Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Skywalker Blues

Freaking Out at the Beacon with The Allman Brothers Band

We had talked about making this trip for years, the pilgrimage to New York to catch The Allman Brothers at the Beacon Theatre. I believe they started playing there annually in 1992, with 10 shows that year, and gradually establishing a full month residency each spring. There certainly are enough fans in the region to support the band, and as the popularity of the run grew, it became a destination for hardcore Allmans fans, like a journey to Mecca for fans of blues-rock improv and substance abuse. But the relationship between New York City and the Allmans goes back to their breakthrough classic live album, At Fillmore East. The shows captured on that album, and many others played at the Fillmore, established the Allmans as not only one of the great bands of the era (60's), or genre (Southern Rock - Blues - Psychedelia), but greatest bands period. The two headed snake guitar of Duane and Dickey, authentic Blues singing and songwriting of Greg, and freight train rhythm section of Berry, Butch, and Jamoie combined to create a monstrous and soulful singular sound that is the very essence of Americana in all its mythological tragedy and glory. But this is the real thing folks, not some British invasion striking all the right poses. It's long been said that it took British bands like the Stones, Clapton, and others to reintroduce the Blues to America. Bullshit. Hendrix might've been the only true blues player to come out of the London scene to have a lasting impact on American music, and he was American anyway. The other bands may have been blues enthusiasts, but when playing blues covers they sounded more like imposters, and were much better known for their pop and rock hits. 


The importance of the Allmans in American music history is one of the great realizations I had during the riff Olympics I witnessed at the Beacon. As they were turning the melody of Blue Sky inside out, whipping it around, exploring every nook and cranny of the greatest guitar solo of all time, I came to realize how classic that sound is. It's reminiscent of so much great country, blues, and soul music, without ever sounding derivative. Sadly, Dickey isn't there to sing it. 


Some may point to this, and the fact that the Allmans have been through so many different musicians and configurations during their 45 year tenure, as a detraction. But it is in fact quite the opposite - it's a testament to the greatness of the music and the legacy of the band that they have not only endured but thrived, finally ending up back where it all began: on top in NYC. And though critical consensus views the Yardbirds as being a graduate school for guitarists, having produced Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton, the Allmans make it look like junior college and just another British imitation. There is no denying the greatness of Page, Beck, and Clapton, but Dickey, Duane, Derek, and Warren can hold their own if not surpass each one. While I have had my reservations about Derek for a number of years, being technically mind-boggling but emotionally disengaged, my opinion on him has finally come around. He's never gonna pose for a great picture, but like Garcia, he keeps his cool amidst the insanity swirling about, and maintains pure focus on the music. That's the only way to explain the musical acrobatics he pulls off. The things he does seem to exist outside the confines of time and space that normal humans have to deal with. He's fully tapped into a musical language that just oozes out of him. 


The rest of the band members over the years have tapped into that same American rock lexicon, and together created an Allmans family tree that reaches deep down into the soul and blues, and shoots up to the cosmic heavens. Now circling back to the Yardbirds, name one great song they've put out? You can't. Train Kept A-Rollin? Even a shit-hole American band like Aerosmith did a better version. For Your Love? Fuck you. They suck. In conclusion, eat it England!


The other great realization I had while I found myself trapped in a swirling wormhole of Southern rock riffs, self-loathing, and dancing mushrooms, was that being such a mythical American band, it would make sense that the Allmans would fall into some type of archetypal pattern. And viewing Derek as the former prodigy man-child who had become the master, possibly surpassing his forefathers, the hero's journey they embarked on seems most analogous to that of Star Wars. Yeah, I know, it's fucking clown shoes, but bear with me for a minute.


I'm not the first one to compare guitar players to Jedi maters, gun-slingers, or Samurais. Basically Star Wars was a sci-fi Samurai/Western retelling of the hero's journey. It certainly does seem to take an ability to connect to some kind of "force" to be able to pull off what guitar players like Duane and Derek do. It's more than just nimble fingers, but an ability to tap into an alternate state of consciousness and access the wisdom of some unknown - the collective unconscious, a true self, "god," the mushroom elves, Zen. To tap into that state takes not only dedication and work, but a certain fearlessness and openness to experience. Playing improv music, one wrong note and the whole thing can fall apart if you let it. They're out there on the edge with nothing to hold on to. As I said before, the music they play seems to disregard the normal constraints of time and space. When it seems they're too far gone and they won't get to the end of the measure on time, miraculously they make a turn on a dime and blow your mind in the process. During the Other One jam in Black Hearted Woman, they seemingly play with the very nature of time, stretching it out, speeding it up, or slowing it down. Or they seamlessly drop in a tease or quote from another song during a jam. In the really immense moments, you lose track of what song they're playing all together, and it all becomes part of one great big Allman Brothers song, a riff so classic that it could be from any number of tunes, yet it's totally unique.


