The recording career of guitarist and band leader Duane "Skydog" Allman and singer-songwriter-keyboardist Gregg Allman got off to a modest start, first as The Escorts and then as The Allman Joys in 1965/66. Although Florida based, the brothers recorded in Nashville but they never achieved much recognition outside of the South. In 1967 Duane and Gregg headed West and recorded in Los Angeles as the Hour Glass, who released two ill-conceived flop records. Duane hated L.A. and left but Gregg stayed for a prospective solo career. Duane was then hired by Atlantic Records to be a session man at Muscle Shoals, where he gained a reputation as a guitar hotshot while playing with the legendary likes of Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett (I'd recommend searching for the out of print An Anthology to check out some of Duane's best session work), with the payoff for his impressive studio work being a planned Duane Allman solo album. They started recording the solo album in late 1968 but in early 1969 Duane decided that he liked his backing band enough to make them a full time group. The solo project was on hold, but Duane decided that the current band lacked a real singer, so he asked Gregg (whose solo career hadn't panned out) to join, thereby completing the classic Allman Brothers Band lineup. Before I talk about The Allman Brothers Band, I think it best that I say a few introductory words about the band, who were at their collective best on stage. Best known for a live show that could last for several hours long, the core of the Allman Brothers Band's sound was the dual guitars of Duane Allman (arguably the greatest slide guitarist ever) and Dickey Betts, along with the gritty blues growl and atmospheric keyboards of Gregg Allman, who was also the band’s primary songwriter, at least early on. Not easily dismissed, the stellar rhythm section, which included two drummers, Butch Trucks (who grooved the band along) and Jai Johanny "Jaimoe" Johanson (who with his jazz background added color and shading), as well as bassist Berry Oakley (a melodic, powerful player), provided the tight backing that enabled the lead players to forcefully shine. The Allman Brothers Band begins with the Spencer Davis written “Don’t Want You No More,” a short, jazzy instrumental and a great opening cut that announced what the band was all about. Featuring dual guitar riffing, a strong rhythmic presence, a keyboard solo and then multiple guitar solos, this baby packs an awful lot of goodness into a mere 2:26. Next up is Gregg's "It's Not My Cross To Bear," and when he announces himself with a primordial growl it's a great rock n' roll moment, and the rest of the traditional sounding blues ballad is top-notch as well, with more moody keyboards and soulful guitar. Gregg's "Black Hearted Woman" is faster paced and shows off the band's great guitar interplay, with dueling riffs and wailing solos throughout. Sure, it has generic blues lyrics, but Gregg sings them with such a winning commitment and such a forceful authority that it's almost impossible to believe that he was in his early twenties here rather than a grizzled old veteran. Their cover of Muddy Waters' "Trouble No More" marks the debut of Duane's great slide guitar playing, while "Every Hungry Woman" chugs along with a brighter sound but contains more sophisticated guitar interplay. Perhaps the deep, dirty riffs of these middle three tracks sound somewhat similar, and they don't veer too far from a traditional blues-rock sound, but it's damn good blues, and the last two tracks are another matter entirely and are two of the best songs that the band ever did. You could argue that it was on the atmospheric, spacey "Dreams" that the band (and Gregg Allman in particular) first found their very own voice, as it impressively mixes together blues, jazz, and psychedelic rock elements. Perhaps its intense, brooding 7+ minutes are a bit slow going at times, but it has long been one of my favorite Allman Brothers songs, with Duane's lyrical lead guitar solo being especially notable along with Gregg’s excellent lead vocals. Finally, the frenzied, desperate “Whipping Post” ends an exceptional debut album with a truly remarkable track, also written by Gregg. Hell, Gregg lives this song, and I'd rank his vocal performance here among the best ever. Oakley's rumbling bass line is what drives the song, and the tension builds beautifully until its exciting climax, on which explosive, powerful drums do battle with screaming guitars before Gregg comes in for one final anguished cry. It's exhausting just writing about it let alone listening to it, and small wonder that it became one of their signature songs and a perennial concert closer.
Idlewild South (Capricorn ’70, '73) Rating: A
Though I prefer the powerful, threadbare production of the debut, songwriting-wise Idlewild South was superior to The Allman Brothers Band, in large part because Dickey Betts established himself as a key second songwriter. For example, “Revival” was an uplifting hippy anthem that matched naďve lyrics (“people can you feel it, love is everywhere”) to a nice melody. “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed,” allegedly named because Betts had sex across the tombstone of the deceased titular heroine, was even better, being a moody 7-minute instrumental that was (predictably) highlighted by some scorching guitar, with first Dickey and then Duane taking extended solos. There are keyboard and drum solos as well, but they all fit within the structure of this superb song, which showed the Allman Brothers Band to be a rock band with a jazz sensibility (in fact the song was written in tribute to Miles Davis). Expanded versions of this song became the highlight of many an Allman Brothers Band live performance, but Idlewild South also has more modest (but no less terrific) pleasures in store. For example, Gregg’s “Midnight Rider” (the album's best-known track and arguably his signature song) is an evocative acoustic/electric ballad that sounds like a campfire sing along, while his sad, sensitive “Please Call Home” (a major personal favorite) is a pretty piano ballad with a wonderfully weary vocal. Elsewhere, Gregg's “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’” is another bluesy number with some killer slide guitar from Duane, who duels with guest harmonica player Thom Douchette as Butch propels the song along. The album's least impressive numbers are the most traditionally bluesy, with Gregg's "Leave My Blues At Home" being merely good, though it has a tasty groove and of course several impressive solos. On a reading of Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man,” the album's lone cover song, Berry Oakley provides his first and only lead vocal with the band. He's no Gregg as a singer, that's for sure, but this was still a confident blues performance on which Dickey and then Duane again alternate red-hot solos. On the whole, the band delivers more variety, originality, and distinctiveness to individual songs this time around (again, the songs in the last album's mid-section tend to blend together for me), as the filler-free Idlewild South, the band's best all-studio album, consistently proved that the Allman Brothers Band had become more than merely a great blues band. Certainly Gregg liked his songs here, enough so that he re-recorded two ("Midnight Rider" and "Please Call Home") of them for his first solo album, Laid Back, and though it didn't contain any hits per se, it spawned several "classic rock" radio staples and enhanced the band's reputation enough that they were able to headline the Atlanta International Pop Festival in front of a reported 300,000 fans (see Live at the Atlanta International Pop Festival: July 3 & 5, 1970). Duane then enhanced his legend further by moonlighting with Eric Clapton and Derek and the Dominos on their classic Layla album. Note: In 1973, The Allman Brothers Band and Idlewild South were generously compiled together on Beginnings, which is how I obtained both of these albums and I'd suggest you do the same.
