BLUES & BEYOND: Still laid back
Tommy Talton reflects on Gregg Allman’s classic album and tour
Capricorn Records of the early mid-’70s was a hub of activity. Despite, or perhaps because of, the untimely 1971 death of Duane Allman, the Macon-based label was signing a plethora of acts. Many fell into the somewhat vague confines of the Southern rock vein (the Marshall Tucker Band, Hydra, the Elvin Bishop Group, Wet Willie). Other artists were supported by a talented backline of studio musicians whose names populated the small print in liner notes for both Capricorn’s biggest and more obscure releases. Out of this hotbed emerged musicians like Randall Bramblett and Chuck Leavell who remain active today. Perhaps one of the most gifted and least celebrated from this group is Tommy Talton.
Singer/songwriter/guitarist Talton was, along with his friend Scott Boyer, co-founder of the band Cowboy. The group was signed sight unseen when Talton’s good friend Duane Allman suggested to label boss Phil Waldon that he give them a contract. While Cowboy’s four albums were well received by critics, they never caught on with the public, even after sharing bills with the Allman Brothers Band and other Capricorn headliners. But Talton joined the label’s stable of house musicians, backing acts such as Bonnie Bramlett, Alex Taylor, Martin Mull, Billy Joe Shaver, Dickie Betts, and even the Allman Brothers Band on a tune (“Pony Boy,” off Brothers and Sisters. When Gregg Allman decided to record Laid Back, his first and arguably finest solo album in 1973, Talton was a key member of the studio group who not only contributed to the studio disc but was a major contributor to the following year’s sprawling tour.
Both the Laid Back and The Gregg Allman Tour albums have recently been remastered and reissued. The deluxe Laid Back is expanded to a double set augmented with a clutch of demos, outtakes, alternate/early mixes, rehearsals rescued from the vaults, and a voluminous, detailed essay. The Gregg Allman Tour is available for the first time in 30 years on double vinyl lacking any extras.
Talton, who now lives in Marietta after spending time in Europe, has remained musically active since those mid-’70s glory days, having recorded three excellent discs since 2012 and playing sporadic shows. Talton’s friendship with Duane Allman was, not surprisingly, a significant influence on his playing style, especially on slide guitar. The fact that the younger Allman chose Talton as the only lead electric guitarist on his first solo tour when he had the pick of the best players speaks volumes about Talton’s abilities. “[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[Duane and I] were pretty close and were hanging out and playing together so it kind of naturally happened,” Talton says.
The electrifying live version of “Dreams” from the concert, with Talton taking Duane’s slide parts, leaves no doubt as to how powerful and classy a guitarist the Cowboy frontman was.
Talton’s input to some noteworthy selections from Laid Back was essential. For “Multicolored Lady,” he says, “We had the track and the arrangement ready to go, but we didn’t have a beginning. So the producer, Johnny Sandlin, said to me, ‘Tommy, start us off.’ That’s me playing the acoustic guitar intro that pulls everyone into the song. Johnny had the idea to fade it in.”
Talton was responsible for the dark, swampy slide on Allman’s emotional remake of “Midnight Rider” that opened the disc and defined its easy going tone.
He remembers the subsequent tour as divided into two parts, one was “doing 35 cities in 50 days. We went from Rhode Island to Seattle and everywhere in between.”
The entourage was a full 24-piece “orchestra” with five horns, three backing vocalists, strings, and two drummers enhancing the Cowboy lineup powered by Talton, Boyer, and drummer Bill Stewart. How this bulky ensemble made money is anyone’s guess, but it’s not something that could probably be done today without charging outrageous ticket prices.
What you hear on the album is how the show transpired with Cowboy’s performance opening the second half of the show. But Talton is frustrated that the current reissue does not include his band’s full set, which was about 45 minutes long. “The record company didn’t want to spend the money it would take to add more Cowboy songs. Quite frankly, a lot of people who saw the show say the Cowboy stuff was the high moments of the concert.”
Talton, who has recently been slowed by health issues, has kept the tour and album’s spirit alive as a participant in a handful of Laid Back Legacy Band gigs. These include original members Bramblett and drummer Stewart.
“When they asked me, I didn’t feel like it was right at first,” Talton says. “I didn’t want to be involved in anything called a tribute band. I talked to Gregg’s right-hand man Chank Middleton, who said ‘You’re the best to keep Gregg’s legacy alive.’ Plus we took some of the money from the gigs and gave it to the Gregg Allman Music Fund at the University of Georgia,” he says.
Talton wants to keep those legacy recreations limited and special, but there are no future scheduled dates at this time.
The initial concert’s musical arrangements were carefully structured, in contrast to the jamming qualities of a typical Allman Brothers Band gig.
“When you’ve got all those people reading their parts, there is no room for improvisation. You have to stick to the program,” Talton says. “It was a show, like an old James Brown or R&B revue. But each night had its own moments.”
Musically, both albums have stayed resilient, sounding as fresh and inspired on these reissues as when they were first released over 45 years ago. It’s a testament to not only Allman’s vision but the inspired playing of Tommy Talton and Cowboy, among others, who helped craft and refine these songs and performances which stand the test of time.
