Devon Allman and Duane Betts: Brothers of the Road
It’s high noon on a Wednesday in late December and, outside a Malibu coffee shop, Devon Allman is sipping a hazelnut latte. He sits in the shade, careful to keep his arms inked with tattoos out of the Southern California sun.
Devon is in town to celebrate the holidays with family as well as to prep for his upcoming world tour. The return to the road follows a year off for the singer/guitarist. He has taken a break from the grind just once before, a five-year hiatus after his son was born in 2000.
This time, he needed space to deal with the other side of the circle of life. Late in 2016, Devon’s mother passed away and then, in May of 2017, his father, Gregg Allman, died after a prolonged battle with liver cancer. Devon canceled nearly an entire year of performances to mourn their passing.
But in August, word spread of a possible show to honor his dad—maybe in New York or Florida. A few musical friends would join him to pay tribute to the life of the legendary Allman Brothers Band singer and organist.
Devon got a call from his agent, who explained that interest in the concert had rendered the Florida venue too small. They needed a bigger place. A few days later, another offer came to play San Francisco’s The Fillmore on December 8, and Devon accepted. And, that booking set the groundwork for his current return to the road.
Born in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1972, Devon Allman was only a few months old when his parents divorced and, growing up in Texas and Missouri, he didn’t know his father. Devon’s mother shielded him from Gregg and his troubling drug abuse. The mid-to-late ‘70s were trying times for Gregg—he married Cher, faced legal issues and split with The Allman Brothers Band. It was on a car ride as a child when Devon heard “Midnight Rider” on the radio. When he asked who was singing, his mother said, “your dad.”
A decade later, Devon wrote his famous father a letter and told his dad that he played music. Gregg responded to his note, inviting a son he’d never met to join him on the road.
Night after night, Devon heard his father sing. He watched Dickey Betts play guitar and he even sat in with the band more than a few times on “Midnight Rider.” And he met and made friends with Dickey’s son, a younger boy named Duane—all across America, from the wings of the stage, the pair witnessed the awesome power of the re-formed Brothers.
Certainly, Devon was aware that Gregg’s notoriety would affect the start of his own career. He ran from comparisons to his family, using a pseudonym and intentionally playing music that sounded nothing like his dad or his late uncle, guitarist and Allman Brothers Band founder Duane Allman. But that all changed one day when some swampy, soulful notes carried an epiphany.
“I thought: ‘That’s actually you not overthinking or trying. That’s what’s coming out of you naturally,’” says Devon. “‘You need to do that.’”
He had a successful run with his band Honeytribe that led to new management and a question: How about forming a group with Cyril Neville? To Devon, the answer was obvious: It was a horrible idea.
“Then I thought of music fans, and how it would be cool to see an Allman and a Neville,” Devon says. “I called my manager back and said, ‘You’re a genius.’”
Devon teamed up with Neville for Royal Southern Brotherhood, and landed his first solo deal. For nearly two decades, Devon had chased a recording contract. Now, he was signing two on the same day.
He issued his solo debut, Turquoise, in 2013, followed a year later by Ragged & Dirty. Both albums leaned heavily on Devon’s love of blues and R&B; on the latter, he was even backed by members of Buddy Guy’s band. In 2016, Devon broadened his range on his third solo release, Ride or Die, covering a favorite tune from The Cure and incorporating straight-ahead rock. Then, the curtain fell.
“Ride came out. My mom died. I canceled two months of touring. I got back on the road. My dad dies,” says Devon. “I really wanted to play for people. When I canceled my tour, it was like canceling my medicine.”
The Fillmore announcement was more than relief for Devon. It was serendipitous, he says. December 8 is Gregg’s birthday, and the concert marked what would have been his 70th. A variety of special guests signed on to appear too, including North Mississippi Allstars’ Cody and Luther Dickinson, G. Love, Robert Randolph, Alex Orbison, Samantha Fish and Berry Oakley Jr., the son of the founding Brothers bassist. Perhaps most notably, Duane Betts also agreed to open the show as well as the entirety of his subsequent run. They also felt the time was right to reunite the Allman and Betts families onstage, agreeing to close each night with a joint musical homage to their fathers.
The Allman Brothers Band’s fabled and turbulent Southern gothic had it all: drug and alcohol abuse, celebrity marriage, breakups and reunions, hit records, forgettable albums and unparalleled tragedy.
The group formed in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1969, dissolved in 1976 and again in 1982, then reconstituted in 1989. Two years into their existence, Duane Allman died in a motorcycle crash at 24, but not before recording perhaps the group’s most influential album, At Fillmore East. A year later, bassist Berry Oakley, also 24, met an eerily similar fate.
With Dickey Betts assuming the majority of both leadership and songwriting roles, the band topped the charts in 1973 with Brothers & Sisters. In 2000, Dickey left after an acrimonious dismissal. Gregg carried on with the group until a ceremonious finale in the fall of 2014. Oddly enough, Dickey retired from touring around the same time. Almost immediately, rumors of a possible outing pairing Gregg and Dickey’s solo acts started to circulate and talks of a more formal Allman Brothers Band reunion also started up. But founding drummer Butch Trucks’ January 2017 death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound and Gregg’s passing effectively ended all hope for a proper reboot.
“Even though there was a lot of tension in that band, there was a lot of love and a lot of respect,” says Devon. “I think that tension fired some pretty legendary jams.”
Mulholland Highway is a road scribbled into the Earth out of necessity. There is little reason to build such a single-lane curly-Q, except to enable speculative high-priced development and Hollywood artifice—and provide choice locations for rock-and-roll photo shoots.
Duane Betts drives the circuitous route. GPS directions intermittently interrupt the cranked-up decibels of Peter Gabriel, then Hector Lavoe and MGMT rippling through his SUV. The guitarist resides a few miles away, but he isn’t taking any chances finding the locale the photographer has selected.