At Fillmore East (Capricorn ’71) Rating: A+
Showing their true selves more so than their largely excellent but somewhat stifled first two studio albums, At Fillmore East is arguably rock’s greatest live album. The Allman Brothers Band were made for the stage, where their songs were afforded the time to twist and turn in exciting new ways. Several of these songs clock in at over ten minutes long, as “You Don’t Love Me,” “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” and “Whipping Post” in particular are expanded to incorporate vast guitar jams. The band’s incredible energy and impressive improvisational skills continually escalate the excitement during these performances, which expertly capture their masterful fusion of blues, jazz, and rock. The Allman Brothers Band were frequent visitors to Bill Graham’s Fillmore East venue, and these performances catch the band on hot nights (contrary to popular belief, this was a meticulously edited document that was pieced together from a series of performances), with sizzling solos all over the place from Duane and (to a lesser extent) Dickey. The album was certainly unconventional in that it begins with four cover songs, but they managed to make each of these songs their own when all was said and done. The album begins with a barnstorming version of Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues,” which showcases Gregg's gritty blues vocals, the rhythm section's locked in rhythmic chug, and most of all Duane's brilliant slide guitar playing. Though not a hit, this would become a popular “classic rock” radio track, and Elmore James' "Done Somebody Wrong" is another vintage example of why I think that Duane was simply the greatest slide guitar player ever. He hits notes here that aren't supposed to even exist, and Dickey joins in for some dazzling guitar dueling while guest Thom Douchette solos on harmonica as well. Next up is a slow, soulful take on T. Bone Walker’s (through Bobby "Blue" Bland) “Stormy Monday,” which puts to rest the false claim that white guys can't play the blues (never mind that Jaimoe was black), and then their version of Willie Cobbs' "You Don't Love Me" commences with the album's first really extended epic (19:15). This is a beautifully constructed song that goes far beyond mere blues; creeping rhythms lay the foundation, Duane and then Dickey add some smoking guitar, Gregg and then Doucette solo again, and then Duane adds an unaccompanied guitar solo as the crowd quiets to a whisper. Even the drummers get to solo, as does Dickey as the rest of the band kicks in before Duane goes it alone again at the song's conclusion. "Hot'lanta" is another impressive track, this one an instrumental on which Oakley shines (as is often the case, his bass propels the song forward). Of course, there are more dual guitar harmonies and solos from Duane and Dickey, and another brief drum solo before the song's slow build to its powerful climax. The next two songs are familiar, but these versions go far beyond what the (admittedly terrific) originals offered. For one thing, the drumming on this definitive 13-minute rendition of "In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed" is more fleshed out (Jaimoe only played congas on the original), and Dickey, Gregg, and then Duane take turns soloing. Simply put, this is one of Duane's greatest solos, and it showed that neither Hendrix nor Clapton nor anyone else had anything on him. Finally, the crowd calls for "Whipping Post" and that's just what they get, though parts of this 23-minute version are only mildly related to its studio counterpart. This time Duane solos first before Dickey delivers one of his very best; things then quiet down as the soulful guitar and keyboards are utterly gorgeous. Man, this section has nothing to do with the original "Whipping Post," but the whole band is then unleashed as the recognizable part of the song comes back before it fades out slowly, blissfully, for a full five minutes. So, as you've probably already surmised, I consider At Fillmore East to be one of the greatest guitar albums ever, and though perhaps some sections on the super-long songs could be tightened up a bit, this is definitely a minor, easy to overlook flaw in the grand scheme of things. I'd definitely issue a disclaimer to any listeners who aren't fans of lengthy guitar jams, but for those of you who are so inclined, rest assured that it doesn't get much better than At Fillmore East. Note: In 1992 Polydor reissued a greatly expanded At Fillmore East as The Fillmore Concerts, and though I appreciate the overall intent and am glad to have the two extra songs ("Don't Keep Me Wonderin'" and "Drunken Hearted Boy") that don't appear elsewhere (“Trouble No More,” “One Way Out,” and “Mountain Jam” also appear on Eat A Peach), I also feel that the remix is a bit too slick sounding, as the original mix was fine and more spontaneous. I also don't like how some of the songs were tampered with; for example, the keyboards on "One Way Out" were messed with and I miss the crowd calls before "Whipping Post." Another irritant is that at the very end of "Mountain Jam," when Duane takes center stage to introduce the band and say goodnight, you can barely hear it. On Eat A Peach it's clear as day, as the whole idea of putting that on the record to begin with was to show that Duane was in charge...they weren't merely losing a guitarist, they lost their founder and leader. But for more about that, read the next review. P.S. A cool thing about the original version of the album is how at album's end "Whipping Post" is ending and then you hear a new riff start and Duane and Dickey play it for about 12 seconds when the album fades out; that's actually "Mountain Jam."
