The Allman Brothers Band: A Half Century of Southern Solidarity

A definitive new box set looks back at a career that defied the racial divide in America

The Allman Brothers Band (Collage: Ron Hart)

 

Now here’s what I want you to do…gather up all of those vintage blues-rock records in your collection.

You know the ones I’m talking about – Cream, early Fleetwood Mac (1967-1969), Gary Moore’s Skid Row, Ten Years After, Black Cat Bones, Savoy Brown, Canned Heat, Leaf Hound, Killing Floor, Stan Webb’s Chicken Shack, Humble Pie, the Groundhogs, Status Quo, Vinegar Joe, Tear Gas, and all the others – and toss ‘em all out on the front lawn. Then run down to your favorite record-type store and pick up a copy of the Allman Brothers Band’s 50th anniversary collection, Trouble No More ‘cause it’s got all the blues-rock jams you’re ever gonna need!

The Trouble No More box set is a true career-spanning retrospective that captures some of the best work from the most innovative and adventuresome blues-rock outfit on God’s green earth, the ABB. True, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (featuring Eric Clapton, near his peak, and then the underrated Peter Green) kick-started this whole “stir a little blues into your rock ‘n’ roll elixir,” thing, which Clapton would take to psychedelic extremes with Cream, but then the lid was off the tin and a legion of blues-rock bands sprouted up all across the UK, inspiring a wealth of blues-bashing axe-handlers, all of whom genuflected at the altar of icons like Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Elmore James, Jimmy Reed, and the ‘Three Kings’ (Albert, Freddie, and B.B.).

Here in the states, blues-lovin’ fools like Al “Blind Owl” Wilson, Michael Bloomfield, and Billy Gibbons, among many, also heard the sound coming down the tracks from the Mississippi Delta and formed various blues-based rock bands with various levels of success and/or notoriety. Guitarist Duane Allman – born in 1946 in Nashville, Tennessee – heard the bell louder than most and, after witnessing the grandeur that was B.B. King in concert, found his life’s calling. Along with his equally-talented younger brother Gregg, the guitarist set out on a journey to build the biggest, baddest blues-rock band to ever roam the highways and back alleys of America.

It took Duane and Gregg about five years to achieve that aforementioned goal, years spent in poverty, self-doubt, and musical experimentation with bands like the Allman Joys and Hour Glass until all the pieces fell together and the Allman Brothers Band was formed in 1969 in Jacksonville, Florida. In retrospect, the ABB’s initial line-up looks like an all-star roster of Southern rock musicians. Duane, of course, was the team leader, an extraordinary guitarist and musical visionary who imagined a blend of blues, rock, jazz, and country music that would presage the Americana movement of the ‘90s by a good couple of decades. 

Keyboardist Gregg was the voice of the band, as well as its primary songwriter. Dickey Betts provided a second guitar and vocals, Berry Oakley played bass like a lead guitar, and the ABB boasted of two incredible drummers in Butch Trucks and “Jaimoe” Johanson, a veteran percussionist who had played with Otis Redding. This is the talented group that entered the Atlantic Studios during the summer of 1969 to record the ABB’s self-titled debut for Capricorn Records. Their sophomore effort, Idlewild South, was released less than a year later and while neither album made much of a splash commercially, both earned their share of critical accolades while the ABB was making a name for itself as a top-notch live outfit at a time (early ‘70s) when touring steadily not only paid the bills but could make bands relatively wealthy.

 

 

The problem with the first couple of Allman Brothers Band albums (and the flaws in either are few) is that neither producer Adrian Barber or Tom Dowd could truly capture the band’s electrifying live dynamic. This issue was solved with the 1971 release of At Fillmore East, the ABB’s breakthrough album, their first to achieve Platinum™ sales status, and widely considered to be one of the greatest live sets in rock ‘n’ roll history. Recorded over two nights in March 1971 at Bill Graham’s legendary NYC venue, At Fillmore East was produced by Dowd and released as a two-LP set by Capricorn. The album peaked at #13 on the Billboard magazine albums chart and was certified Gold™ a few months after its release. Better yet, At Fillmore East proved that there was an audience for the ABB’s unique blues-based sound and jazz-inspired free-form instrumental jams. 

The success of At Fillmore East truly launched the band’s career, which would endure for 45 years and encompass thousands of live performances, eleven studio and sixteen live records, numerous band line-ups, and more than their share of tragedies (including the deaths of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley), all of which leads us back to Trouble No More. Featuring 61 songs spanning five CDs or ten vinyl LPs (and including seven previously-unreleased tracks), Trouble No More captures the essence of the Allman Brothers Band. Compiled by ABB authorities Bill Levenson and Kirk West with band historian John Lynskey, Trouble No More includes music by all 13 versions of the Allman Brothers Band, released by five different record labels. The set includes a swanky 88-page booklet with previously-unreleased band photos as well as a lengthy and exhaustive ABB history written by Lynskey.