So essentially if you start with Derek as Luke, the young Jedi in training, you can match the rest of the Allmans with their archetypal Star Wars counterparts. The long deceased Duane as Obi Wan, mentoring Derek from the after-life, guiding him in the ways of the force, and battling Dickey, who takes on the role of Darth Vader, for control of Derek's soul. Eventually Derek surpasses his mentors and restores the kingdom that is the Allman Brothers. In the process, he saves the princess, in this case Susan Tedeschi, also strong in the ways of the force/blues as was Leia. But this being a Southern tale, rather than being siblings they get married. Also, consider that Derek has reconciled with his "dark father" Dickey, having played with him recently in his own band, and expressed hopes that Dickey would join the Allmans at the Beacon for one last hurrah. As for the rest of the cast, Greg fits the Yoda mold, a wise old sage, speaking blues riddles, hunched over and hobbled by age, but strong in spirit. Allen Woody is obviously Chewbacca. No explanation there is really needed. That being the case, Warren would be Han Solo, and I've always viewed Warren as a more a gunfighter and mercenary than Samurai. Marc and Jaimoe are R2 and C3PO, respectively, having access to the multiple rhythmic languages of the universe, and keeping the whole machine flying. Oteil would be Lando. He's a smooth operator and a bad motherfucker (and ok, he's black). That would leave Butch, and although it may seem like we're running out of characters, if you think about it, it seems obvious that Butch is the Millennium Falcon. Next time you hear him behind those big kettle drums, ask yourself if it doesn't remind you of the power of a jet engine making the jump to light speed. 


Other characters have come and gone, and times have been up and down for this band over a miraculous 45 year career. They've seen the heights of creative success, succumbed to the excess of commercial adoration, suffered the loss of founding members, and were the prototype Southern rock cliche. Now they're back on top for a final victory lap. But much like Return of the Jedi, is this the end of the story, or the beginning of a new chapter?


So it's probably clear by now that not only did I enjoy the two shows I saw in NYC, but things also got pretty weird. As for the music, I went in not knowing what to expect, and really just hoping for a great experience. I hadn't seen the Allmans in close to ten years, for a variety of reasons: no Dickey, Derek is technically amazing but at the same time emotionally underwhelming, Greg is burnt, too many covers, they're cashing in, etc. The Beacon run is also known for having a cavalcade of guests, but aside from a standout like Dickey, Clapton, Trey, or Buddy Guy, my preference was for limited guests, as they tend to break up the flow of the shows, and I was coming to see the Allmans, not some random keyboard or sax player. Luckily, and somewhat surprisingly, it ended up being two completely guest free shows. My only other hopes were to see what I consider to be the classic trio of Allmans tunes: Statesboro Blues, Liz Reed, and Mtn. Jam. My hopes were somewhat dashed, as they had played both Statesboro and Mtn. Jam at the previous show, but I knew there were still a lot of great tunes in store. 


The first set on 3/14 came ripping out of the gate in typical Allman's fashion. Hoochie Coochie Man and Come and Go Blues were standouts. Dr. John's Walk on Guilded Splinters was a nice surprise, as we had been talking about that tune earlier in the day - a gumbo of dark blues, psychedelia, and Nawlins funk. Ain't Wasting Time No More was a nice reminder of the genius of Greg's songwriting, with lyrics that ring as true as any of his peers from the 60's:

Last Sunday morning, the sunshine felt like rain.
Week before, they all seemed the same.
With the help of God and true friends, I come to realize
I still had two strong legs, and even wings to fly.

And oh I, ain't wastin time no more
'Cause time goes by like hurricanes, and faster things.

Lord, lord Miss Sally, why all your cryin'?
Been around here three long days, you're lookin' like you're dyin'.
Just step yourself outside, and look up at the stars above
Go on downtown baby, find somebody to love.