Eat A Peach (Capricorn ‘72) Rating: A
Another classic double album, Eat A Peach is in many ways the quintessential Allman Brothers Band recording because it shows off so many sides of the band so well. Tragically, band leader and all-time great guitarist Duane Allman died in a motorcycle accident during this album's recording, and as a result it's something of a patchwork affair that includes three leftover studio tracks with Duane, three live songs left over from the Fillmore concerts, and three new studio songs without Duane. Fortunately, Gregg and Dickey upped their game to fill the void, and the overall quality of the album is amazingly high, especially given the circumstances. Smartly, the album begins with the three new studio songs without Duane, providing a strong statement of intent that they were still very much a viable band without Duane. The excellent leadoff track "Ain't Wasting Time No More" is an emotional, poignant Gregg song that features a prototypically weary vocal and Dickey unleashed on slide guitar (who knew?). “Les Bres In A Minor,” a 9-minute Dickey instrumental, takes awhile to get going, but boy does it hit on an impressive groove once it does (led, as is often the case, by Berry's rumbling bass), and Gregg gets in a solo too before Dickey takes over with some serious guitar heat. "Melissa," an older track revisited, may very well be Gregg's best ballad, and though it was written before the accident its mournful tone can't help but make me think of Duane ("Crossroads, will you ever let him go? Will you hide the dead man's ghost?"), and Dickey pitches in with the fluid, high-pitched, sustained guitar licks that would become his post-Duane trademark. Next up is a live version of the majestic, multi-sectioned song that arguably best captures the band's improvisational essence; for all its excess, "Mountain Jam" (very loosely based on Donovan's "There Is A Mountain") may well be the apotheosis of what the Allman Brothers Band were about. Yes, the song's indulgent 33 minutes get tedious at times (I can live without the drums and bass solos), but some incandescent guitar peaks more than makes up for any lagging valleys, and Duane's soulful soloing in particular towards the end shows just how incredible he was. The next two live tracks faithfully take the Brothers back to the blues and only serve to enhance their reputation in that area. This terrific take on Sonny Boy Williamson's "One Way Out," featuring a fittingly cocky vocal from Gregg, a great Dickey solo, and Duane superlative on slide, rivals "Statesboro Blues" as the band's most famous blues cover, and "Trouble No More," though faithful to the studio version, is another strong performance. "Stand Back," a Gregg and Berry co-write, starts the Duane-inclusive studio portion of the album with a solid rocker with a strong Gregg vocal, and then Dickey takes his first lead vocal on "Blue Sky," an elegant love ballad to his first wife (for awhile he refused to play it after their divorce!) and easily one of the band's best songs. Dickey's voice is damn near the polar opposite of Gregg's, sounding smooth and innocent rather than old and grizzled, but it certainly works due to the earnestness of his performance. The warmly inviting melody is impeccable too, and the chorus is quite catchy, while gorgeously fluid and tuneful extended soloing from Duane and Dickey provide the proverbial icing on the cake. The album ends with the only song that Duane ever wrote with the band (or at least the only song that he was credited with writing), “Little Martha,” and again it's hard not to hear it without thinking of it being a eulogy of sorts. Fittingly, Duane had said that the music was shown to him by Jimi Hendrix in his dreams, and this short, delicate acoustic instrumental is all the more affecting for it being his swan song. Anyway, to speak in broader terms again, Eat A Peach is a terrific album on which the band delivered their trademark blues and jam-based songs but also broadened their appeal by adding some mellower pop songs. These excellent songs, some of which are still popular classic rock radio tracks ("Melissa," "Blue Sky"), showed off an enjoyable new side to the band by highlighting Gregg and Dickey's increasingly diverse songwriting. Of course the band would never be the same without Duane (Oakley would meet an eerily similar fate a year later), but instead of trying to replicate Duane’s peerless talents on the newer songs the band wisely shifted the focus to Dickey Betts’ increasingly lyrical lead work, and Duane’s death ironically thrust Betts into the spotlight as the formidable player he’s always been in his own right.
