Friends, colleagues and nephews of the most celebrated family in Southern Rock eschewed Coronavirus warnings to rock a sold out Garden
With the health warnings that people over 60 should hibernate and avoid large crowds thanks to the Coronavirus, it was pretty refreshing and daring to see 20K of ’em ignore the warnings to see the remnants of a classic American band.
On the way to MSG, people on the street were trying to calm each other about the virus, but inside the venue, you’d never know that there was a crisis going on, with the only health measure at Madison Square Garden I saw were some Handi-wipes near a concession stand.
Though it would have been more appropriate to have the Allmans gathering uptown at the Beacon where the band held a famed residency for the early part of the millennium, the busy schedule of its former members (who now populate the Dead and the Doobie Brothers) warranted one big blow-out celebration at another famous Gotham venue.
With Duane gone and Berry gone and Dickey sick/exiled and Gregg gone and Butch gone, the rest of the group could still impress thanks to its 90’s/00’s front line of guitarist/singer Warren Haynes, guitarist Derek Trucks and bassist Oteil Burbridge. Founding member drummer Jaimoe and long-time percussionist Marc Quinones were in the mix, too, alongside Duane Trucks (drummer for Widespread Panic), keysman Reese Wyans (who almost became an Allmans founding member and was an ex-sideman to Stevie Ray Vaughan) and their ‘special guest’ pianist, 70’s Allmans member Chuck Leavell. Though no one named Allman was in the group anymore, it’s still very much a family affair- brothers Derek and Duane are nephews to Allmans founder drummer Butch Trucks while Leavell plays in the Allman-Betts Band with Gregg and Dickey’s sons.
On the surface, the band without Gregg kind of feels like the Grateful Dead without Jerry (whose remnants now have Oteil in the band and once included Warren in the ranks) but let’s face it–Gregg had soul and grit but he wasn’t the greatest singer. Truth be known, the band’s rep rests with their first four studio records plus At Filmore East but after burning out in the 70’s and attempted 80’s comebacks, they transformed themselves back into a live powerhouse ensemble until their final 2014 break-up. At the MSG show, the musical core of the last line-up was still there on display and while they didn’t disappoint, they didn’t quite match the dizzying heights they could scale the three times I caught them at the Beacon.
For a show celebrating the Allmans, they had to haul out the ‘hits,’ which didn’t include their only #1 single “Rambin’ Man” since it’s a Dickey song but the crowd-pleasing warhorses were on display, alongside some deep cuts. Warren took over on vocals and did an admirable job, even if he didn’t have Gregg’s grit. Starting out with a bunch of classics from the first few albums (“Don’t Want You No More,” “It’s Not My Cross to Bear,” “Statesboro Blues” and “Revival”), Derek immediately took over with his wailing leads sailing over the crowd-singalongs, with cheers going up for every opening riff of each song. He peaked early with “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin'” where he ended an extended solo with a squealing climax which brought cheers from the crowd. The constant chug of smoke machines around the stage were barely a match for the old white couples’ clouds of pot smoke which drifting around, starting up moments after the first song began.
The rest of the band made itself felt after that with “Black Hearted Woman” with Warren finally taking flight and the three man drum section booming through a extended end coda, which featured Warren cutting loose again. For “Dreams,” Warren and Trucks traded appropriately mournful solos before picking up in intensity though still keeping the mood in check. They continued on a roll with “Hot “Lanta” where Derek peeled off powerful solos above the crushing riffs and a good drum rumble underneath.
One hour into the show, Warren finally said hello and brought out Leavell who added a nice jazzy solo to “Come and Go Blues” (from ’73’s Brothers and Sisters), which segued into “Soulshine” (one of the few post-70’s songs that night) that had a nice fuzzy feeling to it but missed some intensity until Warren and Derek finally started trading solos though in a more respectful than fighting way. After some more screaming solos from Derek on “Stand Back,” they ended the first set with “Jessica” where Warren sounded a little too sweet on vocals though things picked up with a rollicking solo from Leavell and finally some real sparks with Warren and Derek trading solos.
After a half-hour piss break where the screens showed old photos of the band, they returned to actually make some kind of peace with Dickey that the band refused to do for their Beacon shows. While Betts was not there per se, his spirit was felt in a 20 minute take on “Mountain Jam” which actually featured more of the “Rambin’ Man” riff than the song’s original Donovan tune. From there, Dickey’s lovely “Blue Sky” brought the crowd to its feet, powered by a pretty solos from Derek and Leavell with Warren joining in later, making for a better jam than “Mountain.” For “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More,” Warren’s voice was again a little too kind and not rough enough though, Derek provided a nice fluid Garcia-like solo there.
With Leavell leaving, the rest of the band tore through “Every Hungry Woman” with some nice solo trade-offs leading to an exciting guitar battle which roped in Wyans briefly before returning to the two-man tussle between Warren and Derek (which you wish you heard more of that night). “Melissa” followed with some gorgeous fills from Derek and Warren’s tender vocals were finally right for the occasion. “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” started out sounded lazy and jazzy (could have used Leavell) but picked up in speed and was saved by Derek’s fast fingers and intensity.
From there, I have to be honest and say that I proceeded for the exits after that. I missed “No One To Run With” (another of the few later-day songs for the show) and “One Way Out” (a long-time live highlight, which I regret missing) and the encores of “Midnight Rider” and “Whipping Post.” But by then, I’d gotten the point after three hours of the ebb and flow of the music, plus a work day looming in the morning.
I know it’s unusual to say it, but the lighting crew for the show put on some of the best performances of the night, turning the arena into a technicolor spectacle alongside the giant electric mushroom over the stage (which is a long-time Allmans logo/symbol). Some of the wonderful tricks they pulled out were making the crowd behind the stage into a series of giant blue waves. Later, they would get the lights crawling up the crowd during an intense Warren solo and created giant blue pinwheels for the backside of the stage and a swirling, pulsing psychedelic ring in the front of the audience which floated to the back of the crowd. Normally, you’d expect a decent light show for an arena gig but this was something special.
Again, it wasn’t quite the rough madness of the Beacon shows but there was plenty of highlights (thank you Derek) and it was comforting to see that the boys could still come together and kick up some dust for a bunch of (fellow) old timers. It dawned on me with the psych lights and heavy drinking in the crowd, part of the Allmans place in history was bridging the good-ol’-boy South with some of the hippie aesthetic, years before Waylon and Willie did the same with the country outlaw movement in the mid-70s.
As I headed home, I checked my mail on my phone and saw a bunch of messages from smaller venues around the city who were sending out notices to reassure fans that they were taking extraordinary measures to stay safe during the virus scare. I wondered how many large scale shows like the MSG one would be happening for the rest of the year. But if this was the last one I’d see in a while, I won’t feel too bad.
VIDEO: The Brothers Live From MSG on Nugs.tv