Meanwhile I ain't wastin' time no more
'Cause time goes by like pouring rain, and much faster things.

You don't need no gypsy to tell you why
You can't let one precious day slip by.
Look inside yourself, and if you don't see what you want,
Maybe sometimes then you don't,
But leave your mind alone and just get high.

Well by and by, way after many years have gone,
And all the war freaks die off, leavin' us alone.
We'll raise our children in the peaceful way we can,
It's up to you and me brother
To try and try again.

Well, hear us now, we ain't wastin' time no more
'Cause time goes by like hurricanes
Runnin' after subway trains
Don't forget the pouring rain.


Set 2 started off on a mellow note with the yearning of sweet Melissa. That set the stage for the classic Allmans extravaganza that was to come. I was aware they had been playing Blue Sky for the past few years, but had mixed feelings about doing it without Dickey. I had even enjoyed Warren playing it with Phil Lesh years back, but still it didn't seem right to play it in the Allmans without its author. I certainly came around on that one. With this type of performance, it really didn't matter what the names of the people on stage were. Every note was flawless and true to the original melody, and they opened it up and put on an Allman Brothers guitar clinic. The fact that Dickey wasn't there was bittersweet, making me appreciate his genius, but relieved he wasn't there to screw it up. Dickey would continue to haunt much of the rest of the set. 


The cheery psychedelia of Blue Sky quickly gave way to the darkness of Black Hearted Woman, one of the standout jams of the weekend. The Allmans have been playing this tune a lot lately, but I was curious about its performance history, and also the origins of the Other One jam played within the song. It was released on their debut album, but doesn't appear in any early setlists that I've ever seen. I searched the internet for some clues, but came up with nothing, so I sent an email to Alan Paul, author of the recent Allmans biography One Way Out, to see if he had any insight. Unfortunately he was unaware when the song entered the setlist rotation, but did mention that Warren brought the Other One jam to the tune, and that it is a standout of any Allmans show these days. I've already commented on Warren and Derek's ability to elasticize time during the Other One jam, but also have to point out that Oteil is the driving force behind this tune, throwing his whole body into the performance and laying it down in the best way any bass player can: both heavy and fluid. He pushes the drummer into overdrive, and the whole thing becomes a time warp. The Other One is truly one of the great jams to see live, as it whips around the room and keeps you on the edge of a cliff for the whole journey. I'll take a Grateful Dead jam at any show, and this is one for the ages, a jam that every concert goer should experience regardless of whether they ever got to see the Dead or not.


Up next was probably my favorite Allmans ballad, Seven Turns, and along with Back Where it All Begins, among the best Allmans tunes of the last 25 years. They had performed this Dickey penned tune for the first time without its author at the Beacon the week before, so I was really antsy to hear it. Oteil handled the vocals, and he's got an excellent, albeit under-utilized voice. But it was hard not to think of Dickey during this soulful ballad. I was probably reading into things a bit too much, but after already playing Dickey's best known tune in Blue Sky, it seemed like they were either trying to communicate something directly to Dickey, or at least to the fans about Mr. Richard Betts. It seemed to be an attempt to acknowledge Dickey's legacy, but also calling him out for the angry drunk he had become, and his previous refusals to make appearances with the band (he declined invitations to join the band at their Beacon run in 2009, and was a no show for their lifetime achievement award at the Grammys). Much like the music, the history of the Allman Brothers is dramatic and filled with tension.

Seven turns on the highway,
Seven rivers to cross.
Sometimes, you feel like you could fly away,
Sometimes, you get lost.

And sometimes, in the darkened night,
You see the crossroad sign.
One way is the mornin light,
You got to make up your mind.

Somebody's callin your name.
Somebody's waiting for you.
Love is all that remains the same,
That's what it's all comin to.


Rockin' Horse, much like Black Hearted Woman, is a song that has done well in the Warren era of the Allmans. It gets things cooking with some dirty guitar and lyrics that wouldn't be out of place in a ZZ Top song. Get On With Your Life was a slow burning blues with the spotlight directly on Greg throughout. A nice chance for a breather in a blistering set. The finale of the set was my favorite of all Allmans tunes, and the one I would have been disappointed had they not played it, Liz Reed. Another Dickey tune, this instrumental is the distillation of what the Allmans are all about. It's like the entire history of the South in music, played out as well as any novel could describe: drama, agony, tragedy, glory, bliss, and heartache channeled through the blues-jazz-country-rock hybrid that is the Allman's sound. It's all there, and they played the shit out of it. A bouncy One Way Out encore finished off the show and sent us out into the New York night tweaking away.