Brothers and Sisters (Polygram ‘73) Rating: A-
As previously mentioned, bassist Berry Oakley, who had become the band's de-facto leader after Duane died (the two were extremely close) and who was a great bass player, died as a result of a motorcycle accident during the recording sessions for this album. Though again devastated, the band gamely soldiered on, recruiting bassist Lamar Williams and, in a surprise move, pianist Chuck Leavell. The band hit the road with their new lineup, famously playing in front of 600,000 people during the Summer Jam at Watkins Glen (other participants were the Grateful Dead and The Band) before re-entering the studio to complete Brothers and Sisters. Berry plays on only two tracks (the first two), Lamar five, and the bass is less prominent in the mix, while Leavell's piano playing shines throughout the album and often propels the band's rhythms as much as their actual rhythm section. On the whole, Brothers and Sisters saw the band somewhat transformed as a result of their new lineup, as they moved onto a more relaxed but slightly less exciting country-tinged direction. Even more so than on the last album, Dickey Betts (now credited as Richard Betts) steps to the forefront as the band's new musical leader, writing four of the album's seven songs (Gregg wrote the other three) while also highlighting most of them with his stellar guitar playing. He immediately shows that Duane wasn’t the band’s only slide guitar hotshot on “Wasted Words,” a catchy Gregg penned rocker. Other largely enjoyable if inessential album tracks include "Come and Go Blues," which has a good easy going groove and some hooky vocal parts, “Jelly Jelly,” a sparse blues with superb keyboard and piano solos that's capped off by a soulful guitar solo, and "Pony Boy," a modest country blues that Dickey sings and which features some pretty good country pickin'. Betts wrote the album's three classic cuts, the least well-known of which is "Southbound," a lustful rocker that Gregg sings and which contains a great jammin' groove, some chugging piano, and several wailing guitar solos. "Ramblin' Man" became the band's most famous and popular song, and it's Betts' song through and through, as he again takes the lead vocal on this one, both on the memorable verses and the catchy chorus. Studio guitarist Les Dudek trades leads with Betts' multi-tracked guitars, and the song climaxes with a truly classic guitar solo from Betts. Simply put, this song and the groovy 7-minute instrumental “Jessica” practically define the subgenre of "Southern rock" for many fans and are awesome driving songs. The latter track, which also features Dudek (this time on acoustic guitar) and which is one of rock music's most famous instrumentals, in particular showcases the band’s new groove oriented attributes. The song features several impressive buildups and Chuck proves definitively that he's a real powerhouse, lending a superlative piano solo that's followed by yet another great guitar solo from Betts. Overall, considering the band’s recent losses, these seven loose and confident songs are of a considerable high quality, as the band did far more than merely persevere on Brothers and Sisters, which became the band's commercial peak and lone #1 album.
Win, Lose or Draw (Capricorn, Polygram ‘75) Rating: C+
After Brothers and Sisters made the Allman Brothers Band the biggest band in America, drugs and success (the band had serious disagreements with Phil Walden and Capricorn Records over royalties) started to tear the band apart. Gregg (Laid Back) and Dickey (Highway Call) released solo albums, and Gregg also became tabloid fodder due to his tumultuous, ill-fated marriage to Cher. Problem was, Gregg was devoted to his drug dealer above all else, and as such he could only be bothered to write two songs for this album, one of which, "Nevertheless," was a weak, generic album filler with a poor vocal performance. His other song, the title track, is much better, and it's long been a personal favorite of mine ever since my old college roommate Kevin used to play it all the time on a mix tape (remember those things?). Though the arrangement is a bit overblown, on the whole it's still an excellent piano ballad that's a perfect fit for a lazy Sunday morning, as Gregg's vocals exude passion, Dickey plays some pretty country guitar, and Chuck lends some soulful piano to the proceedings. The album's other standout song is the leadoff track "Can't Lose What You Never Had," a Muddy Waters cover that has a good swampy groove on which Lamar's bass is upfront and funky. Everybody is in fine form; Gregg delivers a strong, powerful lead vocal, both Chuck and Dickey solo, and this rocking song features an undeniable energy that is sorely lacking throughout the rest of the album. For example, Dickey's "Just Another Love Song" is well written and melodic, with his high-pitched guitar to the fore, but the song seems indifferently performed, and "Louisiana Lou and Three Card Monty John" and "Sweet Mama (Lay Your Burdens Down)" are weak country tracks that sound like they could've been rejects from Highway Call (and maybe they were). Neither Butch nor Jaimoe could be bothered to show up to the recording session for either song, which shows what they likely thought about them and how fractured the band had become (producer Johnny Sandlin and Bill Stewart handled percussion duties on these tracks). The album's centerpiece song, a near-15 minute Betts instrumental called "High Falls," is very atypical and is interesting but it's also not what it could have been, as the song is way too long and the performances too tame. Still, this smooth, jazzy number has its virtues, chief among them being Leavell, who is a standout on his long electric piano solo, and Jaimoe, who grooves the song along nicely, with deft flourishes along the way. Alas, Dickey's guitar solo is melodic but never takes off like I would've hoped, and the same can be said about this album in general, as it was a major disappointment both commercially and artistically.
