THE ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND — At Fillmore East (review)

THE ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND — At Fillmore East album cover Live album · 1971 · Blues Buy this album from MMA partners
3.5/5 ·
Indulge me for a moment, if you will. Circa 1974 I was part of a popular rock group in Dallas that had come to think that our downloads didn’t stink. (Call it “Big Fish in a Small Pond” syndrome.) Twice a year our booking agency would host a showcase where their stable of combos would play a short set while the head honchos wined & dined potential clients in hopes of filling up their calendar with profitable gigs. Often they would invite acts in from other states and, on this particular occasion, they recruited one from Louisiana. Being full of ourselves, we insisted on going on last, right after this band we’d never heard of called the “War Babies.” Bad idea. They were so confident, so cocky and so damn tight they stunned everyone in the room; especially we conceited brats who then had to follow them. It was a humbling experience to be in the presence of a cadre of musicians who possessed in such abundance that elusive trait known as “swagger.” My point? I have a feeling that whoever shared the bill with the ABB that March weekend at the Fillmore East in ‘71 felt the same way after witnessing their killer performances. These six men knew they were good and were determined to convince every single soul in the audience of that fact.

The Allman Brothers Band had two impressive LPs under their belt but radio had yet to put them in heavy rotation on their playlists so they were out to conquer the world by the sweat of their own brows one show at a time. One of the most attractive things about this recording is that it presents them as just regular guys-next-door who didn’t rely on anything fancy to make them stand out. No spectacular lights, no flashy outfits or crazy hairdos for them. They shunned synthesizers and groovy guitar effects altogether. They simply walked out of the wings, turned on the Hammond B3, plugged their instruments straight into the amps, took seats on their respective drum stools, counted off the first song of the set and let the magic take over. Fortunately the nights were professionally taped for posterity and the resulting double album of live material became one of the most famous and successful of all time. For the ABB it proved to be what transformed them from being a semi-obscure group to headliners within months of its release in July of that same year. The contagious blend of blues, jazz and rock they’d concocted was destined to infect the music universe from the beginning but it took this 2-disc package to make it happen. The public was fascinated by their ability to create under the lights what even the most famous of bands were hard-pressed to do with every studio trick in the book at their disposal. As for the jazz angle, their music recognized no boundaries and they took the listener to places they’d never been before. And that’s what jazz is all about no matter what instruments are being played.

After a simple introduction the Allmans start with a big batch of the “Statesboro Blues.” All I can say is that sound check must’ve been a doozy because they come out with guns a’ blazin’ as Duane’s slide guitar work shakes and bakes the hall, Gregg’s edgy voice cuts through the swirling pot smoke ascending from the crowd like a scythe and Dickey Betts tosses out a respectable rock guitar lead. The twin drum sets of Jai Johanny Johanson and Butch Trucks, in cahoots with bassist Barry Oakley, create a locomotive drive that pulls you on board their train from the start. Many live albums are so sanitized that it’s hard to distinguish them from studio offerings but this one left in all the little incidental noises, mumbled introductions, brief tune-ups and, best of all, the auditorium’s natural ambience so you get the sensation of sitting in the middle of the 20th row and that adds a warm realism often missing on others of its ilk. “Done Somebody Wrong” offers another heaping helping of Duane’s slashing medicine-bottle slide, accompanied by guest Thom Doucette’s forceful harmonica. It’s yet another blues ditty but the power they put into it reinforces my argument that they were riding the crest of knowing they were smack dab in the midst of their prime and any tune they tackled came off like gangbusters.

T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday” is without a doubt one of the most recognizable slow blues standards ever written but few groups have ever played it with as much passion as the ABB. Duane delivers an emotional solo and then they jump into a jazzier flow for Gregg’s Hammond ride to keep things from getting stale. “You Don’t Love Me” is up-tempo blues with a tricky extra half measure thrown into the number’s repeating riff. You can’t deny that the energy being projected by the ensemble is highly addictive as it penetrates into your brain cells. Then something unexpected happens. They cease to be just another blues band. Duane gets some alone time with the paying customers and he uses it to demonstrate his wonderful touch on the fretboard before the two drummers fall in behind him for an improvised jam in which he puts on a veritable guitar clinic. Eventually the rest of the group comes back in for a cool “let’s see where this goes” segment to the end of the 19-minute track. “Hot‘Lanta” is a jazzy instrumental in 6/4 throughout which exuberance abounds from everyone involved. It contains great interplay between the drummers and Barry’s formidable command of the bass guitar is made obvious.

The next selection is an outstanding, extended presentation of one of Betts’ finest compositions, “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” It has as fluid and memorable a central melody line as any in the realm of jazz and there’s an amazing collective awareness of crucial dynamics going on all during this performance. Speaking of Oakley, lend an ear to what he’s laying down underneath all the wild soloing. The guy was an awesome bass player. Duane’s admiration for John Coltrane becomes clear during his ride as he electrifies the proceedings, building the intensity to a white hot state and then backing off briefly before setting the place afire. They follow that conflagration by filling up one whole side of vinyl with their 23-minute epic version of the inimitable classic “Whipping Post.” They attack the song like they’ve been dying to get to it all day. And no wonder. It has an innate, in-born momentum that runs like a stampede of mustangs. After Gregg gruffly sings the tune’s opening verses Dickey bursts out with what may be the fieriest guitar solo of his career. I love how the band then lets the song dissolve into another feel altogether as if the music’s in control, not them. It drifts marvelously for a while and then, like a prize fighter rising from an encounter with the canvas, the tune resurrects itself and treats the audience to the song’s much-anticipated climax. But it’s a ruse. They then coyly slide back into a lengthy but tasty free-form soup consisting of spontaneous snippets of inspiration and finally end the long journey with a dramatic concession to aural fatigue.

Anyone who thinks The Allman Brothers Band isn’t jazz-related hasn’t given this album a fair chance. Yes, there’s a lotta blues to plow through to arrive at the meaty improvisation they excelled at but it’s worth the trek. As with Cream’s on-stage persona, it’s difficult to fathom that such unrestrained, impromptu musical expression would be so enthusiastically accepted by such a large demographic of the record-buying public but accept it they did. En Masse. “At Fillmore East” peaked at #13 on the album charts and still out-sells the bulk of their catalogue. This roster of gifted musicians was willing and able to follow their instincts wherever they took them, fully trusting that their audience would gladly go along. Sadly, tragic accidents that removed two key players would curtail their jazzy adventures prematurely and coerce them into being more predictable but this recording honestly documents the golden era in their career when creativity trumped convention to produce music that can’t be replicated.
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Matt wrote:
more than 2 years ago
Whipping Post rules


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