To Jaimoe, the core essence of American music is improvisation. “The word ‘jazz’ leads to pinpointing,” he says. “’This is jazz, this is rock, this is blues,’ and so on.” Indeed, this is why Jaimoe calls his band “Jaimoe’s Jassss Band”-- specifically to avoid “that word”-- although to be certain, the listener would immediately recognize the music they make as jazz. “ALL the music that came out of this country is jazz,” says Jaimoe. “But it didn’t come in that way. What I DON’T call jazz is note-for-note; music that is not improvised on.” Jaimoe sees something uniquely American in the spirit of improvisation—it is a lineage that may be traced from Louis Armstrong and the jazz pioneers at the turn of the century, straight down to the music that the Allman Brothers Band and its offshoots make today, a hundred years later. Europeans had classical music in its various forms—orchestras, chamber music—but American music is firmly rooted in the improvisational; there is something indelibly American about changing it up. “We play something from just about everything I have ever been involved with,” says Jaimoe about the Allman Brothers Band’s music. It is a true blend of all things American.
But improvisation is more than just changing things up; it is also about listening and responding. “When you’re in the zone,” he continues, speaking of the special group mind that powers the purest form of improvisation, “you have total control—as long as you don’t get greedy. You have to hear all the little intricacies of what everyone is saying, and you react to it. That’s how you stay in the zone.”
It is always dicey business to characterize, to classify a band’s art. Do the Allman Brothers make southern rock? Blues? Are they a “jam band?” Indeed, Jaimoe has provided some valuable insight. The Allman Brothers are a distinctly American band, taking components of all major forms of indigenous American music, leavening them with a dash of world flavor, and attacking the resulting gumbo each night with a wholly improvisational spirit. As they will demonstrate emphatically over the next two nights, the Allman Brothers Band may just be the foremost American Jassss Band today.
Monday night, March 21st. The Allmans are pumped from the very first notes of the first song. Maybe it is because Chuck Leavell is to sit in; maybe it is some collective determination to pull out a show for the ages. Maybe it is the serenely crafted set list. But Monday March 21, 2005 will go down among the band’s fans as one of the best shows this ensemble has ever played—in any incarnation. It is the last night of the annual Beacon run before the Big House benefit, and the question hangs in the air: what can they do for an encore?
As it turns out, there is only one thing they can do—they can throw a party for the ages, one that celebrates this music we have all convened around, revels in its component parts, and then brings those parts together for one more glorious blow-out.
There is a festive air at the Beacon as we make our way to our seats for the beginning of what will be a seven-hour show, with very little down time. The occasion: the benefit concert for the Big House Museum. The Big House is the house where the Allman Brothers lived, loved, worked, played in the early days, where many of the band’s classic songs were written. Kirk and Kirsten West have been living in the Big House for some years, and are championing the very noble cause of turning it into an Allman Brothers Band museum. In a very real way, this would make it a museum about American music over the past 36 years.
All over the venerable old theater, friends welcome each other, smile, exchange greetings, wave across rows of seats. This is the only place to be tonight, and those of us here feel a special kinship with one another.
It is fitting that Jaimoe’s Jassss Band begins the proceedings. Jay Collins is on sax; Richard Bolger on trumpet, Jonathan Davis on piano, and Joe Fonda on acoustic bass. It is Davis’s second gig with Jaimoe; Fonda has been with him for 10 years. Jaimoe is dapper in sport jacket. The band starts early, as many fans are still finding their seats, with a loose, easy bebop number. It is a mellow start to the evening, Davis peeling off sweet, cascading piano lines. (After their set I ask Slim, the sound man, for a set list; he laughs at me.) Jaimoe’s deft touch on the drums is totally simpatico with Fonda on acoustic bass; his restraint is infectious. Collins and Bolger accent the music by playing less, not more, until Bolger departs on a lengthy fluid bebop lead run; the band falls neatly into the pocket behind him. This is truly a band that listens to each other, listens intently. Bolger hands off to Collins, whose smooth snaky sax lines echo brassy joy throughout the room; it is a shame that seats are still empty, because this music is sublime.
After a brief pause to introduce the band, Jaimoe leads them into the Miles Davis standard, “All Blues.” Not surprisingly the tune features sweet trumpet lines; meanwhile Jaimoe is right in the pocket, swinging like a pendulum don’t. His deft, light touch rides under the horn bursts of brassy cool; Davis adds some tasty keyboards underneath, anchoring the familiar melody. Now trumpet and sax licks over the keys; Jaimoe beams as he watches it all unfold. Jaimoe takes a sweet, restrained solo; you appreciate the sound and texture of wooden sticks on drums. The horns restate the theme, and we’re out. Then immediately, the combo launches into an upbeat bluesy swing number. There is heavy brass vibe, and a groovy rhythmic shuffle. Collins takes a nice extended watery solo; then a sassy trumpet solo, moving easily into a bass interlude over keys, which are insistent throughout; then Jaimoe puts it all gently to bed.