Wipe The Windows, Check The Oil, Dollar Gas (Capricorn, Polygram ‘76) Rating: B
The band broke up as a result of an infamous drug trial where Gregg was the star witness, ratting out friend and band employee John "Scooter" Herring for drug pushing. The Feds had Gregg between a rock and a hard place, but it would be some time before his bandmates, feeling betrayed, would forgive him. In the meantime, since Gregg and Dickey had gone solo again and Jaimoe, Chuck, and Lamar had formed Sea Level, Capricorn released this ridiculously titled live album as a contractual obligation release. And it's not half bad, really, it's just a bit too loose and laid back on the whole and is frankly far inferior to any Duane-era live release. "In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed" (all 17+ minutes of it) in particular has some solid soloing but lacks the serious guitar heat that was always produced when Dickey and Duane prodded each other on stage. Then again, at least it's decidedly different, with more emphasis on its moody, jazzy attributes, with predictably more keyboards and less guitars, which is certainly not the ratio I prefer when it comes to this band. The song selection is heavy on Brothers and Sisters, five of its ten tracks to be exact, but every album at least makes a token appearance, with "Don't Want You No More" and "It's Not My Cross To Bear" being the most surprising selections (unsurprisingly, I prefer the studio versions with Duane). Elsewhere, I suppose there's more juice to the slide guitars on these versions of "Wasted Words" and "Ain't Wasting Time No More," and "Ramblin' Man" features some extended soloing from Dickey, whose wailing guitar also steps to the fore on "Can't Lose What You Never Had." "Southbound" and "Jessica" groove along nicely, as you'd expect, and this is a solid performance of "Come and Go Blues," an album track I've come to like more and more. Still, solid though many of these performances are, this double live album is hardly essential, as there aren't too many songs here where there isn't a superior version elsewhere. Also, the recording quality is far from At Fillmore East standards, with the drums in particular sounding muffled and lacking their customary power. So, although I generally like listening to this album when it's on, and though it's better than what you'd expect from such a "cash in" venture, I can't really recommend it unless you've already checked out several of their superior live album options out there. The album was poorly received, too, as a new breed of Southern rockers (Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Outlaws, and the Marshall Tucker Band, the latter also on Capricorn Records, the flag bearer of Southern rock back in the day) had clearly eclipsed this seemingly finished band.
Enlightened Rogues (Capricorn, Polygram ‘79) Rating: B+
Gregg and Dickey's post-breakup projects didn't exactly set the world on fire, so, realizing that they were all better off together than apart, the band surprisingly regrouped (not for the last time) and released the underrated Enlightened Rogues. Chuck and Lamar decided to stick with Sea Level rather than return, but Butch and Jaimoe were back and the band recruited guitarist Dan Toler and bassist David Goldflies from Dickey Betts’ band Great Southern, thereby reinstating the same dual guitar lineup with which they had originally started. True, Toler was no Duane, but Enlightened Rogues is arguably Dickey's greatest Allman Brothers Band studio album in terms of guitar heroism, and Toler probably deserves some credit there too since his sound is so similar to Betts' that perhaps in some cases I'm giving credit to Betts where it belongs to Toler. Anyway, the album begins with Dickey's "Crazy Love," a rare top 40 hit for the band that's distinguished by Bonnie Bramlett's backing vocals. Perhaps it's a bit on the generic side, a charge that could be leveled at a few songs here, but a sense of renewal is immediately apparent due to the increased energy, plus some choice slide guitar and horns further help make it an enjoyable leadoff track. The band continue to play with fire and conviction on "Can't Take It With You," a rugged rocker with a smokin' guitar solo on which Trucks and Jaimoe's percussive pop is back big time. "Pegasus," Dickey's seven and a half minute instrumental, is next, and it's a smooth groover with harmonized guitars, multiple guitar solos, and brief drum and keyboard solos (Gregg had recently been so overshadowed by Chuck Leavell that I tended to forget what a fine organ player he was in his own right). Like "High Falls," this elongated number is a little too smooth and jazzy for its own good, but it does catch fire at times, and side one ends with a cover of Little Willie John's (though I tend to think of Fleetwood Mac) "Need Your Love So Bad," a soulful blues ballad with moody keyboards, a strong Gregg vocal, and guest help on harmonica from Jim Essery. Still, though side one is extremely solid, it is side two where this album really takes off, starting with "Blind Love," written by Dickey and Don Johnson (yes, that Don Johnson). A stomping rocker with more gruff vocals from Gregg, this superb song is highlighted by yet more great guitar solos, and "Try It One More Time," written by Dickey and Goldflies, is another tough rocker with harmonized guitars and kickass solos. Interestingly, Gregg and Dickey alternate verses, with each playing a different character presenting the other side of a relationship. It's a strategy that the band had never employed before, but it's certainly effective here, and "Just Ain't Easy" continues with a slow Gregg ballad (his only writing credit on the album) with soulful guitar and another tasty extended solo. Perhaps its airy backing vocals are a little more L.A.id back than necessary, but the song still works, and "Sail Away," a wistful Dickey country ballad, ends the proceedings with yet another stellar guitar solo just like every song on side two. Anyway, musically speaking there's nothing really new on Enlightened Rogues, the sound is a tad too smooth at times (like on the last two songs), and the songs are mostly very good rather than great. However, after several years apart it was great to hear the band return to their guitar-based strengths and sing and play together so consistently well.
