Tuesday, October 28, 2014

ONE NIGHT AT THE BEACON (Guest Post)

ONE NIGHT AT 
THE BEACON
The Allman Brothers Band 
Live In NYC  10.25.14
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I'm delighted to welcome 
Chicago's own Mark Vormittag, 
as the latest "Guest Contributor" 
here on The Show Biz Guru.
Nice work indeed, Mark!
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Once upon a time, so many years ago, The Allman Brothers Band was formed. Duane Allman forged the band in March of 1969 and they began a journey that brought them to the Beacon Theater in New York City on the night of October 25, 2014. They are in the middle of their final group of shows before the band members go their separate ways.

The Allman Brothers Band that started in Florida and eventually made their home in Macon, Georgia is no stranger to New York. During their storied musical career they have perhaps played more times in New York that anywhere else; everywhere from college campuses to small bars and on to large arenas. They got their biggest break when they began to play at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East on Second Avenue near East 6th Street in New York City. It was there that they became the band that Graham would call “the best of them all.” They would eventually be chosen as the final act of that historic “Church of Rock and Roll," and would forever be lauded for their live recording there. At Fillmore East has oft been known as the best live album in history.

As most music historians agree, the Allman Brothers Band is at their best when playing live, captivating audiences with their unique blend of jazz, rock and blues, a formula that has never been duplicated. This group has always delivered a powerful show that relied upon the talents of the band as a whole rather than a single frontman / singer or guitarist. The gutsy, blues-soaked vocals of singer / songwriter / keyboardist Gregg Allman, the unprecedented dual lead guitar work of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts, the throbbing and yet articulate bass playing of Berry Oakley and the unrelenting, intricate percussion work of Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny Johanson that managed to somehow keep the swirling, unorthodox time signatures on time, all combined to create a magic that has never been surpassed. The Original Six were the foundation of a band that has performed almost continuously for 45 years.

The band has survived the deaths of two founding members, Duane Allman and Berry Oakley, tragedies that might have been insurmountable but for the perseverance of the remaining members and their determination to continue the legacy that began with Duane Allman. They have survived after parting ways with another founding member, guitarist Dickey Betts. Through the years, the band has remained a huge fan favorite.
ABB in NYC - 2014
Are they as good as the Original Six? Is that even a fair comparison? Since settling upon the current lineup of Gregg Allman on keyboards, Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks on guitars, Oteil Burbridge on bass, and Butch Trucks, Jaimoe and Marc Quiñones on percussion, the band has maintained a confident and dynamic presence in concert. They faithfully preserve the feel and artistry of the Original Six and provide versions of songs that are ostensibly faithful to the original live versions. Perhaps the most talked about and argued point is whether Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks are as good as Duane Allman and Dickey Betts. It’s my opinion that these two guitarists are the most suited to have continued in the absence of Duane and Dickey. Their abilities and styles complement each other as Duane Allman and Dickey Betts did, never stepping on one another. Their sense of how the music needs to sound in order to be faithful to the originals but remain fresh is extraordinary.

Fast forward to October 25, 2014. The band has decided to play out their final appearances at the Beacon Theater. My thoughts on the performance are as follows:

The Allman Brothers Band is going into the history books on top. There aren’t many performers, if any, that could sell out a venue like the Beacon Theater for a week, and yet the Allman Brothers Band has again done just that. Anticipation of this final Beacon run has been high and fans have been enthusiastic about each of the performances. This night was no exception.

The band began the night by cranking up “Don’t Keep Me Wondering.” Derek played the opening slide guitar riffs with gusto to start the jaunty, infectious groove that had those in attendance on their feet. Gregg’s vocals were solid and the whole band seemed to burst from the gate with an exuberance that served notice that the band was on its game. The tune was tight and was followed by Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues,” an Allman Brothers Band standard that rocked the house, and the night was on.