Oteil and the Peacemakers take the stage, and Oteil is a man possessed; the band is into the first song before the introduction is done, and several times he checks his watch, as if he wants to be sure to wring every second of music that he can out of his set. He is fronting a five-piece; he is joined by Paul Henson on vocals, Mark Kimbell on guitar, plus keyboard and drums. The first number features some funked-up, rubbery wah-wah guitar; Oteil’s bass notes are big, thick, part rhythm, part melody. Some nice organ runs are layered over the top; Henson has the white boy soul thang going on. On “Get Ready,” Oteil plays some wah-wah of his own, rocking on the intro and making the bass sting like a lead guitar, peeling off line after line of wobbly rubber funk. Oteil scats a jazzy duet with his own bass, before Henson leans into the vocals, punctuated by Oteil’s syncopated bass runs. Henson hits the verse again, then takes off on a brief scat excursion, locked in with Oteil’s bass, driving the song to a close; I realize that in this band, voices are merely instruments, another means for expressing the sheer joy of music and sound.
Oteil kicks off the third song of the set, an ode to “Sweet Jesus,” with the scat vibe on bass, underneath Henson’s vocals, mirroring his lines. Soon Oteil is handling the vocals, and Henson is off stage. Kimbrell layers on some biting, nasty bluesy lead guitar; Oteil offers some jazzy testimony of his own. The song is a battle—Kimbrell’s blues, Oteil’s jazz-- and the two meet at Funk Street. Kimbrell stands center stage, playing his heart out; he elicits cheers, and the high praise that is implied by whispers of, “Who is that guy?”
Henson is back for “Check Yourself,” which gives way to an upbeat, sprawling funk jam out of the verse, anchored by fluid organ and Oteil’s sprightly bass. Bursts of searing guitar occasionally part the clouds. Then Oteil immediately creeps into the jazzy space of “Thank You,” beginning with a playful bass riff that moves to some underwater jazz exploration. Henson’s vocals are smooth; the music veers over to gospel as he sings the refrain, “Thank You Jesus.” Don’t underestimate the extent to which Oteil injects gospel, and faith, into the Allman Brothers sound. There is some nice blues playing over a jazzy bed; Oteil’s bass stomp is low, low down. The music grows sparse for some Kimbrell dancing that leads back into the joyous vocals, then a hard crescendo to close.
The band finished with “Pull Together;” you can get a feel for the spirit of Oteil’s music from the names of his songs. It is a hard driving number, with a strong vocal performance. Oteil and Kimbrell cross swords on the bouncy rhythm riff; it is pure funky fun. Kimbrell sprays some fiery, Hendrix-inflected lead lines on the break; “pull together” becomes a mantra and an invocation as the band leans hard on the close. Well done.
It is about nine O’clock now, and you take a moment to consider where you are at. You’ve just seen a killer jassss combo, and a smokin’ jazz/funk/soul/gospel/blues band—both great, both totally live and in the moment, creating music before your ears and eyes. And still to come, in rapid succession: the Derek Trucks Band, Gov’t Mule, and the Allman Brothers Band. It is a little bit humbling.
The lights dim once more, and Derek and band take the stage. His set displays his serene musicianship, the vitality and interplay of the band, and his keen sense of history. On his stellar, introductory evocation, Derek plays slow, hanging, curvy notes off a sparse jazzy bed; his lines seem to melt toward heaven, sonically alluding to “Amazing Grace.” He teases at the melody, then shies away from it; finally the band falls in behind his snaky lead lines, and it is the sublime instrumental, “Sahib Teri Bandi.” Derek freewheels, then moves back to the theme. Kofi makes his entrance on flute, trilling, cooing a happy dance as he moves around the same exploratory space as Derek had, then falls in with Derek on the riff. Derek bends, twists a note into feedback, then uses this as a point of departure as he enters into a slide solo. The music falls away beneath him; here and there he lingers on a note as he paints with deliberate strokes. He slowly crafts his solo, tumbling out of time, until he is suddenly at fever pitch and all around the song’s main theme; the band locks on and we’re out. It is a true Derek anthem, a dancing, musical riff, and a statement of purpose.
