The Allman Brothers Band: New York Stories
Following the tragic news of Butch Trucks’ passing , today we reprint our 2003 Allman Brothers Band cover story.
The chatter picks up as the car slows down.
When the vehicle lurches to a stop in front of the loose police barricades, three dozen animated stalwarts milling by the stage door on this bracing mid-March evening, turn their heads towards the two figured who emerge. The pop of flashbulbs and spontaneous light applause greet Butch Trucks and his wife Melinda. Casually dressed and carrying a gym bag by his side, Trucks could be any man in his mid-fifties heading to a workout, which frankly, is just about right.
He pauses on his way in to exchange pleasantries with crew members and a few faces he recognizes amidst the crowd. Some compliment him on the previous night, others hold up memorabilia for an autograph, as Trucks lingers and obliges. The vibe is that of a Broadway show on performance night, which again, is just about right. However, the Beacon is twenty blocks above the theater district and tonight’s intensity level will swiftly surpass that of Thoroughly Modern Millie. Trucks, of course, is a founding member of the Allman Brothers Band and while many of the group’s formative moments occurred in the south, its thirty-four year run is also a New York story.
The Beacon Theater opened in 1928 and one suspects that the current backstage elevator toted those Vaudevillians who premiered there seventy-five years earlier. It “comfortably” holds about seven people including its operator whose job it is to deliver his charges to and from several floors of dressing rooms that sit atop one another. Elevator usage is often limited to the band, family and insiders yet immediately following a first set or the end of a show, there can be congestion, compounded by the close quarters in the hallway and the ranks of concertgoers festooned with passes, often necessitating the crew to form a phalanx to guarantee clear passage for the musicians. On this Saturday night at around 7:15, the area remains quiescent as the grill closes behind Butch and Melinda.
Upon entering his designated sanctum the drummer drops his leather jacket onto a chair and reaches for tonight’s setlist which rests on a counter in the crumbling, cozy chamber (the room is about the size of walk-in closet- which may be one of the reasons that the band members breeze in so close to showtime, particularly halfway into a thirteen night stand with no need for a soundcheck).
“Looks good, but you should have been here last night,” Butch states with uncharacteristic understatement. The second set in particular roared to a close with impeccable pacing and a representative range of material from the group’s three decades. “Rocking Horse” drove into “No One To Run With,” followed by “Dreams,” “Into The Mystic” “Southbound” and the newly-named “Instrumental Illness” which appears on Hittin’ The Note, the group’s first studio disc in nearly a decade, released earlier in the week. Then, as the band re-merged for its encore, Trucks himself strolled to the front of the stage, announcing, “In case you don’t know, I am the guy who’s been hiding behind that crap there for thirty-four years…” He then dedicated the band’s debut take on “Layla” to the memories of Duane Allman and Tom Dowd, with the results meriting frenetic response.
Setlist duties currently fall to Warren Haynes, who first took on the task, when he returned to the fold during a trial run at the Beacon two years earlier (billed as “The Allman Brothers Band with Special Guest Warren Haynes”). This was one of the responsibilities that followed from a phone call with Gregg Allman and later a lunch with Trucks in the months after Allen Woody died. These communications took place at a time when the ABB was at a crossroads after its founders asked Dickey Betts to leave the group. The initial phone call to Haynes was something a soft sell although it came from a resonant voice.
Allman remembers, “It had a been a while since Woody had passed away. I didn’t know what he was doing so I invited him to come down, play a little bit and see how it turns out. If you don’t like it, no problem…” While he is relatively low key about it, Gregg also admits that if it hadn’t worked out “we might have just said to hell with it.” However, Haynes did return to revitalize both Allman and the band by introducing new material and mixing up the setlists, completing a progression that began with one stock list on the 1989 reunion tour, moved to a three list rotation a few years later and finally arrived at the full-on daily shuffle of the present(some of the impetus had originated with Trucks, an internet maven, and a steady presence on the band’s web site, who had discovered that younger fans in particular were attending multiple shows and craved such variance).