Next up was “Woman Across the River,” a rave up of the Freddie King classic. The varying tempos and the bridge riffs were immaculately performed. Derek and Warren traded licks and although each has his own style of play, the solos seemed almost seamlessly fitted with one another. Warren’s vocals were pitch perfect, growling through the choruses and channeling King’s no-nonsense style.

It soon became apparent that the guitars being used this night were Duane Allman’s three Les Pauls, his 1957 Goldtop, the cherryburst and the darkburst Les Paul that has become known as “Hot ‘Lanta.” Their appearance at the show was courtesy of Scott Lamar, current owner of the Goldtop, and also Duane’s daughter, Galadrielle Allman, the owner of the two Les Paul Bursts. It was unprecedented that these three guitars were here on stage together for this run. Duane had traded the Goldtop in 1970 for the cherryburst Les Paul, swapping out the pickups of the guitars, and then, upon acquiring the darkburst Les Paul, discontinued playing the cherryburst. None of the guitars had been seen before on stage together before this run and they were played extensively all night. It was a wonderful treat for the fans and the two guitarists. Derek ended up playing slide on the Goldtop for many of the evening’s songs and Warren seemed none too eager to relinquish the cherryburst. Derek’s SG came out for a few songs but it was clear that Warren and Derek were only too happy to work the Les Pauls for most of the evening.

The third song of the first set started with the signature piano opening that begins “Ain’t Wastin' Time No More.” Derek played the Goldtop, faithfully recreating the opening sweet, clean slide work of Dickey Betts. The audience rocked as the tune rolled on and when Derek opened up the slide it was plain that he was enjoying playing the piece.

“Stormy Monday” was up next and Gregg’s vocals soared. He put every ounce of wistful angst into this one and showed why he is one of the most distinctive blues vocalists on the planet. The band was tight and effortlessly moved through the time changes in and out of the swinging, jazzy middle passage. Warren and Derek’s solos were well manicured and expressive but fairly perfunctory in nature. It was Gregg’s vocals that gave the song its punch.

“Dusk Til' Dawn” came up in the set list next and had that dreamy quality that other bands might fumble through, but this was a solid piece that allowed Warren and Derek to step out of the more formulaic, traditional blues riffs and deliver smooth, exquisitely crafted melodies.
Trucks and Haynes live at The Beacon - 10.25.14
(Photo: Mark R. Vormittag)
Finishing off the first set the band worked up the classic “Stand Back,” which had the audience swaying in their seats and singing along, and then kicked up the energy level with a smoking hot version of “Hot ‘Lanta.” Tight, powerful and clean, this song was a magnificent example of how the Allman Brothers Band Original Six had set themselves apart from other “jam bands.” A song that was never on a studio album, designed as a live piece, its existence can only be found live. There were no meandering or directionless passages in this composition, just hard-hitting, intricate jazz / rock. Burbridge's bass line and the dual lead riffs fired off by Warren and Derek were as precise as the Original Six had laid it down. Gregg’s keyboard solo on this was like his others, closely following the arrangements of the original recordings. Each keyboard solo was finely tuned over countless performances and his workmanship of the Leslie speaker is the best in the business.

During the intermission, there was a great deal of discussion in the lobbies regarding the issue of Dickey Betts’ absence. The general consensus was that he should have had a place on this run and that what had created the Original Six brotherhood should not be dismantled because of egos and finger-pointing. As great as Warren and Derek are, Mr. Betts was missed.

The second set began with another terrific piece of writing by Gregg – “Midnight Rider.” Now considered a true radio classic, the song was well done but, because of the arrangement, did not permit much in the way of improvisation. Derek and Warren’s interlocking solos were note-perfect and smooth.

Next up was Dr. John’s “Walk on Gilded Splinters,” a song that was recorded by Johnny Jenkins with Duane Allman playing guitar. The dark, tribal feel was brilliantly performed and the percussion section of Butch, Jaimoe and Marc was outstanding. The song is a treat live, being able to see the interplay among them.