Next, Mike Mattison joins the band on vocals for “Soul Serenade,” a nod by Derek to the cognoscenti, and to the weight of the history behind the night’s proceedings. Duane Allman famously incorporated improvisations on this tune into “You Don’t Love Me” after King Curtis died, and the connection between the two guitarists, generations apart in the same band, is palpable. The band swings into the verse with a gospel flavor; the familiar licks riding under Mike’s falsetto vocal delivery. Typically, Derek leans on the lick, skits away from it, comes back, moves away; the performance is a pure tease. It is a tight, compact version; the band makes a soft landing around a Derek stop note, kicks into a hard restatement of the theme, and a crashing close.
The band follows with an aggressive read on “Leaving Trunk,” with a smoldering attack on top of the 12-bar blues structure. Derek peels off an intro lick, and the band falls in hard; Mike’s vocals are now gritty and tough. Derek fires sharp riff arrows in between Mike’s vocal lines; Kofi vamps a soulful organ solo on the first break, Derek takes a clipped slide solo on the second, eschewing the slow build for full-on assault, fast, but still fluid.
Cool organ and guitar herald the opening to “To Know You is to Love You;” Mike’s vocals are now deep, soulful, expressive. Derek bites back at him, providing trebly accents. Derek burns cool on his extended, in-the-pocket, Latin-tinged solo. The rest of the band lays back, Derek brings it down, and Mike scats along with Derek’s guitar; then Kofi takes flight on flute, soloing like a blue jay over the top.
Yonrico introduces the band, then lays down an elegant groove; Kofi joins in on organ, Derek plays some swooping slide. The band shimmies and percolates, Derek doing some classic minor key blues soloing, before turning over into the verse to “For My Brother.” The feel is very much reminiscent of Santana. Kofi takes off on flute out of the verse and chorus, driving the band forward. Derek enters, playing stinging gutbucket blues. The instrumental break sucks you into the vortex of the groove, as Derek trades exquisite lines with Kofi; Derek is playing the low down, Kofi is playing the ethereal. Derek is a revelation when he improvises in a minor key blues. Soon he takes off and wails, and for a moment he almost moves his eyebrow. The glass slide is a blur as he flies across the fret board; the song’s melody is implied by the rhythm players underneath. Derek pulls out the climactic, high, fast furious strumming, then Mike sings the refrain (“For my brother”), and the band crashes to a stop.
To the delight of many, Derek launches into the familiar “My Favorite Things”—not a tease; on this of all nights, but the full on song. It is the second distinct nod to history in his set list. Derek moves through the melody, then vamps like a horn player on pure bebop improvisation, upping the ante, then moving back into an urgent run at the melody. Then more sweet bebop, Derek’s tone piercing like a lantern as he swoops and sways, then cools down into some jazzy space. Back to the melody, more subdued, and some graceful riffing. Every time Derek runs at the melody (the part that you’d sing “these are a few of my favorite things” over), it is pure blissful payoff. Kofi hits an organ lead, then tosses out some cheerful piano musings; then he breaks down and away from melody. Derek joins in, surrounding him with accents; then he loops back through the theme to some hard bop improv. Todd Smalle’s bass and Derek’s guitar are ringing, rumbling, pulsating together; each foray out of the melody is different, delightful. Finally Derek turns over into the “when the dog bites” part, playing that melody, then embarking on a shrill, searing attack; it is killer, and Derek drives the music to its inevitable conclusion. It is a highlight on a night of highlights.
Derek swirls and cascades a descending solo lead part, then strains and pulls against a Kofi-led gospel intro to “Joyful Noise,” probably a fitting motto for this band. Derek snarls out the riff as he solos around it; then he moves to double time and the band joins in. Derek slows it up as he falls into the riff, then takes off on some fat, elastic hanging notes. For the joyous climax, Derek careens over the band, hitting the riff like a sledge hammer into the extended close. It all hurts so good.
Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes are comrades in arms, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that they are two ends of the same stick, Derek’s Yin to Warren’s Yang. Where Derek is graceful and ethereal, Warren is low down and gutbucket—even though both players live in both worlds. Derek shows little emotion as his hands race across his instrument; Warren grimaces, puts solos over with body English, plays with every fiber of his being. The Allman Brothers will always be a guitar band, and it is instructive to hear the two guitarists fronting their respective bands back to back…
…As always, Gov’t Mule is a foreboding presence. Warren begins by playing some nasty, dirty, lines on his Les Paul, heavy resonant dripping blues notes. The band joins him; Matt Abts hits a powerful roll, and the riffing turns over into the signature “Mule.” It is hard, biting, grungy heavy metal thunder of the old school variety; the kind of sludge where the lineage from blues to heavy metal is indisputable. The song’s catchy hook is insistent and urgent; Danny Louis adds color on his hard-hitting organ solo, giving way to some tight Warren wah-wah soloing, then back into the breakdown. Warren shoots ray guns off over the top, leading into a slide riff.
