by Dave Keneston
It’s hard to imagine that the Allman Brothers Band may be coming to end after 2014. With the announcement of the departure of Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes, the future is uncertain at best. After 45 years of brotherhood and family, it’s only right to give respect and due acknowledgment to the conglomerate that started it all. In part two of this series, I reveal my five favorite songs of the Duane Allman era Allman Brothers Band.
5. Done Somebody Wrong– The second song on Live at the Fillmore East, “Done Somebody Wrong” is a cover of an Elmore James song that Duane introduces as “an old true story.” From start to finish, the song is a testament to what a well-oiled machine the Allman Brothers had become by the time they recorded Live at the Fillmore East. The song begins with a series of rhythmic stabs as Duane takes his first lead of the tune. Gregg slips in with his grizzled voice, espousing the regret of a man who has accepted he is to blame for his own misfortune. Allman follows two well-crafted and tasteful solos from guest harmonica player Thom Doucette and Dickey Betts by belting out another verse of lamentations. After Dickey and Duane play a harmonized ascending minor pentatonic line that segues into Skydog’s lead, he takes off with reckless abandon, uncorking a flurry of notes and feasting on each precious measure like a rabid animal. The song ends with another stop time section, giving Duane one more chance to elaborate on why he’s the greatest slide player of his generation.
4. “Statesboro Blues”– It’s going to be hard to say much more about the song that landed at #3 on my list of my Top Ten Favorite Slide Guitar Songs, but I’ll take a crack at it. The true genius of this version of Blind Willie McTell’s classic from Live at the Fillmore East is, for all the stellar musicianship and passion of the band’s playing, it flows together without any sense of bombast. The drums pound out a strong macho shuffle and Berry thumps his bass with authority, bridging the gap between percussive and melodic instruments. Duane adeptly maneuvers around Gregg’s singing throughout the performance, and when he takes his solo, he has an intuitive ability to hit those spine tingling notes before bringing everything back to center for the stop time verse and subsequent handoff to Dickey. The band continues to build focus through the last two verses, reaching a crescendo at the ideal moment in the last verse.
3. “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”– The peak version of this song can be found on Live at the Fillmore East. This is the preeminent instrumental of the primordial manifestation of the group.
I know Duane gets most of the love, but Dickey Betts has a command of melody and graceful articulation rivaled by few. His violin-like volume swells in the beginning of the composition offer a gentle tease of the journey the listener is about to take.
When the main theme comes in with Duane and Dickey playing together over a foundation of drumming reminiscent of Jimmy Cobb on Miles Davis’s All Blues, the indivisibility of the band becomes inarguably evident. As Dickey takes his lead and guides us on an expedition into a realm of jazz rock fusion, we are immersed in melodic lines conjured from the ether. Gregg’s rhythmic organ solo is a fitting precursor to Duane’s monstrous lead, in which smooth, sustained notes juxtapose hot licks and little themes as Duane slowly assembles another masterpiece. The piece de resistance is the portion from 10:10 to approximately 10:40, where Duane reaches an otherworldly zenith before taking things back down a few notches and building to achieve another astounding climax from 11:40 to 12:05. The fluid and flawless outro only serves to cement the band’s cohesiveness in the listener’s mind as the performance ends.
2. “Whipping Post”– Once again, the version on LAFE supersedes the studio cut as the definitive example of the astronomical heights the band could achieve on this tour de force composition. After some banter between Duane and some audience members, Berry Oakley initiates the voyage by banging out the familiar intro, launching the band into the first verse. The driving groove and anguished lyrics delivered by a young and hungry Gregg Allman leave no question as to the emotional intent of the song.
As Duane’s first solo commences, he attacks the modal progression like a man scorned, fully focused on expressing his torment without regard to consequences. He grows increasingly impatient, releasing a fit of rage emanating from righteous indignation and impassioned fury from 2:40 to 3:15. Duane becomes more measured in his lead work after that explosion before he hits the transition back to the verse.
When Dickey gets his turn, he makes the most of it, systematically building in intensity, creating themes and motifs all pointing towards the inevitability of hammering his point home. The crushing rhythm section encourages him as he builds to a crescendo from 9:03 to 9:25, and it sounds like Duane yells out “Yeah” around 9:12 (right about the time you want to as well). The band exercises its ability to use dynamics by mellowing at 10:15. They methodically feed the fire of rejection, manipulation, heartbreak and deception until a roaring bonfire emerges at 15:25 with Dickey pushing himself to his limits. The surge culminates in a signature ascending Dorian scale run with an added major seventh before resolving to the root, followed by a series of wailing bends.
After Gregg bellows out the final defiant choruses, the band plays an extended coda, an appropriate ending to a tumultuous and taxing trek.
1. “Blue Sky” – No song brings me more joy than “Blue Sky.” It’s not even remotely close; I love everything about this song. The opening harmonized licks ring out and I immediately have a smile on my face, knowing all the while that I’m in for five minutes of country fried bliss. It is bittersweet knowing this was one of a small handful of songs tracked for Eat a Peach before Duane’s fatal motorcycle crash. When Dickey Betts wrote this song for Sandy “Bluesky” Wabegijig, I wonder if he knew how much it would resonate with casual fans and diehards alike. The laid-back groove, the pastoral imagery of the verses and the sweet, sincere lyrics of the chorus all combine to generate a warm, comforting sentiment that can bring elation to the darkest of hearts. As I’ve grown older, the song has taken on different meanings. As a young man, I focused on the nature imagery and reflected upon time spent in the Adirondack Mountains of New York with friends and family. Now, being a husband and a father, I often reflect on how love can be a natural narcotic and it sure does make me high when my girls turn their love my way.
After the first chorus, Duane and Dickey launch into two divine solos. Duane plays around a motif, twisting and manipulating the melody until hitting his peak from 2:00-2:08 before he and Dickey play a harmonized transition into Dickey’s solo. Dickey employs his trademark “country hexatonic” scale, adding a perfect fourth to the major pentatonic throughout his lead. This little twist of note choice is one element that often gives Dickey’s playing a “sweet” sound that always lifts me up. David Crosby once said something to the effect of “On one side you’ve got this grey faced man, and on the other you’ve got a girl running through a field, half-naked and high.” Dickey Betts always makes me feel like I’m running with that girl, and I never want to leave that meadow of unadulterated bliss. After another verse and chorus, the song ends with a replay of the introduction and it’s hard not to hit repeat and receive another injection of euphonic euphoria.
It’s this emotion that embodies why I love the Allman Brothers Band. They always make me feel good. The original band worked together as one dynamic and dominant force that’s as inspiring and moving as any musical marriage could hope to be. Long live the Allman Brothers Band and remember Duane Allman.