As eight o’clock nears, now clad in the Lycra shorts he wears on stage, Butch begins a brief exercise regimen, prescribed by his trainer anddesigned to build the lateral strength in his legs which is comparatively weak due to years of playing high hat and bass drum. These stretches expose the mushroom tattoo on his right calf which has become part of ABB lore.
“There was a guy in San Francisco by the name of Lyle Tuttle and Dickey had really started in on tattoos. So he would go over and drop acid and Lyle would just freeform on Dickey. A couple of the other guys were into it on a lesser scale and one of them, I’m not sure who, came up with the idea and said, ‘Man, we should all get a band tattoo.’ I said, ‘Nooo…’ I just couldn’t think of anything I would still want on my body at age sixty but they kept it up. So I agreed I’d get a tattoo as long it was really small and out of the way. We came up with the idea of this little mushroom on our right calf. When we started the band we did a lot of psilocybin and it had become a symbol of the Allman Brothers. So we all got into this hotel room in San Francisco and Lyle started tattooing everybody. I had a full bottle of Jack Daniels in me and that sucker still hurt—how Dickey sat around free-forming full of acid I’ll never figure out. I’ll tell you how much it hurt—Jaimoe that big old tough guy got the outline done and then made Lyle stop. Everybody else has all these colors in their mushrooms but Jaimoe has the outline and that’s it.”
In some respects it is quite fitting that Jaimoe received only the outline. Guitarist Derek Trucks emphasizes that the drummer perpetuates the essence of the band yet he remains enigmatic, his contributions fluid. “He’s definitely coming from a real pure place. I think Jaimoe out of all of them has stayed true to what the band is about, at least to me.He’s in a real unique position of being able to play whatever he wants at any time. But man, when he settles into his thing whether it be that Jabo Starks early 70’s funk groove or straight ahead, it’s a really unique way of playing.” Starks of course is an apt comparison, not only because his work with Clyde Stubblefield in James Brown’s classic collective proved essential yet at times unheralded but also because it was this very tandem that led Duane Allman to enlist two drummers when he assembled the Allman Brothers Band in 1969. The duo’s connection was immediate as Derek’s Uncle Butch defined the grooves and Jaimoe (born Johnny Lee Johnson) colored them. Derek adds, “He’s been able to keep his musical personality, adding his distinctive fills because he’s been in the shadows.” As if to emphasize this last point Jaimoe materializes from the back wall of the venue excusing himself from a conversation and easing behind his drums as sounds start to rumble from the stage.
The last one in place is Allman, guided by manager Bert Holman’s flashlight. Holman, who first served in a managerial capacity while working for John Scher in the 1970’s and later returned in 1990 (initially as tour manager) continues to take an active role on the night of a show, including the band introduction (listen for him at the outset of Peakin at the Beacon). This responsibility fell to Holman after too many incidents in which other individuals had announced the group before it was ready. This timing is significant to Allman who suffers from pre-show anxiety (as does bassist Oteil Burbridge). Gregg notes, “Starting around 4:30 I’m afraid that I’m not going to be good enough.People call it stage fright but that’s basically what it is, you feel like you’re inadequate. But when everything’s ready and the energy from the people hits you and the downbeat hits then those symptoms you had are so far away.”
On this night it happens as the band slides into “Statesboro Blues.” This Blind Willie McTell song is an essential part of the ABB canon because after Duane Allman heard Jesse Ed Davis’ guitar on Taj Mahal’s version, it inspired him to pick up a bottle of Coricidin cold medicine and attempt to reproduce the sound. Butch recalls, “I remember when he started he’d pull out that slide bottle and we’d all start cringing because it sounded like shit. It took a few months to where he could even make it sound like music because it’s not an easy thing to do, there’ a lot of technique. When he started it was all he could do to get through ‘Statesboro Blues’ copping someone else’s solo lick for lick. That’s Jesse Ed Davis’ solo that everyone thinks is Duane Allman’s solo in ‘Statesboro.’ Duane pretty much stole it from him. But that’s how he got started and he progressed enormously over the next couple of years. He was writing the book because no one had done this like that before and he was making it up as he was going along.”