Seven Turns (Epic ‘90) Rating: B+
Enlightened Rogues was a surprising top 10 success that revitalized the band's reputation, but the good times were short-lived. Capricorn filed for bankruptcy, and Betts won a lawsuit against Capricorn for unpaid royalties that proved a long suspected breach of trust. The band moved on to Arista, who was unsympathetic to their needs and steered them in the wrong direction, resulting in the two worst albums of their career, Reach For The Sky (1980) and Brothers Of The Road (1981), the latter of which at least yielded "Straight from the Heart," the group's third and thus far last Top 40 hit. During this period Jaimoe was fired due to financial disagreements for drummer David "Frankie" Toller (Dan's brother), who lacked the chemistry with Trucks that Jaimoe had enjoyed. The band then broke up again and for rest of the decade you didn't hear much about them (Gregg had a minor hit with "I'm No Angel" in 1987 but that was about it from a commercial standpoint) until the appearance of the excellent box set Dreams in 1989, which renewed interest in the band similar to what Crossroads had done for Eric Clapton. The band, including Jaimoe but not the Tollers, Goldflies, Jaimoe, or Lamar (who sadly had died young of cancer in 1983), regrouped and added some much needed new blood in the form of Warren Haynes (guitar), Allen Woody (bass), and Johnny Neel (keyboards and harmonica), all of whom had previously played with the Dickey Betts Band. And sure enough, given how low the band had sunk they sound positively reborn on this comeback effort, which though it doesn't hit their Duane (or even Chuck Leavell) era peak is at least in the same ballpark as Enlightened Rogues and was worlds better than their last two albums or any of their intervening solo work for that matter. And much of the credit belongs to the new band members, particularly Haynes who gave the band another legitimate guitar hero; both he and Neel also co-wrote four songs each, while Tom Dowd was back in the producer's chair for the first time since Enlightened Rogues. My main complaint with this album is that perhaps some songs have a formulaic "blooze" sound and don't move quite like they should, plus Neel's piano is way too prominent; he makes many positive contributions to the album but he's no Chuck Leavell (few pianists are). The album begins with "Good Clean Fun," a moderate radio hit whose hard rocking blues sound recalls Stevie Ray Vaughan, while "Let Me Ride" is an energized country boogie that's distinguished by its harmonized guitars, barrelhouse piano, and some screaming slide guitar. "Low Down Dirty Mean," one of two terrific straight blues tracks on the album, really gets down and dirty, with some hot soloing and Neel shining on piano and harmonica. "Shine It On" starts unimpressively but is later propped up by its poppy chorus and more choice guitar licks, while "Loaded Dice" is the album's weakest track, being a generic filler sung by Haynes, who is no Gregg in that department. The title track, sung and written by Betts (who at least co-wrote seven out of nine songs in all; Gregg, once the bands primary songsmith, only co-wrote a single track), is an Eagles-ish country pop number in a similar style as "Blue Sky." It's not as good as that seminal track, but I still like it a lot, mostly because of its philosophical lyrics (based on an old Indian legend), melodic, fluid guitar lines and solos, and Gregg's backing vocals, which hit the spot a la Bobby Whitlock in Derek and the Dominos. "Gamblers Roll" is the album's other standout blues song, this one highlighted by some soulful guitar soloing and its smoky late night ambiance. "True Gravity," written by Dickey and Warren, was another long (7:58), multi-sectioned, jazzy instrumental, this one inspired by Ornette Coleman and highlighted by its melodic, emotional guitars and powerful multi-textured percussion. Last but not least, "It Ain't Over Yet" is lacking in the energy department but it has another nice melody, with a catchy, singable chorus. So there you have it, a detailed writeup of a not quite classic but truly fine comeback album by a band long assumed dead and buried. Given that it had been over a full decade since they'd done anything worthwhile together, Seven Turns was a most welcome artistic rebirth that showed a renewed commitment to being a viable working band again.
Shades Of Two Worlds (Epic ‘91) Rating: A-
After the surprisingly strong Seven Turns, the Allman Brothers Band even more surprisingly upped the ante further on Shades Of Two Worlds, their best studio showing since Brothers and Sisters. Minus Johnny Neel, who was let go, the band is again back to their original setup, and Dickey and Warren really do the dual guitar thing again throughout the album. They also write the bulk of the songs, with their names appearing in five credits apiece, with Gregg having two; the band also ends the album with a superb reading of Robert Johnson's "Come On In My Kitchen." The album begins with "End Of The Line," an excellent rocker with autobiographical lyrics from Gregg about his addictions, plus Dickey and Warren wail on guitar. "Bad Rain" and "Desert Bird" are both generic blues boogies propped up by some good guitar, and "Midnight Man" is also generic and is easily skippable, but elsewhere there are nothing but vintage Allman Brothers Band songs. Gregg's "Get On With Your Life" sees the band doing a slow blues ballad, and quite well at that; for one thing, Gregg's voice is gruffer than ever, and it fits the world weary lyrics, which are really impressive throughout the album, which is merely a bonus with this band since their playing has always been where it's at. I already mentioned the Johnson cover, which has a sparse, let's all gather by back porch feel that is thoroughly enjoyable, again in large part due to Gregg's strong vocals but also due to the gospel-ish backing vocals. The other two songs I have yet to discuss are both epics; the lesser of the two, "Kind Of Bird," is an extended (8:26) jazzy instrumental, which is by now a band trademark. Containing harmonized guitars and a strong melody, this one really grooves along, with some great soloing by Dickey and Warren, who co-wrote it. Betts' 11-minute "Nobody Knows" is even better, and I'd argue that this explosive epic is their best extended studio jam since "In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed," and that it's one of their flat-out best songs ever, period. From the moment I heard its powerful opening riffs I knew that this song was going to be something special, and indeed it is, highlighted by more quotable lyrics and another fine vocal from Gregg, but even more so by its beautifully building guitar epiphanies, while Butch and Jaimoe have also rarely if ever been better. Wow, who would've thought that the band, now 20+ years into their on again, off again career, would come up with such a masterful song at this late stage, or that they'd deliver one of their hardest rocking and best overall albums? Not I, but the band had proven people wrong and come back strong before, this was just the latest and greatest example of their resiliency. Alas, this album didn't sell well, perhaps due to the rise of grunge, and it remains sorely undervalued (it's currently out of print in fact) despite its considerable high quality.