“Thorazine Shuffle” may be the quintessential Mule song. Warren drops shimmering chords across Andy Hess’s deep bottom; “Tonight were gonna call this the Macon, Georgia Big House Shuffle,” he announces, before singing the verse; he’s all over the minimalist heavy riff of the bass line. Warren plays a crunchy boogie over the Thorazine beat on the break; Lewis plays a full-bodied keyboard solo that breaks down and away from the song’s structure, over a layer of Warren’s insistent chords. Then the music gets sparse, and Matt takes the lead, playing a woody, brassy sounding drum solo over a hanging Warren note; Matt gets more frenetic, beating his kit, going wild as the song builds to a climax, as Warren accompanies him on some scratching guitar sounds; all the while Hess keeps the thundering bass riff going. Louis layers on some body, Warren tears into the melody, and the band steamrolls to the finish line.
Warren changes up the mood with “Time to Confess,” bringing the slow, dark reggae mojo. The song is highlighted by his extended solo, which brings the heavy voodoo vibe; it is remarkable, and probably owing to the fine work of the sound crew, that he can get such a clear tone out of such a muddy solo. It is deliberately crafted, he takes his time as he explores melodies and riffs and tones and moods, reveling in the reggae feel of the song, finally coming around to the close.
Warren moves to the Jazz Master for “About to Rage.” There is grunge and grit in his tone on this slow-burn number that builds to a climax on the back of his searing extended guitar lead. About five minutes in the opening vocals are done, and Warren embarks on a solo. He stings, snarls, bites as he climbs, the band locked in behind him. He leads the music to a lull, sings the climactic line, “Hesitation… is a hole in the head,” and then turns his attention back to his ax, squeezing out loping blues notes and charged heavy salvos underneath. The solo continues, building, Louis anchoring underneath, Warren brushing up against full on release, then pulling himself back in, sticking to the downbeat minor key vibe of the song, until he steers it to a close.
I’m a Ram” is another reggae-inflected tune, the heavy intro giving way to a sprightly verse, then a heavy chorus. Warren’s lead work is sublime, moving effortlessly from long hot blues to the cool reggae beat. Warren peels off the lick from the Beatles’ “She’s a Woman,” then vamps on that a while, eventually making his way back to the “I’m a Ram” melody, all the while playing in the sort of talking guitar style Jeff Beck used on his instrumental take of that same Beatles song. Louis echoes him as he tapers off, and the two do a reggae shuffle back into the verse (“Drive on… till I get there.”) Warren’s tone is crisp and clear as he slices through the reggae beat; then he throws the switch and it is heavy and muddy for the hard finish.
After “I’m a Ram,” Warren tells the story of how when Mule was forming, he and the band moved into the Big House, with him sleeping in Duane’s room, Woody in Berry’s, and the band rehearsing in the same space as the Allman Brothers had. It is one of the night’s more poignant moments, once again indicative of the sense of history these musicians have.
An ominous pulsating rhythm from Hess underscores Warren’s electric chords, and Warren sings “Aint No Sunshine” over the band’s changes and that heavy pulse. Warren accompanies his own vocals with guitar lines; then, on a dime, the band slams from what is almost a solo spot into the full on attack of “Blind Man in the Dark.” Danny Louis leads a long, aching, mystical groove jam, Warren dropping shimmering chords throughout. The music grows hushed, Matt’s stick work comes to the fore; this is a big loud band that knows how to play quietly. Warren makes a gradual entrance, playing long bent spiraling lines. Soon Warren’s lines go from questioning to assertive, and he gets that intense game face as he rocks with his own forceful playing. Suddenly his guitar is a flame thrower, and he is hitting one long crescendo that morphs back into the chords of “Blind Man,” and he is singing the back end of the vocals. It is a stunning tour de force.
Chuck Leavell joins for the inevitable closing “Soulshine.” Chuck and Danny lead a gospel rag on the intro, and as the crowd begins to clap along the Mule have brought you to church. Finally Warren sinks his teeth into the familiar lead melody. Chuck is prominent under Warren’s singing; he takes off on the first solo break. Warren stings out a piercing note to burst through and take his solo, tone clear as a bell, tight, compact, hitting the note. He goes back into the vocals, then begins the play-out, with Chuck and Danny offering up happy, joyous keyboard work, less gospel than before. Warren steps up again, painting lines of joy across the sky. It is a song we’ve heard a hundred times before, maybe even a predictable choice, but that does not prevent the Mule from totally nailing it, a redemptive capper to their all-too-brief set.