At the Beacon the solo falls to Derek, who Butch asserts “is technically much better than Duane, there is no doubt about it. Duane was just beginning to touch on what Derek is doing right now.”
Sacrilege? The hyperbole of a proud uncle?Well before you dismiss this assessment (or deem it irrelevant) please recognize there’s a larger point here. Duane Allman undeniably remains the innovator both in terms of phrasing and approach. However, he only played the slide for two years. Derek has been at it for more than a decade with all that Duane accomplished as a guidepost. Moreover, the window for the seminal period of the ABB lasted only a bit longer, from March 1969 through Duane’s death in October 1971. “When I stop and think about it, it just blows me away.” Butch reflects with genuine awe in his tone. “We only did that for two years, 69 through 71. It just seems like we did so much in those two years, so many experiences. Of course we lived on the road. Maybe we took two weeks off but it seems to me that was a whole lifetime. We poureda lot of living into those two years.”
Gregg evokes some aspects of this sentiment later in the set as his clear, rich vocals carry one of the band’s newer songs, “High Cost of Low Living.” Like much of his recent material (and frankly Allman’s songwriting catalog in general) it is a cautionary tale, haunting in that it offers a glimmer of hope through the narrator’s self-awareness. Particularly now, when he is in fine voice and spirit, Allman carries it off like few others can, literally throwing himself into the song. As Haynes notes in the context of another new tune on the album, “When Gregg Allman sings‘Chasing a dream around the world…will make you old before your time,’ it means something different than when the average person sings it. It’s heartfelt, it’s true, it’s real.”
Both of these songs emerged through a collaboration between Allman and Haynes that has marked a creative resurgence for the group. A year earlier Oteil Burbridge had traveled to Gregg’s home for a songwriting session that ultimately proved ineffectual. Burbridge remembers, “I came to Gregg’s house with all these tunes that were finished but I don’t think that’s the same process that Gregg uses to write. ‘Too Many Times’ and ‘Check Yourself’ (which appear on the current Oteil and Peacemakers release, The Family Secret) were both written for the Allman Brothers.” Gregg explains, ‘I didn’t know him well enough, it was too soon.” Haynes adds, “It took until recently for us to settle into a nice writing chemistry because co-writing isa hard thing. You can’t force it, it has to work on its own.”
Back when Allman first approached the guitarist about working together in this context, Haynes suggested an alternative path. “I’d been talking to Gregg for years about producing or co-producing a Gregg Allman solo record and we’ve kind of written down obscure covers and so forth we’d like to do at some point on that kind of record. So when Gregg called me I said, ‘Wouldn’t you rather make a Gregg Allman record because you know if we make an Allman Brothers record it’s going to compared to Eat A Peach, Fillmore East and people are going to be say that the first Allman Brothers record without Dickey Betts doesn’t hold up or whatever. So I said, ‘If we’re going to make anAllman Brothers record it’s got to be really strong.’ And he agreed.” Allman adds, “That’s when I asked him where do you want to write your house or mine because we’re damn sure in dire need.”
Allman is effusive in his praise of Haynes, calling him “The Chord King” (“Do you need a bizarre one or a regular ol’ everyday one?”) However the first song of the current batch, “Desdemona,” came together while Gregg sat at the piano finding changes and melodies while Warren supplied lyrics from his notebook. Later, “Old Before My Time” began with Gregg on acoustic guitar while Haynes shaped and edited the resulting ideas. Eventually Gregg went off to bed and when Warren sat at the piano he found a piece of paper with words that Allman had written at breakfast (“There is a long hard road that follows far behind me and It’s so cold I’m about to die, chasing a dream around the world…).He incorporated this into the music they had crafted, expanded on it and presented the results for Allman’s revisions in the morning. “It took a while for it to grow on me,” Gregg laughs “because I had plans for that.”