An Evening With the Allman Brothers Band: First Set (Epic ‘92) Rating: B+
This live album, the first of several from the latter day incarnation of the band, captures parts of three shows from the Shades Of Two Worlds tour. Produced again by Dowd, with Thom Douchette playing harmonica on two tracks and new percussionist Marc Quińones (now a full-time band member) appearing on all, this is a good live album but it doesn't really offer anything new, in direct contrast to At Fillmore East which presented seemingly almost a different band than the one that had appeared on their first two studio albums. If you're a big fan of the band I'd still recommend getting it, but otherwise there are better options out there. The versions of "End Of The Line" (which kicks off this album, just like it kicked off the previous one), "Get On With Your Life" (which here more than before brings back memories of "Stormy Monday"), and "Nobody Knows" (here extended past 15 even more epic minutes) aren't that different from the recent studio versions, and though it's always good to hear "Blue Sky" and "Dreams," these aren't the best versions of these songs because let's face it Duane isn't on them. Still, Dickey and Warren are excellent players in their own right, that much is apparent throughout, and "Southbound," with Dickey on vocals this time and funkier than previously, is refreshingly different at least, as is an acoustic "Melissa," which is pretty and has some nice dual guitar leads but lacks the world weary magic of the original. I wish the band would've included more surprises like "Midnight Blues," which is an old Blind Willie McTell song that Betts rewrote the lyrics to; this acoustic number with Betts on slide and Doucette adding his two cents is a mid-album highlight. "Revival," like "Blue Sky" and "Melissa" making its first appearance on a live Allmans album, is another solid performance and is a fitting finale, as for the first time in a long time they did indeed seem like a big family again during those productive times.
Where It All Begins (Epic ‘94) Rating: B
This one fared much better commercially than Shades Of Two Worlds, as it was aggressively promoted by Epic and as a result three songs received radio airplay ("Back Where It All Begins," "Soulshine," "No One To Run With"). Critically speaking, Where It All Begins isn't quite as good as the previous two studio albums, but it was still a solid next installment, even if it peters out towards the end. At ten songs clocking in at 56 minutes, this one could've been trimmed down a bit, but by and large it features great playing (recorded live in the studio, again by Dowd) of some pretty good songs, five of which were written by Dickey (one a co-write; no long jazzy instrumentals this time), while Gregg co-writes four (his most in a long time), Warren three, and Woody two. So, rather than resting on past laurels, this band was an ongoing concern as each member contributed; it's just that much of the material isn't all that memorable. "All Night Train" and "Sailin' 'Cross the Sea" begin the proceedings with a pair of slide guitar showcases, with the former featuring lyrics that again address Gregg's drug problems. Neither are anything special but both are solid, and Dickey's epic 9-minute extravaganza, the country-tinged "Back Where It All Begins," is a definite highlight, in particular its extended instrumental section on which Dickey and Warren's melodic guitar dueling alone is worth the price of admission. Perhaps the song goes on for a couple of minutes too long, but that's a minor complaint, and Warren's "Soulshine," a soulful blues ballad on which he sings and plays exceptionally well, is another standout. So is the tuneful next song, "No One To Run To" (even if it’s also a little too long), as the band curiously elected to put all the best songs together in the middle of the album this time. This one is notable for its funky Bo Diddley beats and great soloing, while Quińones really makes his presence felt here (and elsewhere) as well. "Change My Way Of Living" is a bluesy slide guitar showcase that Dickey sings instead of Gregg, who usually handles such numbers. Then again, perhaps the song was too personal for Dickey to hand over the reins; he was not without his own demons, after all (we'll talk more about them soon enough). Gregg's whiskey soaked blues growl does dominate "Mean Woman Blues," a good groovin' jam that really swings, but as mentioned previously the rest of the album is underwhelming. "Everybody's Got A Mountain To Climb" and "What's Done Is Done" are weak Allman Brothers Band by numbers, and "Temptation Is A Gun," strangely co-written by Gregg and ex-Journey members Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain, is merely a decent slow blues. Let's face it, the band can never go back where they began (Duane and Berry are long gone, after all), but Where It All Begins, despite its inconsistency, was another game attempt at ongoing relevance.