So how do the pieces fit together? None of the bands we’ve heard tonight really sounds much like the Allman Brothers at all, yet there are elements of each deeply embedded into their sound. What is most profound about tonight’s experience is how clear it becomes that the music of the Allman Brothers Band remains true to the feel, the spirit of the original line-up now 36 years on—yet at the same time, it is colored by the perspective each of the new players bring to the table. You hear Warren’s sheer force, Derek’s jazzy grace, Oteil’s spirit, gospel and funk, at the same time that you hear the imprints of Duane and Berry, just as clearly as if they were still with us. You hear Jaimoe’s rock steady hand, Butch’s drive, Marc’s Latino colorations over the top. And of course, Gregg’s deep connection to the blues, dripping from his vocals and keyboard work (indeed his organ playing may well be the band’s unsung secret weapon.)
It is a balancing act that may well make this incarnation of the band the best ever—heresy, maybe, but true.
It is midnight when the Allman Brothers Band takes the stage. The excitement is a palpable thing that hangs in the air like a fog. It is the culmination of a long night’s journey, but in a very real way, right here and right now it is the culmination of a 36-year journey. The anticipation in the room is at fever pitch when the lights go down and the band takes the stage. The band immediately pulls everyone who is still sitting out of their seats with a brisk attack on “Revival,” which always serves as a special opener: “People can you feel it, love is everywhere?” The song strikes the perfect note, Warren and Derek’s guitars in perfect harmony, racing through the riffs to the vocal section on the back end. The band has come together after a long night and picked up right where they left off the night before, and that is a special place indeed.
Then, without a moment’s pause, the band is into “Don’t Want You No More,” a text book opening. Along with “Revival” and the follow-up “Not My Cross to Bear,” this is the perfect way for the Allman Brothers Band to grab you by the collar and pull you into the set. The familiar riffs of this instrumental have become so burned into the brain as a show opener that it makes “Revival” seem like a prelude, albeit a highly appropriate one. Gregg’s organ work is prominent and particularly tasty, giving way to languid bursts from Derek; he and Warren lock step for the transitional riff, then Warren peels off some sprightly blues licks, just a little tart. Hard again into the transitional riff—the band is wasting no time—and Warren peels off the stinging, piercing note that heralds the segue into “Not My Cross to Bear,” wringing the blues out of the neck of his guitar as the band falls in hard behind him. Gregg leans into the soulful bluesy vocals. Derek bleeds out some interesting salvos to embellish Gregg’s vocal work; he tosses off a high, rounded slide solo that almost floats away before doubling back to the deep searing blues. Derek and Warren wring out pain from their instruments in perfect unison as Gregg sings the final verse.
As if this 1-2-3 punch wasn’t enough of a statement of purpose, Warren stretches out his closing note, and Gregg layers the opening piano part to “Aint Wastin’ Time No More” over the top. Derek peels off particularly ringing, wistful, graceful lines to accent Gregg’s vocals, then neatly keeps it going into his solo, building to sheets of white metal heat from the top of the neck. Then, after the final verse, Warren takes a deliberate slide solo on which he strays no higher than the middle of the neck, a neat contrast to Derek. His solo builds, his playing becoming frenzied and frenetic, until finally he does move up the neck; Warren brings the energy all the way up, but the rest of the band stays grounded in the loping vibe of the song. Warren steers into the closing lick to take us out, and we get a moment to catch our breath.
Four classic opening numbers in a row. Welcome to Allman Brothers country.
Warren steps forward to lead the band through “Woman Across the River.” He launches right into some blistering blues lines on his 335, which give way quickly to his throaty vocals, punctuated between verses by stinging accent guitar lines. The band throws its weight into the song’s shimmy; out of the vocals Warren plays a slightly wobbly, linear blues solo; then Gregg comes forward with tasty vamping on organ, and back to the vocals. Then Derek steps up, announces himself with an exclamation point note, then slathers on some blistering runs, egged on by Warren’s rhythm playing. Warren has a way of driving the soloist with his insistent chording, and Derek responds in kind. He builds and builds, until bam! Back into the vocals, and Derek earns a brief ovation. Warren smolders on the extended outro, hammering the song home like a blue pile driver. The song has effectively ended, yet this is by far the longest solo spot of the piece; he grimaces and writhes as he pulls out pained extended hard blues lines, the band in perfect synch, Derek adding color and accents, until they tumble headlong into the climactic closing lick. It is a dazzling display of guitar athleticism.
