All His Friends Come to See and Sing with Gregg Allman
In March 1969, after several years of steeping themselves in the British blues, the soul of their Southern homeland, and the rock and roll emerging from England at the time – and playing as the Escorts, the Hourglass, and the Allman Joys – Duane Allman and his brother Gregg gathered Butch Trucks, Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson, Berry Oakley, and Dickey Betts to form the Allman Brothers Band. Forty-five years later, after reeling from the losses of Duane and Berry – hauntingle, each died in a motorcycle accident one year apart, almost to the day, and almost at the exact same spot – later confronting the bitter acrimony between Gregg and Dickey Betts, and struggling with the physical and emotional ravages of life on the road, the Allman Brothers Band still fills the Beacon Theater every March for its month-long run of sold out shows. Over the years, as the band might have easily “gone beyond the point of caring,” the one constant has been Gregg Allman and his voice. Along with the two other original members Jaimoe and Butch, he has kept the band running down that “road that goes on forever.”
After forty-five years, the Allman Brothers Band exerts a magical, mysterious, and mystical hold on its fans: What drives Gregg Allman? What keeps fans spellbound and returning year after year to the run at the Beacon? What forces compel fans to flock to the Allman Brothers Band, and how can we distinguish those forces from those that compel fans to sell out recent Bruce Springsteen concerts or shows by the Stones or The Dead? Is the spirit of Duane hovering over the band and emanating from the riffs of Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks’ guitars? Is Duane’s spirit palpable in the music that washes over the fan’s bodies, transporting them to another place and time?
Kirk West, the acclaimed rock photographer and the Allman Brothers Band tour manager from 1989-2009, said recently that going to an Allman Brothers Band concert was like going to church. I’ll explore the above questions in more detail in the second part of this article, but if an Allman Brothers Band concert is church, then Gregg Allman is the preacher who’s mediating between the gathered congregants and Duane’s spirit.
In January 2014, Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks announced that, at the end of the year, each would be leaving the Allman Brothers Band and returning to work more with his respective band, Gov’t Mule and Tedeschi Trucks Band. Following this announcement, Gregg revealed that the Allman Brothers Band would stop touring at the end of the year. Over the last few months, Gregg has struggled with health issues, cancelling the final week of the March run at the Beacon, though promising to return to play the shows later in the year.
On January 10, 2014, though, an all-star cast of Gregg’s friends and fellow musicians gathered in the iconic Fox Theater in Atlanta – across the street from the former site of Alex Cooley’s Electric Ballroom in which the careers of numerous southern rock bands, such as Wet Willie, were launched in the 1970s (the Electric Ballroom closed in 1979 after a five-year run) – to pay tribute to Gregg Allman’s music and voice. Today, Rounder Records released All My Friends: Celebrating the Songs and Voice of Gregg Allman, a 1 DVD/2 CD package of that historic night that captures the four-hour concert event in its entirety. The musicians honoring Gregg Allman span all ages, from his contemporaries, or near contemporaries: Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave), Jackson Browne, Dr. John, John Hiatt, Taj Mahal, and Jimmy Hall (of Wet Willie) to younger artists such as Eric Church, Vince Gill, Zac Brown, Martina McBride, Robert Randolph, Trace Adkins, and Keb’ Mo’, among others. The house band itself consists of celebrated musicians Don Was on bass (also the project’s musical director), former Allman Brothers’ members Chuck Leavell on keyboards and Jack Pearson on guitar, ex-Black Crowe Audley Freed on guitar, the Wallflowers’ Rami Jaffee on keyboards, and Kenny Aronoff on drums, as well as the heavenly throated McCrary Sisters on backing vocals.
As with any tribute album, especially one in which songs as beloved as Allman’s receive new treatment, listeners are bound to find that some interpretations fall far short of the originals while others remain faithful in spirit, and sometimes in form, to the originals. Even others transcend the originals in some fashion. Sam Moore turns “Please Call Home” into a gospel call-and-response number that manages to capture the plaintive and mournful spirit and tone of the original. Keb’ Mo’ delivers a gritty, grueling jazz stomp, punctuated by searing blues lead riffs, on “Just Another Rider,” mirroring Allman’s growling vocal styles. In a disappointing moment on the first CD, Train’s Pat Monahan manages to turn “Queen of Hearts” into a cabaret tune that lacks the emotional power and range of Allman’s original. John Hiatt lights a hot fire under “One Way Out,” driving the tune with his guttural blues growl, and his lighting lead work carries the old Sonny Boy Williamson-Elmore James-Marshall Sehorn tune to the same dizzying heights that the Allman Brothers Band carried it on “Eat a Peach.” Taj Mahal joins forces with Gregg Allman for a blistering interpretation of Statesboro Blues.
A number of country music artists pay their tributes to Allman, but many of their interpretations fall flat and disappoint. Trace Adkins turns in a creditable performance on “I’m No Angel”. His voice manages to channel the Allman growl, even though it lacks Allman’s expressiveness, but he can’t reach the right depth on “Trouble No More.” It comes across as thin and lacking in spirit. As good an interpreter as he is, Vince Gill can’t ever find the right level of expression or comfort on “Multi-Colored Lady.” His high lonesome voice comes across not as mournful and sad but as didactic. It’s a rare occasion where Gill lacks expression and nuance and misses the meaning of the song almost entirely in his interpretation of it. Martina McBride’s version of “All My Friends,” for all of her vocal power, also lacks nuance. What saves this song is the McCrary Sisters’ golden-throated backing vocals and their gospel choir treatment of the tune. Try as he might, Eric Church fails miserably to harness the power of “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More,” though he gets a little closer on his version of “Win, Lose or Draw.”
It’s no coincidence that the strongest songs on the albums are the ones where Allman steps onto the stage to join forces with friends and to sing his songs. If you close your eyes and let the music wash over you, you’ll swear that the original Allman Brothers Band is playing “Dreams” and “Whipping Post.” Jackson Browne joins Allman for touching and poignant versions of Browne’s “These Days” and Allman’s and Steve Alaimo’s “Melissa.” Browne and Allman share onstage the ease of old friends, even as they let the music speak for them, becoming one for a few moments with two affecting songs that express our struggles with loss and love so powerfully. On “Melissa,” the audience is carried away by the beauty of the moment that is sings along with Allman and Browne.
Gregg Allman’s fans, and fans of the Allman Brothers Band, will find much here to enjoy and embrace. The DVD, with its “The Last Waltz” quality, is certainly worth the price of the package. It features bonus material, such as 26 exclusive interviews with the show’s performers, candid behind-the-scenes material, and footage of a special presentation to Allman.
While this package pays tribute to Gregg Allman, two recent books focus on different aspects of the Allmans’ story. Alan Paul’s One Way Out offers a compelling oral history of the Allman Brothers Band, while Galadrielle Allman’s moving memoir Please Be With Me recounts her own search to discover more about her father, Duane, who died when she was two. In the second part of this article, I interview Galadrielle and discuss her and Alan Paul’s books.