For years I have heard about the lore of the legendary Allman Brothers Band and their concerts. Those who speak of the shows do so in a mystical manner and I can't even express how poetic these people feel about this band, their music and their musical inclinations. I had never witnessed this breathtaking communal experience until the band rolled into Chicago recently and I wasn't quite sure what to expect but what I found was a group whose musical heritage, aura and aptitude to be immense.
Kicking things off with the instrumental "Hot 'lanta" the band demonstrated they are no slouches musically and rolled effortless through the languid "Statesboro Blues" led by band leader, Gregg Allman who appeared cool, collected, sturdy and studious with his piano solo. He gracefully shows why he has been able to do this for close to forty-years. Guitarist Derek Trucks playing during this particular number just gave me a giddy smile. I saw him last year with Eric Clapton and he elevated Clapton's live show monumentally and while it was a joy to see him wield his influence over a master, seeing him in his own element with one of the greatest American bands to ever grace a concert stage was nothing short of dreamlike. It's almost as if the soul of Duane Allman is embodied within his small frame. Sometimes simplicity can make leave your mouth agape more than six-finger aerobics. The last time I was in this much awe of one's musical prowess was witnessing Prince, who like the Allman Bothers let his guitars do the talking for him.
As the evening progressed, I watched this band begin a song austerely before adding layer upon layer to it, most notably on "Trouble No More" which began with a straightforward arrangement before the instruments congealed into a beautifying glimpse of what musical masters can accomplish when they are a band. During the sprawling "Rocking Horse" I watched the band share the spotlight amongst each other during the twelve-minute jam. Warren Hayne's vocals were minimalist yet perfect. Despite the psychedelic images on the giant screen that hovered behind them and the rather impressive lights, the real moments of awe occurred on stage as the limelight of attention changed multiple times throughout the song. The very fabric of the Allman Brothers Band would bring another to its knees. When the light shines on someone, it shines brightly, but the band are chameleons who fade with ease into the stage when their moment is over allowing someone else to have their moment in the sun with solos that are simultaneously bluesy, inconspicuous and epic. Once again Derek Trucks left me bewildered, he moves his hands so effortlessly across the frets of his guitar but does so with such ease that I'm questioning myself, "how does he do that?" Every stadium and arena guitarist needs to see this talent play live and show them that greatness can be found in subtle yet noticeable simplicity. Great musicians don't make great bands for good reasons, however, while each of the seven current Allman Brothers are masters of their craft, they are something so much more prevailing when their seven talents become one. If Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to be able to play guitar, then what did these seven musicians offer up to become masters of their respective crafts?
The bluesy "The Sky Is Crying" was written for the guitar, but the thing I walked away remembering was the peek-a-boo vibrancy of Greg Allman's transcendent organ fills. Here is a song where it barely showcases Allman, but for me, he owned the song because when the organ could be heard it was as potent as the stupendous Trucks solo that made Stevie Ray Vaughn smile with glee from up above. By the songs end, the crowd was standing is rapt attention giving their affirmation at deafening levels. This is most largely due to the fact that the song is rarely performed. It most likely an emotional piece to play for Gregg as it was the first song performed at Duane Allman's funeral by the Allman Brothers Band. This is the beauty of the Allman Brothers; not only do you witness awe-inspiring musical proficiency, but the understated fills and layers provided by the overall band are sometimes just as engaging as a passionate solo. They break music down to its most essential elements and remind me why I fell in love with music in the first place.
The warmth of Allman's lush voice exuberated confidence on "No One Left To Run With" which complimented the bands swaggering jamtastic backbeat that had the crowd dancing in the aisles. Allman's vocals were also prominent on "Soulshine"; his voice has an indefinable quality that makes you glad that not only that Gregg is alive, but yourself as well. I was shocked to find the band tackle Van Morrison's "Into The Mystic", which would even make Morrison proud. Despite the band's unique touch all over it, including subdued and spot on vocals by Warren Hayne's, the song was more of an homage than a cover, which is something the Allman Brothers Band does better than anyone. I loved the fact this song came from out of nowhere. Greg Rzab of Buddy Guy's band was featured on bass on "The Sky Is Crying", further adding to the element of surprise that one encounters every night. I love shows where I have no idea what the band will perform next or who will pop up on stage, it gives each show its own unique imprint forever enshrining it into the crowds mind and the bands legacy.
"Black Hearted Woman" gave the rhythm section (bassist Oteil Burbridge and percussionist Marc Quiρones and drummers Butch Trucks, & Jaimoe Johanny Johanson) their spotlight moment. I've seen enough Allman Brothers imitators over the years and often while their musicianship is impressive, the overall focus gets lost and what you wind up hearing is nothing but noise, but not with the Allman Brothers Band. There is improvisation, but there is a shared language that allows them to perform with an instinctive force in which they feed off one another. The precision of the rhythm section made "Black Hearted Woman" soar despite a pair of killer guitar solos. As impressive as they were, I wasn't ready for "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed", a thirty-five minute opus that showcased every member of the band and while the song is drawn out, it was not dull for one moment. During yet another stupendous solo by Trucks, I witnessed a theater full of geeks playing air guitar. I don't know how anyone couldn't smile at the sight of this. As a large portion of the band left the stage, the rhythm section took hold of the theater. While it appeared these would largely be loose improvisational moments, they were anything but. To be a part of the Allman Brothers Band you musical instincts must be spot-on and the four piece rhythm section was just that. They segued beautifully from one another with an astonishing drum jam, which found bassist Burbridge jamming on Butch Trucks drums.
The encore featured the sweet and serene "Melissa" performed as a four-piece by Gregg Allman (on acoustic guitar), Warren Haynes, Butch Trucks and Oteil Burbridge. The seventeen-minute finale of "You Don't Love Me" was staggering. When they finished there wasn't a face in the theater who wasn't smiling. Despite songs and instrumentals that lasted upwards of eighteen-minutes at a time, the band was full of bravado energy and cohesiveness that few on the planet could muster for one show, let alone night after night, year after year, decade after decade.
The Allman Brothers Band has an omnivorous love of music and never performing the same show twice. The world is a full of talented musicians, but it's rare for them to blend together and form a cumulative interrelated unit. While this is a different band than the one Cameron Crowe fell in love with, they embody the same spirit and continue to do what they do best; perform inspiring music, every year. They're devoid of ego, sharing the limelight and embracing one another because the sum of their parts is so much larger than any one individual. They are among the last bands that truly embody the spirit of the great blues, R&B and rock innovators. When you pay money to see the Allman Brothers Band you will witness nothing short of a stupendous experience where you will walk away feeling like you sold your soul to the devil to witness musical proficiency this awe-inspiring.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and can be found at The Screen Door
Allman Brothers Band set list for Rosemont Theater 8/29/07:
Leave My Blues At Home
Trouble No More
Black Hearted Woman
The Sky Is Crying
No One To Run With
Into The Mystic
In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed (JaBuMa)
You Don't Love Me
Remembering Gregg Allman - TBT 2007 Live Review