The first couple of discs represent the band’s tenure with legendary Southern rock label Capricorn Records, spanning the ABB’s tumultuous first decade. A lot of this stuff is instantly familiar to even the most casual of classic rock fans, songs like “Midnight Rider,” “Jessica,” “Ramblin’ Man,” and “Whipping Post” all FM radio staples for decades to the point that they’re ingrained in our shared “Dad Rock” DNA. That’s not to say that there aren’t some surprises to be found – the first disc opens with the previously-unreleased original 1969 demo recording of Muddy Waters’ “Trouble No More,” the first track laid down by the new band. Although the performance is tentative, it displays many of the signature musical flourishes that would become the band’s hallmark – melodic twin guitars, a throbbing boogie-based rhythmic track, and Gregg’s soulful vocals.

The Allman Brothers Band Trouble No More: 50th Anniversary Collection, Craft Recordings 2020

Disc one offers up well-known tracks from the band’s first two albums – the exotic percussion of “Don’t Want You No More,” the Gospel fervor of “It’s Not My Cross To Bear,” the imaginative bass line of “Whipping Post,” the joyful instrumental interplay of “Revival” – all showing a band finding its mojo, an undeniable chemistry that would carry them across decades. A handful of steamy live tracks from At Fillmore East (including an incredible reading of Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues”) round out the disc, but hidden in between is a more obscure track, a live performance of country bluesman Casey Bill Weldon’s “I’m Gonna Move To the Outskirts of Town.” Taken from Live at Ludlow Garage 1970, the lo-fi performance is nevertheless high on ambiance and ambition, featuring some earth-shaking fretwork and cementing the band’s legacy as worthy interpreters of classic American music.

Disc two offers up another of the Fillmore tracks, a scorching cover of the Sonny Boy Williamson/Elmore James’ classic “One Way Out” before it settles into some interesting stuff for the casual fan. A twenty-five-minute live performance from the A&R Studios in 1971 is culled from an often-bootlegged live radio broadcast and includes a sizzling version of the band’s “Hot ‘Lanta” (the entire set would be released by the band in 2016). A few well-worn tunes from Eat A Peach (“Melissa,” “Blue Sky,” “Stand Back”) and Brothers and Sisters (“Ramblin’ Man,” “Jessica,” “Wasted Words,” “Southbound”) surround another very cool and somewhat obscure live performance from the notorious 1972 Mar Y Sol Pop festival, which included artists like Cactus, Nitzinger, Alice Cooper, B.B. King, Pot Liquor, and Brownsville Station alongside the ABB. The band’s concise reading of Gregg’s “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More” suffers from the shabby sound endemic of the festival’s recordings, but makes up for the muddy audio experience with an inspired performance.

Disc three kicks off with a pair of tunes from the band’s legendary 1973 performance at the Watkins Glen Speedway in NY, including a previously-unreleased twelve-minute romp on “Mountain Jam” featuring “special friends” like the Band’s Robbie Robertson and the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. It’s a transcendent performance that perfectly frames the ABB’s “jam band” ethic that placed them alongside the Dead in influencing a generation of shoe-gazing instrumentalists in the 1990s. The ABB’s final two Capricorn LPs – 1975’s Win, Lose or Draw and 1979’s Enlightened Rogues – are lesser-known among casual fans, although both would eventually earn Gold™ Record sales status. The former album was a critical bust although the band’s cover of Waters’ “Can’t Lose What You Never Had” is inspired, while the latter LP scored a Top 30 hit with the engaging “Crazy Love.”

Still, the late ‘70s found the band in turmoil, with their record label going bankrupt, Gregg marrying (and soon divorcing) Cher, changes in management, and the band members’ drug addictions, with the music suffering for it. Signing with Clive Davis’s Arista Records for a pair of albums – 1980’s Reach For the Sky and the following year’s Brothers of the Road – this era of the band is often overlooked in favor of their previous musical triumphs or later reputation as tireless road warriors. Although Davis pushed to “modernize” the band’s sound with ham-handed producers, the Arista years weren’t completely fallow. Songs like Dickey Betts’ “Hell & High Water,” which sounds like a Southern tent revival, or Gregg Allman’s funky “Leavin’,” stand up to scrutiny but the band is clearly uninspired overall, the production of both albums thin and too glossy, the label obviously a poor fit for the band’s musical strengths. 