“We’ll be back next year, of course,” announces Gregg, as he joins the front line on acoustic guitar for “Melissa;” no Derek. Warren’s elegiac lines announce the song, and Gregg’s vocals are an old familiar friend. Warren’s guitar work is invigorating; he plays sweet, poignant, fat, round notes in extended straight lines—in direct contrast to the familiar triplet-based solo work on the song, making it at once familiar and brand new. Especially on the outro solo, Warren’s long deliberate runs are exquisite, graceful, and he captures the song’s longing as he climbs and soars.
Derek returns, and after a brief pause the band one-two-threes into the waltz time of “Dreams.” Tonight it is Warren’s turn to drive. Gregg digs deep into the vocals, the drummers rocking steady underneath, Derek tossing off subtle lines in the spaces Gregg’s singing leaves open. The music builds to the first climax (“This will surely be the end of me, yeah…”) and Warren steps forward. It will be a long journey, to hell and back, but you gladly sign on for the ride. He starts down in the pocket, at the low end of the neck, exploring the dark blues of the song; gradually his lines grow longer, more elastic, rubbery, and soon he is in the midst of a full on, wailing solo. Then he brings the energy down, tosses off a “Norwegian Wood” tease, and vamps on that a while before moving back to “Dreams” territory. Soon he has the energy level back at fever pitch, tossing off slide runs at the top of the neck. Oteil counters with some deep, mirrored bottom, and Warren responds by going even higher, firing off shrill couplets. He moves to a slower place as the band falls back neatly into the waltz time, going through the movements at the song’s end; some big descending lines as the band makes a sublime move back into the vocal section. Gregg pulls himself together, climbs back off that mountain, and the band sounds big as a house as they hit the series of riffs and melodies that bring the song to a close.
Warren brings on Chuck Leavell, who joins the band on the Yamaha electric piano for “Stormy Monday.” After the assault of “Woman Across the River” and “Dreams,” the song is a welcome hot bath. Chuck lays down some sweet piano over the familiar opening minor/major/minor chord progression, giving way to Gregg’s soulful vocals. Chuck’s piano flourishes in between the vocal lines add color to the deft guitar chording and Gregg’s bed of organ. “Listen to what I say,” announces Gregg before the “Lord have mercy” verse. Derek is tossing licks in between the spaces like he can’t wait to let loose. Chuck takes the first solo, playing some elegant piano runs. He is set up next to Oteil, and Oteil’s ebullient smile makes it clear he is digging Chuck’s work. The band wraps itself around the riff as Chuck pounds out a bluesy counter-melody. Derek pulls up into his solo spot, bursting out busy, buzzing lines on slide. Derek starts easy, laconic, but quickly gets to a boil; he makes incendiary look easy. Gregg puts the exclamation point on Derek’s solo with the same chord that begins his own solo, pounding out electric sheets of organ, which in turn give way to Warren. Warren picks out a very orange-sounding solo, bending notes, sticking close to the classic blues structure. The band falls into a march time behind Warren’s piercing lead lines, which grow gentle as the music shifts to the major key section, then more biting as they swing back to minor. Gregg snarls out the final verse as the crowd is still applauding the instrumental interlude. Derek peels off accents as Gregg drives the song home.
OK, so let’s be honest. No matter how good the band has been, no matter what they play, if Chuck Leavell is sitting in, there is one word looming large in the minds of those in attendance. And that word is “Jessica.”
So when Chuck leans into the piano opening to that familiar, well-loved instrumental, the crowd is ecstatic. Chuck’s piano intro is spot on, and Derek and Warren wrap their guitars around each other on the classic harmony lines. After the ascending part that concludes the opening riffs, the band lays back—indeed Oteil even takes a seat on the stage—as Chuck vamps over a Butch-led drum bed. His playing is vaguely reminiscent of Vince Guaraldi’s “Peanuts” piano trio work. Chuck goes on and on, galloping, rollicking, doing the happy Snoopy dance. Finally, the band joins him and we’re off to the races, a sprightly jam accented by Butch’s cymbal crashes. Chuck still has the ball though, and they let him run with it. Finally the ascending lines that close the piano section, and Derek steps up. It has been four years since Chuck has sat in with the band (also right here at the Beacon), and Derek has grown immensely within the band during that time. He is on fire now, grabbing the melody and tearing it up, taking the song through brilliant, glowing tunnels, tossing off riffs and lines like he’s cleaning out his closet and in a hurry. Derek stretches one out, then takes off on it with Warren; then he and Warren are into a call and response. Soon he cools down, playing curly lines that move away from the melody; the band cools behind him, following him unconditionally into uncharted territory. Now the music is down to a soft percolation, little more than drums, with Derek’s lines just barely there over the top. He dances and frolics in the sparse musical space, peeling off gentle cascading lines; now he’s trading licks with Warren. He falls back to the melody, the band picks it up, Warren chords underneath, and of course as soon as the band is back where Derek wants them, he flits away from the melody, returns to it, flits away.. Chuck pounds out the chords underneath, and Derek is racing through the melody, but with a rounder, higher-pitched tone than we are accustomed to here. It is the “Jessica” we know like a just-so story, but filtered through Derek’s unique voice into something new. Finally he falls into the transitional riff, a deftly executed segue, and Warren joins in, and the two ease back into the harmony theme. It is a pleasure to hear those twin licks again. There is a dash to the finish and a heavy close, which is extended into some hanging space before the band falls hard onto the close.