“Jessica” came next and again showcased the exceptional dual lead work of Warren and Derek. Dickey Betts’ song was performed flawlessly. The song is a masterpiece of composition and the solos swirled and soared throughout. There is no denying that precision of the harmonizing leads and the dynamics of build and release in this song are inspired. Although it’s clear that these two guitarists are well matched to provide exciting versions, one is only left to wonder what it would have sounded like with Duane and Dickey at the controls. During the middle of the song, Warren steered the tune into a soulful rendition of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” which for my way of thinking was ironic due to the schism so evidently present in playing a Dickey Betts song without having that member present at this important time in the band’s career. Apparently the circle can and has been broken.

“Trouble No More” brought the house to its feet as the band tore through it. From the opening riff on this solid Allman Brothers Band classic, the band played with fire and energy with Derek’s slide knifing through the mix. At the bridge where Derek and Warren trade licks, into the drum kick, the audience was in synch with the band and shouted along with Gregg’s sneering roar of “Goodbye baby!” – a slam dunk winner.

In one of the few instances where anyone addressed the audience from the stage, Warren Haynes mentioned that it was the anniversary of Bill Graham’s untimely death. Graham was one of the band’s early benefactors, and his favorite song, according to Haynes, had been Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic.” It was a fitting song to play on this auspicious occasion and Haynes sang the song with soul and grace.
(Photo: Mark R. Vormittag)
“In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” came after Mystic and Gregg left the stage prior to the opening chords. It’s unclear whether he needed a breather or whether he merely felt he could take a break on a non-vocal song. It was a little odd not hearing his distinctive keyboard solo in Elizabeth Reed, Regarding the guitar work, although all the important time signature changes were there, one could tell that each guitarist approached the song from his own style of soloing. Wonderful guitar work, deftly performed, is a staple of this song and there was no disappointment this night. The band chose to take the opportunity to break into a Cream song, still without Gregg, to acknowledge the passing of bassist Jack Bruce by playing “Politician,” and it was evident that they enjoyed adding this to the night’s set list. They returned to Elizabeth Reed, and ended the song with the precise drum solo segment and dual leads. Another signature Allman Brothers Band song that helped to define their style early on.

There was a brief delay as the band members left the stage and they huddled in the shadows to decide what the encore would be. It was a bit of a surprise as they began the encore with “Come On in My Kitchen” by Robert Johnson and covered by Delaney & Bonnie and although the tune was tastefully done, it appeared that the audience was nonplussed by the selection. Duane had played some acoustic slide guitar on the song during his tenure with D&B but it seemed a little of a letdown to do this song as an encore. They followed up with “One Way Out,” which has always been a crowd-pleaser and the audience responded by getting on their feet and dancing at their seats.

There will always be a comparison between the Original Six and the present day lineup, but the combination of Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes is still the most talented and well-suited duo for the band. There aren’t two other guitarists anywhere who could have filled Duane Allman and Dickey Betts’ shoes more adequately. In fact, they had what Duane Allman and Dickey Betts enjoyed so well – a symbiotic relationship. Lead guitarists are typically ego-driven and it’s essential that two in this type of band structure be not only comfortable with each other, but also in it for the long haul. It’s not easy getting along in a band, as shown by past members of the Allman Brothers Band and in other bands. How long would they have remained together as a band is a question that is certainly problematic, and after suffering the setbacks of losing founding members it’s nothing short of astonishing that the band stayed together this long and continues to stay popular with their fan base. Part of the credit is due to the incredible talent and dedication of Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes, but also in no small measure to their capacity to provide a sense of stability to otherwise chaotic and challenging positions in the band. They’ve heard all the disparaging comments and comparisons with Duane and Dickey and have managed to shrug them off. They’ve let their talent and their commitment speak for themselves.

So as the sun begins to set on the greatest American band in history, we should admire and commend their longevity and sense of purpose over the years, but also enjoy what all the members who have taken part in the Allman Brothers Band have shared with us – damned good music. Saturday night, October 25, 2014 was more than just a night at the Beacon. It was a privileged celebration.

-Mark R. Vormittag
(October 2014)
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