 

 

As Betts would tell writer Alan Paul for his 2014 book on the band, One Way Out, “we broke up in ‘82 because we decided we better just back out or we would ruin what was left of the band’s image.” Betts and Allman both pursued solo careers throughout the rest of the decade with varying levels of success, but they would reunite in 1989 with other key band members and new additions in guitarist Warren Haynes, pianist Johnny Neel, and bassist Allen Woody, who joined the band after open auditions for the position. In Haynes they found a creative talent who proved to be an apt replacement for the long-gone Duane, and with the release of the 1989 box set Dreams, there was renewed interest in the band from young new fans.

The ABB signed with Epic Records and recorded their 1990 comeback album, Seven Turns. The band’s new blood resulted in a renewed vigor, as songs like the rollicking “Good Clean Fun” – a throwback to the band’s classic ‘70s blues-rock sound – or the countryish title track can attest to. The fourth disc in the box set features some of the best of the band’s tenure with Epic, which spanned albums like the aforementioned Seven Turns, 1991’s Shades of Two Worlds, and 1994’s Where It All Begins, all of which offer some magical musical moments. 

The bluesy “End of the Line” features some explosive six-string interplay between Betts and Haynes and a fine vocal performance by Gregg; “Nobody Knows” features topical lyrics and a fierce soundtrack that reminds of “Whipping Post”; and “Back Where It All Begins” evinces a laid-back, Eat A Peach musical vibe. Haynes’s “Soulshine” is a melodic, bluesy mid-tempo number that would become a fan favorite. Sadly, Haynes and Woody would leave the band amidst tensions between Allman and Betts to concentrate on their side project, Gov’t Mule.    

It during this time that the band began its annual run of sold-out shows at the Beacon Theatre in New York City, and the previously-unreleased “I’m Not Crying” showcases the final hurrah of the Dickey Betts era of the ABB before he would be fired from the band. The 1999 performance displays the new musical dimension provided by the addition of former Spyro Gyra percussionist Marc Quiñones and bassist Oteil Burbridge of the Aquarium Rescue Unit. Although the ABB always had a bit of jazz inching along the edge of their songs, the two new instrumentalists would use their musical chops to bring more jazzy improvisation to the band’s jams. The final disc of Trouble No More documents the band’s independent or “Peach years” circa 2000 until their retirement in 2014. 

 

AUDIO: Allman Brothers Band 2nd Set (full album)

The fifth disc kicks off with a brilliant (and previously-unreleased) live rendition of the Fenton Robinson blues classic “Loan Me A Dime.” The band’s two new guitarists – a young Derek Trucks and old friend Jimmy Herring (Widespread Panic) – would acquit themselves nicely on a song that represented one of Duane Allman’s signature performances (playing behind Boz Scaggs for his self-titled 1969 album). The loss of Betts alienated a lot of long-time fans, but many (if not all) would be pacified by the return of Haynes after the tragic death of his Gov’t Mule bandmate Allen Woody. What many consider to be the second-finest line-up of the band (after the original) deliver a stunning (and unreleased) 2001 performance of “Desdemona” at the Beacon, with Haynes and Trucks’ skilled fretwork leaving fans awestruck.  

It was with Haynes and Trucks that the ABB recorded its final studio album, 2003’s classic Hittin’ the Note. Oddly, Trouble No More includes only two tracks from that LP, but they’re both good ‘uns – “High Cost of Low Living” is vintage ABB with great harmony guitar and a lively vocal performance while “Old Before My Time” is an introspective ballad with Gregg’s emotional vocals and crescendos of instrumentation. The rest of the disc is comprised of live tracks from various venues, the most notable being unreleased performances of “Blue Sky” and “Little Martha” from 2005, the latter of which features just Haynes and Trucks on acoustic guitars in an amazing display of virtuosity. Trouble No More appropriately closes with a 2014 live performance of the aforementioned Waters’ title track, the band firing on all cylinders on what is, after 45 years, one of their most enduring songs.          

On second thought, go ahead and get all those old records up off your lawn before they get soggy and file ‘em away for another day. There’s room on the shelf for all of them and the Allman Brothers Band too. As is the nature of these sorts of documentary box sets, the hardcore ABB fan will already own almost everything included on Trouble No More save for the unreleased tracks. However, for the casual fan who stopped listening in the mid-‘70s, there’s an entire world of ABB music to be re-discovered, from the band’s final Capricorn albums and their run with Epic Records to the underrated “Peach” years. For the newcomer, Trouble No More offers a solid introduction to the finest blues-rock band the genre has to offer…and that’s a heady accomplishment, indeed.   

 

  

 

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Rev. Keith A. Gordon

RockandRollGlobe contributor Rev. Gordon is an award-winning music critic with 40+ years experience writing for publications like Blues Music magazine and Blurt. Follow him on Twitter @reverendgordon.

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