In yet another nod to the weight of history, Berry Oakley Jr. joins the band for “Statesboro Blues.” Oteil generously gives up his spot. Chuck plays some tasty barrelhouse piano on the opening, and Derek is featured on slide over the Statesboro shuffle. Chuck takes an extended piano solo mid-song, then Gregg and Derek do a call and response on the closing vocal section—Gregg’s voice, Derek’s biting slide.
Berry stays on stage for “One Way Out,” but Chuck is replaced by Johnny Neel. Gregg is in top form as he sings the blues, with Warren’s guitar prodding him on underneath. Johnny Neel waves to the crowd as he begins his piano solo, which fuels this ferocious, high-octane take. Derek follows, squeezing out snaky blue licks, dusting the sky. He cuts a wide swath over the top as the band falls into the riff before the final vocal section. “Statesboro” and “One Way Out” provide a classic exit to the set proper; it is after 1:30 in the morning, but no one is going anywhere.
The band returns, Oteil and Chuck are back, and of course there are the obligatory calls for “Whipping Post,” but this set list has been expertly crafted, and the band has one more curve ball up its collective sleeve. The players take their places and begin fingering their instruments, tossing off notes and random licks, part tuning, part creation of a mystical space. The disjointed overture comes to a soft landing, and the music turns over into “Elizabeth Reed.” It is the perfect choice.
There is an extra guitar player on stage—fittingly, it is Trey Anastasio, formerly the leading force of Phish, the band that brought improvisational music to new generations of fans. His presence serves to embody the notion of a road going on forever. The opening riffs and licks are divine, the three guitarists weaving in and out of each other, Trey falling neatly into the ensemble, tossing off short colorful salvos. Finally the guitarists hit the theme, all dark and moody. It is a downbeat, almost laid back take on the song, fitting given the late hour, and given how far we’ve all come to get to this moment. And of course, the band is playing right in the moment.
Trey takes the first solo. Not all Allman Brothers fans are Trey fans, but he acquits himself nicely on his featured spot, playing a deft, acrobatic solo, a little restrained, respectful, but very much in touch with the feminine, mystical side of this song. He hits a long hanging note, then moves back to short bursts. Chuck takes a piano solo out of Trey’s lead, digging deep into the voodoo vibe as the band hushes behind him; he is playing over little more than drums. Soon the guitars join in on chording, and Chuck does runs up and down the keyboard. You are transported away to somewhere hazy, sleepy, sensual. Derek hits a sharp note to elbow his way in, then takes off on some jazzy riffing that has little in common with the “Elizabeth Reed” melody. He plays some easy, loping riffs; then he plays a big, hooked pull-up note, and next thing you know he is spattering notes and licks and melodic ideas like Jackson Pollack.
The briefest of drum interludes provides a transition to Warren’s climactic solo. He enters with a bent blue note, then climbs and twists, Trey and Derek chording behind him. Warren hews closest of the three guitarists to the minor blues feel. His solo is smoldering, white hot; it is as if he knows this will be the last extended workout of the night, and he wants to make it count. He soars and stings and slices, picking up steam, playing more and more notes per second as he drives forward to the inevitable transitional riff that closes out his run. Another brief drum section, then the harmony licks that put the song to bed. Divine.
Whatever strength we have left, we dissipate with as much ovation as we can muster.
