "Long Black Veil" done acoustic, and Haynes' diddleybeat rendition of Ann Peebles' "I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody's Home Tonight," which none of my friends recognized. The surprise guests the shows are famous for were limited to an up-and-coming Texas guitar hotshot, David Grissom, on a "You Don't Love Me" that Haynes called to a somewhat premature halt. There was the standard "Elizabeth Reed" passage when Burbridge finished his unassumingly virtuosic solo and took over Butch Trucks' chair so the old man could rumble on tympani for a roiling four-drum fusillade. But it was Derek Trucks who got the fans going loudest.
With pianist Chuck Leavell and bluegrass-schooled guitarist Dickey Betts departed, the Allmans are a heavier band than in their first heyday ‑- more earth, less sky. They no longer perform their biggest and fleetest hit, Betts' rippling "Ramblin' Man," and Haynes' guitar is very much in the grimacing, squeeze-out-those-fundamentals white-blues tradition. Trucks is also a bluesman first, but like Duane, he's much bigger than that, prone to sudden jazzy licks and a master of the difficult trick in which he slips off his slide and flexes through a verse or two of startling fluidity. At least half the moments that left us all gasping and then cheering came on his solos. It would be facile as well as sacrilegious to say he's Duane reincarnated with all the extra chops, range, and maturity another eight years on earth have afforded him. They're both too singular to equate. But it's not too facile to be glad to hear the dead live on in the spirit of what they created.
“Done Somebody Wrong”
“Come and Go Blues”
“Every Hungry Woman”
“Dusk Till Dawn”
“Low Down Dirty Mean”
“You Don't Love Me”
“The Sky Is Crying’
“Long Black Veil”
“I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody's Home”
“Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?”
“In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”
Starting in 1967, Robert Christgau has covered popular music for The Village Voice, Esquire, Blender, Playboy, Rolling Stone and many other publications. He teaches in New York University's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, maintains a comprehensive website at robertchristgau.com, and has published five books based on his journalism. He has written for MSN Music since 2006.