 After the first night, going for another round almost seems pointless. It would be just too hard to top. But with some help from Shake Shack and a steady diet of libations, I felt just about normal enough to make it to the show. 

3/15/2014
Set 1:

Don't Want You No More >
It's Not My Cross To Bear
You Don't Love Me
Statesboro Blues
Hot 'Lanta
Spots Of Time
Don't Keep Me Wonderin'
Old Before My Time
Smokestack Lightnin'      with James van der Bogert, drums
Midnight Rider with James van der Bogert, drums
No One To Run With        

Set 2:

Rain
The High Cost Of Low Living
Worried Down With The Blues
Dreams
Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad? with Duane Trucks, drums
Jessica

Encore: Whipping Post

The first set kicked off with the classic combo of Don't Want You Know More>Not My Cross to Bear. From there on, we were just able to keep on checking classic Allman's songs off the list. The first set was jam packed with a lot of the hits, played short but to the point. I even got Statesboro from my wish list, much to my surprise appearing in the middle of the first set. I wasn't aware that the Allmans did Smokestack Lightning, and seeing as that's one of the great blues tunes of all time, it was another treat. Warren even busted out a megaphone briefly, about as close as he can come to emulating the Wolf's growl. The set finished off with a nice version of No One to Run With. Like any tune with that classic Bo Diddley/Buddy Holly beat, it's not going to win any points for originality, but it's a solid rocker. The highlight of the tune was undoubtedly the video screens, which overlapped footage of both Duane and Allen Woody, to make it appear as though they were jamming with each other and the rest of the band. It was ridiculously awesome.


I had never been much of a fan of the Allman's version of Rain, but this one changed my thinking. Cool to hear the Beatles psychedelic anthem transformed into a Southern soul ballad. The second set kept a mellow tone through the next two songs as well, setting the stage nicely for the meat of the set. We had been waiting for Dreams all weekend, and it did not disappoint. Again, it's the blues channeled through a psychedelic vision, and a song that gradually builds up to a frantic peak, allowing Derek to burn the place down. From there was another surprise, Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad? Of all the Derek and the Dominoes tunes, with the possible exception of Layla, this is the one the Allmans do best. In particular, the plaintive guitar outro, from which they gradually transitioned into a drums jam. Next came the expected Jessica to end the set, and it was everything you could hope it would be and more. No, we didn't get the full Mtn. Jam we wanted, but they did take Jessica far enough out there so that they were able to tease that cosmic first there is a mountain melody for a few bars before moving on and leaving many to wonder if it ever really happened. 


For the encore, there was only one logical conclusion to this tale, obvious to many in attendance calling out for the Whipping Post. It's a song that's been played to death, but for good reason: it's a hard rock juggernaut. From the opening bass rumble, the song chugs along building up to the chorus until you feel as though you literally have been whipped around. Musically it contains a lot of the same drama and intensity as Liz Reed, but adding fairly standard blues lyrics about a relationship gone bad, until you get to the chorus and title of the song. Seems kind of strange for a Southern band to be comparing a relationship to being tied to a whipping post, and it's hard not to think of slavery and the South's tumultuous past. The music seems to mirror that darkness. But maybe I'm reading into things a bit too much again here. Regardless, we went out into the night not just satisfied, but shocked and awed. Or feeling like we had just been tied to a post and whipped. Or well, just had our gourds blown by the Allman Bros. Or something more tame than that likely. 


So there's the bittersweet end to my Allmans concert-going career. Though it seems unlikely, even if I did have the opportunity to see them again, I'd probably have to pass. There is no way what I experienced can be topped. I'm lucky to have had a victory lap with the Allmans, be reminded of the depth of their genius, and discover that they continue to be something much more than a classic rock relic. This is music for the ages, part of a great mythological tradition of crossroads and salvation, life and death, love and hate, that hopefully future fans of the blues and live music will come to discover and appreciate.


"There ain't no revolution, it's evolution, but every time I'm in Georgia I eat a peach for peace."
Duane Allman


Duane might've said the same about pastrami in New York.