The Allmans celebrate 35 years of ramblin' and rockin'
Every year in March, the Allman Brothers Band — which marks its 35th anniversary this year — plays a long string of well-attended shows at the Beacon Theatre in New York. That extended residency has become the venerable rock band's most visible gig. It's racked up an impressive 100 performances at the 2,800-capacity venue between 1997 and 2004. And according to concert-industry bible Pollstar, its nine-show stint this past March grossed roughly $1.9 million, landing the Allmans among the 100 top-grossing acts of the year.
That's a remarkable achievement for a band whose artistic, commercial and pop-cultural heyday seems to have come and gone in the early 1970s, around the time of its hit "Ramblin' Man." It's also noteworthy since New York City is almost the last place you'd expect to hear a distinctly Southern rock 'n' roll outfit steeped in wailing, minor-chord blues, and brawny, improvisational stretches of guitar.
It raises the question: Why does a historically Southern rock 'n' roll band, formed in Macon, make its yearly stand in Gotham instead of, say, Atlanta?
"It surprises a lot of people, but the Northeast has been the Allman Brothers' biggest market for a long, long time," says current guitarist Warren Haynes, who left the band in 1997 to pursue his Gov't Mule project; he returned following the ouster of longtime Allmans guitarist Dickey Betts in 2000. "New York, Boston, Philadelphia are huge markets for all of the Southern bands. I have no idea why, but it's always been that way. In certain ways, Atlanta and certain parts of the South take that music for granted because it came from there."
There are many explanations for this. For one, there's long been a love-hate relationship between Southerners and certain aspects of Southern culture. Many progressive Atlantans may simply be unable or unwilling to embrace the Allmans' muddy, rural roots. The Allmans started in 1969, when Muscle Shoals session guitarist Duane Allman joined with his brother Gregg to cobble together a group that would popularize a new, distinctly Southern strain of rock 'n' roll. Through ever-shifting lineups and a couple of painful tragedies (Duane died in a 1971 motorcycle accident; Gregg struggled with drugs and marriages to Cher), the Allmans created an impressive legacy of fiery performances, and influenced a host of latter-day bands known for spontaneous musical excursions. More than 30 years into their life as band, the Allmans are finding renewed relevance as the progenitors of the popular jam-band scene.
"There are so many bands that come from what the Allmans do," says House of Blues' Dave Hart, who booked the Allmans' current three-night stand at the Fox Theatre. "There's moe., [the] String Cheese [Incident], Widespread Panic and Dave Matthews — they all have elements of what the Allmans laid down a long time ago."
"I think most people in the jam-band world tend to acknowledge what a big influence the Allman Brothers have been on that whole scene," concurs Haynes. "There's so many musicians who grew up listening to [the 1971 live album] At Fillmore East — guitar players in particular. It's influenced a whole world of guitar players."
What's more, the earth-shoe set isn't attending shows simply out of a reverence for history; they're tuned into a band that is playing at a level of musicianship that rivals its '70s peak. "I've been involved in promoting Allman Brothers shows since 1969," Hart says. "They're a spectacular live band. And with the addition of Warren Haynes, it's an amazing bunch of musicians."
Haynes puts it another way. "The reason the current version of the Allman Brothers Band is relevant is because the chemistry is as strong as any Allman Brothers chemistry in a long, long, long time," he says.
That assessment is born out on 2003's Hittin' the Note, the band's first studio recording in a decade, and this year's One Way Out: Live at the Beacon Theatre. The two albums codify the strengths of the current lineup, which includes singer/keyboardist Gregg, Haynes, drummer Butch Trucks and his guitarist nephew Derek, bassist Oteil Burbridge, second drummer Jaimoe, and wiry percussionist Marc Quinones. The four-man rhythm section percolates with telepathic authority on the tight, sprawling "Instrumental Illness," and Gregg sings with a weathered grace on "Desdemona" and the ragged "High Cost of Low Living." But it's the interplay between Haynes and Derek Trucks that stands out; Haynes' blistering, from-the-gut heroics are deftly balanced by the 25-year-old prodigy's delicate, atmospheric shadings, drawing comparisons to the revered original tandem of Betts and the late Duane.
The albums find the Allman Brothers Band taking its familiar blues-based rock template into the 21st century, both as a creative outfit and as a live act. The band paints a picture of a confident ensemble that Southern audiences should have no trouble publicly embracing, perhaps even in an annual, multinight fashion similar to the Beacon run.
It's a scenario the band itself hopes can become a reality. "The Beacon is definitely the place for us to play in New York," Derek says, "but I think we're hoping the Fox can turn into that for the Southeast."
"I think it's something we'd all love to see happen," Haynes agrees. "Atlanta is home in a lot of ways to the Allman Brothers. I would love to see us do some sort of residency, at the Fox or someplace like that. That's when it's really fun, is to do multiple nights in one town, and do a different show every night. And all the fans show up to see what happens next."