Wednesday, August 6, 2014

RECORD REVIEW: The Allman Brothers Band "The 1971 Fillmore East Recordings" (Guest Post)

The 1971 Fillmore East Recordings
Mercury / Universal Music - 2014
6 CDs - 355 min.

Music in its purest form is and always has been a conduit of communication. Some artists have conversed with incredible eloquence, others with direction, many with passion, joy and pain  through  ferocious chops and tremendous ability. However, there have been very few that managed to pull all those ingredients together the way the Allman Brothers Band did from mid-1969 through late Fall of  1971. The history of the band's formation has been well documented, but it's important enough to emphasize that when Duane Allman found himself jamming with Berry Oakley, Dickey Betts, Jai Johanny Johanson and Butch Trucks in the last week of March 1969, his search was over and he’d found his sound. The only missing piece of the puzzle was his brother, Gregory, then languishing in Los Angeles, flat broke and with no prospects. Duane's phone call to Gregg about the new band quickly reunited the brothers and shortly after Gregg's arrival  in Jacksonville, Florida, the crew packed up and headed for Macon, Georgia, where Phil Walden and his new Capricorn label were waiting. Over the next two years, relentless hard work and a grueling road schedule seasoned and whipped the six-piece combo into one of the toughest, tightest groups anywhere in the country, and they truly were without equals. By blending their deep roots in a number of American musical forms, they fused blues, jazz, country and rock influences into a stew that spearheaded the birth of Southern Rock, the Sound of the South.

When the sextet rolled into New York City on March 11th, 1971, plans to record their three-night stand at Bill Graham's famed Fillmore East were in motion. Since the latter part of 1969 the Brothers had played his venues on both coasts numerous times, and in doing so, they had gained a true ally who understood them and respected their untiring work ethic. With two albums already under their belts, when At Fillmore East was originally released in July of 1971, it boldly and loudly proclaimed the official arrival of the Allman Brothers Band. While the group's first two LPs might have made a few ripples on the surface of record industry waters, the 'live' double-album went gold within a few short months. Although countless venue recordings from an endless list of performers now have come and gone in the past four-plus decades, At Fillmore East still is regarded as one of the finest 'live' documents in the history of rock and roll. In fact, its success and popularity also saw a dizzying number of reissues over the past 20 years, but this new release is what many lifelong Allman Brothers fans have wanted – all four shows, both early and late performances from the weekend of March 12th and 13th, 1971.

A blow-by-blow account of this package would be almost pointless, and at approximately 355 minutes, you'd still be reading this review come next New Year's. But one commonly acknowledged, recurring theme concerning the Allman Brothers Band during this time period is certain – they might not have varied much from their razor-sharp set list once it was perfected, but they never played any song the same way twice. While there are five versions of "Statesboro Blues," four takes of "In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed," four extended rides on "Whipping Post," three runs through "Trouble No More," and many others to digest, Duane and Dickey's fiery guitar solos simply aren't approached in the same manner. Obviously, there are signatures to these pieces that needed to be maintained  because they were integral to the arrangements, but their playing varies markedly as you weave your way through these discs. Ditto Gregg's energetic piano playing or his wonderfully understated work behind the Hammond B-3, and that's without mentioning his 24-year-old voice that sounded every bit like that of a much older Chicago blues singer. His vocals are as raspy as they are world-wise and weary. The engine room in this aggregation was every bit as important as Duane, Gregg and Dickey were. Berry Oakley's bass playing was part of a foundation for the band to build on as much as it was another lead instrument. Rare indeed is a bass player who could add a rock steady grounding, as well as adjust his parts to fit the mood of the music from night to night. Last but not least, the dual-drumming of Jaimoe and Butch Trucks also made for key ingredients. While Butch's driving backbeats anchored the entire unit, Jaimoe's R&B and jazz leanings allowed him to insert incredible flourishes as accents to everything else that was going on around him.

Coincidentally, that word 'communication'  brings us back to the beginning... the on-stage communication among these six young men in 1971 was pretty much unattainable by any other band in the country. Not only were they brilliant musicians who more often than not belied their youthful age, but they also respected the importance of listening and understood the value it offered them while exploring new territory each time they played. You'll hear subtle nuances and changing inflections in Gregg's voice over these sets, and you'll catch Duane and Dickey adjusting their phrasing and emphasizing different passages. You'll come to fully appreciate the riveting three-piece rhythm section working effortlessly, and not only over the four sets recorded in March of '71, but also upon their triumphant return at the end of June when Bill Graham singled them out as the best band he'd ever witnessed and chose them to be the last performers on the hallowed stage of the Fillmore East.

In addition to the original six members that made up the Allman Brothers Band, special guests in March included Tom "Ace" Doucette on harmonica, Bobby Caldwell on percussion, and Rudolph "Juicy" Carter on soprano sax. If there's one minor drawback, it's that Juicy's sax efforts on two versions of "Elizabeth Reed" seem to meander aimlessly when the rest of the band had a clear destination in mind and the best route to get there. In part, the beauty of Tom Dowd's masterful work on the original LP was that he was able to seamlessly fuse a few parts together from different performances to create a couple of perfect tracks. Those two cuts ("Elizabeth Reed" and "You Don't Love Me" from the 3/13 early show) are presented as they were on the 'live' album, with Dowd's editing in place, but the true shine of this newly released set is that we're now able to hear everything else just as it went down. There's a sense that if Dowd had been alive to see this come to fruition, he'd have considered two things; the first would have been splicing out Juicy Carter's solos in both takes of "Liz Reed" from the night of the 12th, and the second would have been adding them (in their entirety) as bonus tracks, for interest only. High points are far too many to chronicle here, but the two versions of "Whipping Post" from the two nights in March are as vicious as they are beautiful, and if their first attempt at Sonny Boy Williamson's "One Way Out" from one of the mid-March shows  sounds a little unsure of itself, by the time late June rolled around, the song had been sharpened into a blistering boogie ride. Suffice it to say that at almost six full hours, there's a whole new set of emotions that come with listening to this, from Duane’s nonchalant introduction on disc one, "I hope this comes out pretty good, we're recordin' our third album here," to the last joyous notes of "You Don't Love Me" at the Fillmore East's final show in late June. Sound is crisp and clear throughout and it's a guarantee you'll hear lots of things you simply never heard before. The immaculate separation between Duane and Dickey's guitars is as breathtaking as hearing Jaimoe adding deftly-placed embellishments to Butch's freight train-like approach.

Although the Allman Brothers Band has endured for over four decades in one form or another, what the original six members managed during a brief two-and-a-half year stretch from March of 1969 through October of 1971 has never again been matched. This was truly a heady and experimental time when the American musical landscape was shifting, heading into uncharted territory and realigning itself, as bands began fusing various influences and creating new and exciting sounds. In addition to that, it was the Allman Brothers Band staking their claim as leaders of the New South. 

-Craig Ruskey
(August 2014)

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