So the upshot is, the next time Kirk and Kirsten West throw a party, you want to be there. I am privileged to have sat next to Kirsten part of the night; her shining visage and gentle grace is both calming and infectious. Talk about a better half…
It is after two AM when we spill, a little dazed, onto the cool Manhattan streets. It will be some time before we can assimilate this experience, truly understand what we have just born witness to. It has been a celebratory night in so many ways. It has been the last night of one of the greatest Beacon runs ever. As a benefit for the Big House museum, it has been a celebration of the long and storied history of the Allman Brothers Band. And of course, in celebrating the band and its extended family, it has also been a celebration of American music itself, of music that is made in real time, live, before your ears and eyes. And ultimately, of course, American music is southern music. We have seen five different bands create new lightning-in-a-bottle magic tonight. All different, yet all bonded by that inexorable defining characteristic of Jaimoe’s American music—improvisation, group mind, players listening and responding to each other, taking it just a little bit different each night, each performance. This is what keeps the music of the Allman Brothers Band so fresh and alive after 36 years, even as the line-up of players changes with the times. This is why they can leave you with a song like “Elizabeth Reed,” a song you’ve heard a thousand times before, a song that is 36 years old, and you wouldn’t have it any other way. Because sure, you’ve heard the song before—but you’ve never heard THIS version before, and unless you get a recording, you’ll never hear it again. It is why you can go to 10 shows in thirteen nights here at the Beacon, and leave the last one wondering when you’ll get to see them again.
You are exhausted, drained, aching. But the joy of music oozes from your every pore, and you are redeemed, spiritually reborn. The music has washed over you, seeped into your very being, and your soul has been sated. You bask in the glow of the timeless reverie as you look for a cab.
We knew in advance that this show was the special 40th anniversary tribute to the original recording of the Fillmore East album. Of course, that made it impossible to avoid comparisons with the 35th anniversary performance, at which the band played the Fillmore album straight through in its entirety. Not surprisingly, they did the same thing tonight, even following up with “Mountain Jam” (since the original record faded as “Jam” was teed up, and fans had to wait till Eat a Peach came out to actually hear it.)
This was a real kickass Saturday night show, with a different and more muscular feel than the celebration on the 35th, which if memory serves (and it seldom does these days) was more light and airy…
But the show starts, and when you hear Duane’s voice over the PA announce that “we’re cuttin’ our third album here tonight,” it gives you chills. “Statesboro Blues” features shots of Duane and the early band in the background, and the rest of side one—“Done Somebody Wrong,” “Stormy Monday”—flow by; in the latter, Derek hands off to Warren, who pulls an ovation from the house as he solos into the final verse.
“Stormy” segues directly into “You Don’t Love Me.” Warren and Derek get their jaunt on. Warren squares of with Oteil, and together they bring us into another little melody that loops the long way around back into the core song and the Derek/Warren twin riffing… instead of exploring “Soul Serenade” as on the original, the band moves directly into “Hot ‘Lanta.” Greg lays down the colorful bed, Warren lays out some smoky, late night licks. The vibe has definitely descended.
“Elizabeth Reed” is divine. Twelve, 15 minutes, not a second is wasted. The band crescendos, hits the transition licks, and the house erupts. Gregg thrills the crowd with his familiar organ part, then Warren is smoldering all over the song. The band recedes, a nice little Warren exposition over drums, a “Les Brers” tease, then suddenly the band is hurtling full-on forward into the closing riffs… the briefest of drum breaks, the final read of the theme, and bam! Point made. We go nuts.
The band takes a moment as they bask in and return the love, then Oteil drops the “Whipping Post” bomb. Derek pulls on the reigns, stopping time; then slowly starts it up again, tossing off high ticklish curly lines. The band twists the charging melody inside out, then back as they race headlong to the end, barely keeping the wheels on, in total command, slamming into the “Sometimes I feel…” part.
The set ends as Butch gives the timpani opening to “Mountain Jam” that fades out on the record.
Predictably (and as on the 35th anniversary), the second set opens with “Mountain Jam.” Butch and Derek drift off down the mountain stream, the band runs through the piece, until Warren brings the jam to a halt and launches into “Trouble No More,” a short, fast pulverizing version. Then a dedication I don’t catch, but which I assume is to Red Dog, and then a slow blooz “Sky is Crying.” David Hidalgo of Los Lobos (and an obvious Warren crony; I’ve seen him with Mule more than once) joins the band for a slower-than-usual “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’.” Hidalgo sings the second verse; the song is wavy goodness. Next is “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” more sticky blues. Hidalgo leaves, and a powerful “Every Hungry Woman” that features the evening’s bass/drum solo slot; Oteil caps his bass section with a deep note that I feel in my chest in the loge. Out of the drums, Derek and Warren convene around the rhythm, lead threads of lead and rhythm guitar lines together into one dark red stream, then onto the twin licks, from which emerge the insistent drum beat that is, of course, the back end of the “Mountain Jam” sandwich. Beautiful, full of grace, even including trilling birdcalls. The encore, “No One Left to Run With,” is tight, life-affirming, and largely jam-free as befitting its place in the set.