The summer may be winding down, but there are still plenty of hot show highlights in September.
Fri., Sept. 6
— Nick Moss, Dennis Gruenling, Blind Willie’s. Guitarist Moss has evolved (slightly) from his once-strict Chicago blues to incorporate a more contemporary, i.e., rocking approach, but still keeps things close to the bone. Harpist Gruenling is one of the finest in the business, and the combination guarantees a sweat-soaked evening of pure rollicking blues.
Sun., Sept. 8
— Shemekia Copeland, Chattahoochee Nature Center-Roswell. The daughter of famed blues guitarist Johnny Copeland began her solo career as a blues belter in the Koko Taylor style. She has since expanded her vision to become a soulful singer/songwriter informed by blues and gospel and unafraid to tackle contemporary issues, especially on 2018’s powerfully political America’s Child.
— Amy LaVere/Will Sexton, Eddie’s Attic. Memphis stand-up bassist/singer-songwriter LaVere and guitar-slinging husband Sexton have been a formidable duo for a while, both with and without their Motel Mirrors band. The couple’s music is stripped down but uplifting, and LaVere’s scratchy vocals bring honesty and integrity to everything she sings.
Wed., Sept. 11
— Buddy Guy, Symphony Hall. Guitarist Guy picked up the veteran mantle after B.B. King’s death. Even though his style hits harder, he remains the oldest and most well-respected old-school bluesman still out on the road and recording new albums. Long may he run.
Thurs., Sept. 12
— Daddy Long Legs, EARL. This punk blues trio gets down and dirty with raw swamp music played with a dangerous edge. Tough and unapologetically grimy, they hit hard with more than a little Cramps to their attack.
Thurs., Sept. 19
— Seratones, EARL. Dynamic frontwoman AJ Haynes leads this gutsy group through their garage rocking soul moves with power, class, and intensity. Music from the band’s just-released Power sophomore album will dominate this high-energy show.
Fri., Sept. 20
— Rhiannon Giddens, City Winery. The ex-Carolina Chocolate Drops frontwoman strips down her sound even more as she and fellow multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi return to their folk/blues/gospel roots on a tour supporting their recently released there is no Other. Like the album, this music is emotional and riveting, especially when Giddens lets loose with her operatic vocals.
— Chris O’Leary, Blind Willie’s. O’Leary first gained attention for his seven-year stint backing The Band’s Levon Helm. Since Helm’s death, he has released three tough albums of gutsy, swampy blues rock led by his gritty vocals, grinding harp playing, and some seriously greasy songs.
— Grayson Capps, Eddie’s Attic. It’s unclear why Capps’ distinctive, husky voice and rugged, literate, predominantly electric folk blues haven’t caught fire with either singer/songwriter or blues fans. But the member of the occasional roots supergroup of sorts, Willie Sugarcapps, has been cranking them out with tough backing bands for decades and always delivers live.
Fri. through Sun., Sept. 20-22
— GABBAfest 2019, various locations, Macon, GA. The Georgia Allman Brothers Band Association, who has helped preserve Georgia's ABB history since the early 1990s, honors 50 years of the Allman Brothers Band. Lots of live music plus trips to the Big House and other Macon landmarks fill in the blanks for Brothers’ fans who will obviously be out in force. Find details at www.gabbafest.org.
Sat., Sept. 21
— Reverend Horton Heat, Madlife Stage & Studios, Woodstock. The rockem-sockem Rev. takes a break from his high-octane punkabilly to unplug and go solo as headliner for this Alzheimer’s benefit. Bluesy locals Donna Hopkins, Lefty Williams, Ralph Roddenberry, and Gurufish share the bill.
— Blue Ridge Blues & BBQ Festival, Blue Ridge, GA. The Chris O’Leary Band takes I-575 north to Blue Ridge after their Blind Willie’s date the night before to headline this outdoor blues festival. Locals Men in Blues and Frankie’s Blues Mission also appear. It’s a child-friendly event (free under 12), so get your kids away from those videogames and introduce them to the blues in this fun, sociable environment.
Wed., Sept. 25
— Justin Peter Kinkel-Shuster, 529. The Arkansas singer-songwriter’s name may be a mouthful, but his tough, strummy Americana songs go down easy. His best songs take flight à la Tom Petty, with a perfect storm of thoughtful lyrics, soaring melodies, and catchy choruses.
Wed., Oct. 2
— Jonah Tolchin, Eddie’s Attic. New Jersey singer/songwriter Tolchin started as a bluesman, then widened his vision to write touching rootsy music with darker Delta strains. He’ll be playing tracks from a new album, Fires for the Cold, that includes a moving, raw version of Lowell George’s “Roll Um Easy.”
— John Medeski’s Mad Skillet, Terminal West. Jazz keyboardist Medeski goes New Orleans in a big way, employing the rhythm section of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band to power his quartet through their heavy funk. The groove is deep and heavy with jazz, blues, and experimental jabs punching through the Crescent City vibe.
Send upcoming blues events to CL’s Blues & Beyond concert calendar at firstname.lastname@example.org.