Hittin' the Note (Sanctuary ‘03) Rating: A-
In the 9 years between Where It All Begins and Hittin' the Note, the band released An Evening With the Allman Brothers Band: 2nd Set (1995), which like the first set is good but inessential and at times redundant (its best song is probably an unplugged-styled rendition of “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed”), and Peakin' at the Beacon (2000) (the band have become annual mainstays at New York City's Beacon Theater), which is pretty weak. In between those two albums, Haynes and Woody left to devote all their energies to former side project Gov't Mule. Oteil Burbridge replaced Woody (who died in 2000), and Jack Pearson replaced Haynes for a couple of years before he was replaced by the far superior Derek Trucks, Butch's nephew and yet another ace slide guitar player. Sadly, founding member and longtime musical leader Dickey Betts was dismissed from the band in 2000 (via fax no less!), allegedly due to excessive alcoholism. He was briefly replaced by Jimmy Herring, who couldn't cut it, so in 2001 Haynes agreed to come back (so technically Derek is now Warren and Warren is now Dickey!) and the lineup since then has been set. Got all that? Anyway, as for this particular album, it's really good but not without its problems. The main problem with this album is its length, as seemingly every song has to exceed 5 minutes, and as spectacular as the playing often is, it's not always dynamic enough to hold my interest for 75 minutes (this is the band's first studio album that significantly suffers from cd-era length). Really, many of the compositions, nine of which were co-written by Warren (his role having increased without Dickey) and five of which were co-written by Gregg, are pretty generic, but the band's superlative playing lifts otherwise average blues rock compositions such as "Firing Line," "Woman Across The River" (a Freddie King cover)," and "Rockin' Horse" (an improvement on a prior Gov't Mule song that evolves into a terrific extended guitar jam with several "wow" moments). "Maydelle," with its lame, hard to overlook lyrics ("I can't break your spell Maydelle"), is the only song here that I don't care for at all, but not every song seems absolutely necessary, either, or at least they would’ve come across better had they been shortened or positioned differently. For example, the melodic 12-minute jazz-rock instrumental "Instrumental Illness" is enjoyable on its own, but appearing as it does so late in the album this impressive effort doesn’t seem to warrant such an extended showing (exhaustion having already set in). A pair of earlier epics, "High Cost Of Low Living" (7:52) and "Desdemona" (9:20), more than earn their long lengths, however. Besides having a great song title and some nifty nods to former songs, the former features warm harmonies, Gregg's appropriately weary lead vocals and moody Hammond organ, a strong melody, and some phenomenal high-pitched guitar soloing, while the latter starts and ends as a slow blues ballad; however, it's in between, during a great extended guitar jam on which the jazzy rhythms are as relentlessly creative as the guitars, that the song truly takes off. More modest highlights include the moody guitar-fest "Who To Believe," the powerfully atmospheric and affecting ballad "Old Before My Time," and "Old Friend," a sparse let's sit by the pack porch and play type of finale that gives the album some needed variety (Haynes and Trucks are the only ones who play on this song, it should be noted). Also of note is a surprising cover of The Rolling Stones’ "Heart Of Stone," which features some tremendous guitar playing and is another standout track. On the whole, this album is a fine showcase for the dual guitar magic of Derek and Warren, while also again showing what a first rate rhythm section the band has (special mention for Quińones and Burbridge; if you've been reading these reviews you should already know what a great tandem Butch Trucks and Jaimoe are). Gregg's voice isn't what it was, but he still gives some memorable performances (most notably on "Old Before My Time"), and really the albums biggest problem (besides its already mentioned over-length) is its lack of variety and tendency to meander (the band has become more "Dead-like" in recent years because that band's audience drifted over after Jerry Garcia died). Hittin' the Note is still a very good album, however, possibly their strongest studio showing since the Duane years, and I'm glad that the band is still a relevant ongoing proposition beyond being just a touring band, though there will probably be a few more live releases (see the next two reviews) before we see another studio album of new material from this bunch.
Live at the Atlanta International Pop Festival: July 3 & 5, 1970 (Epic ‘03) Rating: A-
There's no shortage of live Allman Brothers Band releases. Of course, everybody knows that THE live album to get is At Fillmore East, but this archive release would probably be my second choice over Live At Ludlow Garage: 1970, which also captured the first and best version of the band and is most notable for a 44 minute version of "Mountain Jam." Still, I'd go with this one because the recording quality is better and it has more material. True, given the significant song overlap between the two (July 3 & 5) shows (the band opened and closed the legendary Atlanta International Pop Festival) much of the material will seem redundant to all but the diehards, who will beg to differ, but then again the target audience for this album is the diehards. The song list here is largely comprised of material from their first two albums, of which "Dreams" and "Hoochie Coochie Man" are obvious standouts on disc one, especially so since they hadn't appeared on the Fillmore East album. Multiple versions of extended epics "In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed," "Whipping Post," and "Mountain Jam" are highlights of both discs as you'd expect, with disc two's "Mountain Jam," featuring Johnny Winter, arguably being definitive, even if it's only 28 minutes long. The version on disc one (unfortunately cut short due to cd time limitations) was interrupted by rain, and the fact that they included the rain delay announcement, along with the bizarre introductions and Duane bantering with the crowd, adds a touch of authenticity that perhaps the revised Fillmore Concerts lacked. I would say that on the whole this 2 1/2 hour souvenir isn't quite up to the consistently high standards of the original At Fillmore East album, which came nine months later during which the band had really tightened up and honed their chops, but it has an enviable rawness and spontaneity that any blues rock fan should be able to appreciate, and it has some tremendous peaks, with Duane leading the way as per usual back in the day; the last 7 minutes of "Mountain Jam" are awe-inspiring. In addition to Winter, old friend Thom Douchette adds harmonica to several tracks, and Gregg's organ seems more prominent as well. Not everything here works wonderfully, but by and large these are fine performances as the band were pumped up to lay it all on the line before a hometown crowd who in turn embraced them back. At Fillmore East is the best Allman Brothers live album, but Live at the Atlanta International Pop Festival: July 3 & 5, 1970 would be my second pick, though I'll be the first to admit that I haven't heard all of them; the band has released a lot of live albums.
One Way Out (Sanctuary '04) Rating: A-
I might’ve spoken too fast in my last review, for this terrific live album, which blows away their prior Beacon live album, is another top-notch live Allman Brothers Band album. Perhaps there are a few too many selections from Hittin' the Note, as well as a few too many old warhorses we’ve heard before, and at 149 minutes this album is a lot of music to take in and some of the jams may seem excessively long. But so what? This is what the Allman Brothers Band do, and they’re as good a “jam band” that ever was, plus this is the best example of the Derek Trucks/Warren Haynes guitar duo you’re ever likely to hear. Trucks, now fully integrated into the band, in particular is incredible, and as a guitar duo they rival even Duane and Dickey, which means that they’re one of the greatest guitar tandems ever, period. The rest of the band is in fine form as well and the sound quality is excellent, making this album a must-have.
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