Haynes and Michael Barbiero produced the ensuing recording sessions which to everyone’s surprisethe band wrapped up inside of two weeks. This equaled an ABB record that goes back to the band’s debut. Indeed it took longer to name the instrumental song written by Oteil and Warren in a Beacon Theater practice room, as two tours and more than six months later “Untitled Instrumental” became “Instrumental Illness (“I’m a huge Blazing Saddles fan,” Burbridge explains, “on my cell phone it says The Deputy Spade. Warren had the idea to call it ‘The High Sheriff and the Deputy Spade.’ I thought it would have been hilarious. Another idea was ‘Cornbread and Cocaine’ because someone asked how did Freddie King die and Warren said, ‘Cornbread and cocaine.’ Warren also came up with ‘Instrumental Illness’ which I thought was catchy enough and not too over-the-line racially or drug-wise.”). Of course the rate of recording also reflected the band members’ satisfaction with their efforts and both Butch and Gregg have pronounced it the group’s best work since Eat A Peach.
For an album title the group initially selected Victory Dance, drawing on a few lines from “Old Before My Time.” However it later abandoned the name, lest it seem like gloating following its arbitration with Dickey Betts. Indeed, while more than two years have passed since the guitarist’s departure, on some level he still occupies a negative space. This is not a reference to his demeanor but rather it reflects the efforts of the three remaining founders to cast a wide birth and avoid any further antagonism. For instance, while there is certainly an implication that the recording process proceeded apace due to his absence, no one is willing to discourse on this with any gusto. It appears that the era of recrimination is over and the band does not wish to dredge up past animosity, quite content with its current lot.
In lieu of Victory Dance, Butch suggested Hittin’ The Note which references an expression the band traces back to original bassist Berry Oakley. “Back then,” Allman explains, “You went and saw a band and when you came back the rest of the guys asked, ‘How was it man?’ ‘Fine’ ‘Did you sit in?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Was everybody hittin’ the note?’ ‘Yeah’.” Trucks describes it as “a night when everyone is clicking, where we’re all in the same place at the same time. When I’m playing my drums there is no thought whatsoever. I start playing, I start rolling and my body just goes. You get into a place where you can’t make a mistake, you can’t, you’re absolutely in the moment with no thought of yesterday or what’s coming next. You’re absolutely tied in to what’s happening at that instant.”
However, given the many personalities in the band and the years of interchange, even with the Betts matter put to the side, perhaps some internal strife was inevitable. In this case it resulted from the means selected to share those crackling recording sessions with the public.
One issue never in contention is that the Allman Brothers Band has experienced more than three decades of misery in dealing with the music industry. It all began with Capricorn, where some irregular business practices and an eventual bankruptcy left the group literally shortchanged. Later, at Arista, Butch explains, “We made the mistake of getting Clive Davis involved with our band and trying to create hit records rather than songs that came natural, which is what we were about in the beginning.” Most recently, the ABB completed its contract with Sony where it felt the company did not deliver on promises related to financials and promotional support (“I’m so glad I’m off Sony. You can print that.” Allman chuckles).
In reaction, Butch put together a deal that offered the band an opportunity to release the album on its imprint with distribution through his own Flying Frog Records. The royalty rate would much higher in this context and the measure of autonomy would theoretically mediate any heartaches. Initially it appeared that this would happen, however late in the game Sanctuary Records put it an offer for Hittin’ The Note. As Allman explains, ‘This other offer came in from Sanctuary right in the middle of it and we just changed our minds. It looks like its going to work out really good.”