He started playing drums as a child, then switched to guitar. Dickey showed him a few licks, but mainly Duane learned from listening to records. He split time between Florida with his dad and California with his mom. His first serious gigs were as a teen with Backbone69, a turn-of-the-millennium Malibu band that included Oakley Jr., Orbison and the late Chris Williams.
“I hate that term ‘Malibu band,’ like it’s Beverly Hills by the sea,” Duane says. “What it was, and still is to us, is surfing under a full moon, campfires—more of a hippie place.”
He apprenticed in an extended stint with Dickey’s Great Southern, moved back to Malibu and, in 2014, fronted Brethren of the Coast, singing lead for the first time. Within months of zeroing in on a plan for his solo career, he got a call from Taylor Goldsmith asking him to join the folk-rock band Dawes as a touring guitarist in support of All Your Favorite Bands.
“That scene was really cool—the artists I met, the places we played. It was great,” says Duane.
When Dawes veered in a different sonic direction, Duane shifted as well. He had a brief summer run with Jamtown, a supergroup that included Love, Donavon Frankenreiter and Cisco Adler. And there was also a one-off with Gov’t Mule’s Matt Abts and Jorgen Carlsson as Bando, a high- profile sit-in with Mule at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles and even a cameo in a Javier Bardem commercial, jamming with the actor in a garage band. He also formed Duane Betts and the Pistoleers as an outlet for his original material.
“I’ve never been a solo artist,” says Duane. “This is a chance to do my thing.”
Duane pulls into the parking lot of a five-star restaurant styled in a tasteful Western motif. Devon is there already, strapping into his father’s ‘61 Fender Strat. Duane grabs his Gibson acoustic.
On a rustic porch, they sit strumming their six-strings, or stand in front of an ancient truck converted into a café. The camera clicks like a metronome, shot after shot. Slivers of sunlight knife through the pines. It is a few hours still before doors open and the old place is, yes, a proverbial ghost town.
Between incarnations of the Brothers, Gregg and Dickey toured together in 1986. They were both solo artists at the time, and the pairing led to a few formal ABB reunion dates. They would split the show, then unite for an encore of classics. Yet, it’s not a recollection that Devon or Duane points to as inspiration for their current partnership. For them, it was the timing, which is now, finally, just right.
“Duane and I have been talking about touring together for 10 years,” says Devon. “We have our own bodies of work. We’re not riding coattails.”
The six months of dates they’ve scheduled so far will serve as the launch of the Devon Allman Project. It’s the next logical step, he says, expanding both his band’s lineup and repertoire. The group counts The Voice contestant Nicholas David and Sheryl Crow veteran R. Scott Bryan among its members. About half of the song list will draw from an album, Full Speed Ahead, to be released through Devon’s own imprint in April.
For Devon, it was cathartic to write through his grief. His new band also tapped into a different energy, shaping things up by finding inspiration in late-‘70s rock staples like Jackson Browne and Tom Petty.
“If I’m taking a year away from my fans, I want to serve them up something that’s really exciting,” says Devon. “The songs have a sense of hope, not a sense of mope.”
Duane and his Pistoleers guitarist, Johnny Stachela, will utilize Devon’s band for an opening set of select covers and cuts from the younger Betts’ forthcoming debut album. They also promise the trippy visuals of a vintage Brothers experience, special guests like Fish and Oakley Jr. and a “tip of the hat to the old men” at night’s end. As for the possibility of a future band together, there are always thoughts.
“We’re going to have a whole year of being backstage and in hotel rooms, having days off to write,” Devon says. “I’m not going to say it’s definitive but, in 2018, we tour together. In 2019, we release a record together.”
The Fillmore concert sold out and, for the encore, there were over 20 musicians gathered onstage. It was the first performance when absolutely everything went right, Devon contends; not one missed cue, not one squelch of feedback. If they needed a reassuring barometer reading, then they got it.
“There were some moments that were like, ‘Yup, can’t wait to do that all over the world,’” Devon says.
“There was a certain magic dust in the air that night,” adds Duane.
The location switches to Paramount Ranch, an occasional film set inside a national park in the valley of the Santa Monica Mountains. The conversation is of a long-ago photo shoot with their fathers.
There were lessons from those days at the office with their dads. The job is possessed with its share of demons. Gregg’s drug and alcohol abuse stole a relationship with Devon for the first half of his son’s life.
“I always looked at drugs as so evil,” Devon says. “But, I’m an Allman. If I walk out of the bathroom in a bar and rub my nose, I just did a line. Automatically, that’s what is assumed. People love to talk. It is what it is.”
Duane is quick to offer his own experience: “Like Keith Richards says, it’s easy to get in and hard to get out. I went through my whole thing with it, and I’ve put it behind me. I don’t recommend it.”
A cigarette habit nags at Devon, but mostly it’s healthy eating and yoga, on and off the road. He paints, hosts vinyl parties at his home in St. Louis and takes in Cardinals games with his son. Duane pursues wellness, hikes in the Malibu hills and plunges in the Pacific.
Devon is enjoying reconnecting with his Allman family. He visits Los Angeles, sharing meals and memories with his siblings and with Cher. “She’s been really amazing, selfless and maternal. I’m so grateful for that.”
Duane anticipates being back onstage with his dad as Dickey emerges from retirement later this year. “I’m waiting for the call,” Duane says.
The sun fades. The long shadows return.
“If you are moving forward every day, that feeling of pressure from the past goes away,” says Duane. “It’s an honor to be part of that legacy.”
“There’s a sense of: ‘We got next,’” says Devon. “Hell, yes. We’re ready for this.”
This article originally appears in the March 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.