Wednesday, June 21, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days: # 003: Allman Bros. Band, Live at Fillmore East

In the fall of 1977 I had moved to NYC, after my junior year of high school, to go to college here. It was a fantastic experience, because both faculty and format were incredibly timely for me--I hated high school and was more than ready to leave my home town. They housed us in NYU dorms in Alphabet City on the Lower East Side, and every morning, I'd walk west on 10th street, cross 5th Avenue, angle up a couple of blocks and wind up at the New School on 12th and Ave 0f the Americas. I was so broke that I walked places rather than take the subway (once I walked all the way from one end of the island to the other) and I lived and died by the Village Voice's "Free or Under Two Bucks" back page, which led me to some incredible experiences (saw Cecil Taylor play in the basement of an East Harlem church that way).

Some time in the fall of '77, some Voice author who I've never been able to identify wrote an article on the demise of the original Allman Brothers band. It was a beautiful article, which understood how the interaction of rock 'n' roll, drugs, Jimmy Carter, and the South all fitted together, and it explained why the band ended. It was a bit of a hagiography for Duane, who was killed in a bike accident in 1971, but it also inspired me to go out and buy Live at Fillmore East, probably the first hard-core rock 'n' roll record I'd ever bought myself. I still remember the quotes: "'Like church,' Duane would say. 'Like having a vision, magic,' Jaimoe would say. 'It was so spiritual, the music,' Butch said, 'that I can remember several times when my soul actually left my body onstage, while we were playing.'"

It's one of the greatest records of rock 'n' roll improvisation ever made: the Brothers were living together, traveling in an Econoline van, playing 300 nights a year, and listening to Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. And you can hear it in their music: in the potent, circular rhythms Butch Trucks and Jai Johanney Johnson played at their two drum kits, in the modal ostinatos that Berry Oakley laid down on bass, in the keening and wailing of the twin lead guitars of Duane Allman and Dickie Betts. But they also had one of rock music's other great natural instruments: Gregg Allman's voice, who at the age of 21 created an incredible, instinctive meld of Ray Charles, BB King, and the black church.

Everything on this record is magnificent: the dynamic with the crowd, the intertwining of the guitars as Duane and Dicky push each higher further and further, the ebb and blow of the roiling drums, and Gregg's astonishing voice. From the hammering stop-time of Statesboro Blues and Done Somebody Wrong, to the slow blues of T Bone Walker's Stormy Monday (the blues that launched a thousand bar bands), to the gorgeous Dicky Betts instrumentals Hot Lanta and In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, to the quintessential Southern-rock anthem Whipping Post, no band ever jammed better live.

They truly did get to within striking distance of the intensity, passion, and spiritual devotion in Coltrane's music. And, at the peak of the 20-minute jam on You Don't Love Me, as the rhythm section floats out of time and poises trembling over the fermata, until Duane's slide guitar pours down like silver into the opening notes of Lowell Mason's cop of Handel with Joy to the World, and the rhythm section roars to a crescendo, they get there.

It's transcendent.

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