Not everyone in the band agreed and the two sides went back and forth for some time, potentially disrupting the release date of the album that had been recorded nearlya year earlier and one which everyone agreed was a scintillant representation of the ABB. Derek comments, “I think me and Oteil and Marc Quinones expressed our opinions, not too forcefully because on one level we just wanted the record to come out. My gut feeling was if any band can do it on their own label the Allman Brothers had earned the right to give it a shot.” Still Haynes suggests that the issue is complex, “On the far left you’ve got the traditional record labelwhere the band makes a very small piece of the pie. On the right you’ve got the opposite where the band owns everything, pays for everything including promotion and distribution, puts it out themselves and reaps the biggest profit possible. And all the gray area in between is negotiable. Each artist has to decide what’s best.”
Ultimately that decision fell to Butch, Gregg and Jaimoe. In business matters the Allman Brothers Band is a partnership of three. These founding members each casts one vote when it comes to such concerns. Simply put, Butch’s partners changed their minds and voted against him to the drummer’s consternation and frustration.
The band members often refer to themselves at the Brothers and the anxiety that accompanied the label debate led some to wonder about the efficacy of this kindred approach. “I’ll go on record,” Burbridge interjects, “as saying benevolent dictatorship is the easiest and most effective thing. Democracy is a royal pain in the ass when it comes to a band. I look to different people. I look to Butch to lead on certain things, I look for Gregg to lead on certain things, I look to Warren to lead on certain things. I look to everybody to lead in different areas. But I wish there was one band leader who would just take the reins and say this is how it’s going to be done for better or worse because it just works better that way. Still, while I really wanted us to put the record out ourselves the vote among the original partners went how it went and I had to let it go.”
As the ABB kicks into “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” which closes out the second set, it’s clear that in this setting the group has let it go as well. Like its predecessors this band will be measured on the stage and in the recording studio. To this end and on its own terms the group gains high marks, as Trucks suggests that it may be the most proficient of any incarnation. He acknowledges this from behind his kit as “Liz Reed,” winds to a close and the beaming drummer delivers a wide-eyed if weary thumbs up across the stage to Jaimoe.
A responsive roar erupts not only from the audience but also from the wings of the stage itself, which are teeming with onlookers, as these are the Brothers after all and through it all a family vibe endures. Holman observes that the group has always fostered this community- “ I remember when Twiggs [Lyndon, early tour manager] was with the band he actually used to carry around plywood that had stanchions on the end so he could build a wall to wall off the guests from the band yet they’d be on stage with slots for the cables to come through.”
A legacy has been perpetuated as well, as “Statesboro” and “Liz Reed” the songs that bookend the two sets, both appear on the band’s landmark At Fillmore East. When asked to describe the Beacon, Allman jumps in, “It’s the Fillmore. It even sounds like the Fillmore. Its got one more balcony but then I always thought the Fillmore could be a tiny bit larger. It feels exactly like it, you just don’t have all the flowers and incense. Man, I loved those days.”
That era in New York in from 1969-71 set the tone for much of what would follow. Not only were the ABB’s March 1971 shows captured for posterity (on two records that a six year Derek Trucks would listen to at bedtime) but Bill Graham selected the band to close out the club in June of that year. The final night itself was an invitation-only industry affair, but on the preceding evening the band played well past the dawn.
“We finished playing and there was dead silence,” Trucks recalls, “the audience was as completely wasted as we were, sitting there with shiteating grins on their faces. And I remember Duane walkingby, dragging his guitar behind him, going ‘Goddamn it’s like leaving church.’ Somebody opened the door and the sun came in and the New York audience just came walking by, smiling and saying thank you. To this day I still meet people who say they were there and I can tell if they were or not just by the look in their eyes and the way they talk about it. Something really, really special happened. It was probably the greatest night of music in my life,the ultimate hittin’ the note.”
Back in Butch’s dressing room after the show, the topics turn to politics, debauchery and the permutations thereof (since the ABB took an active role in the 1976 Jimmy Carter Presidential bid working to refill drained campaign coffers he is on firm ground). Butch and Melinda are entertaining a European visitor who the drummer regales with stories of chemical excess from the band’s shows on that continent many years back. “After Duane died too many other things took precedence over the music. We got too caught up in the rock and roll fantasy and the music almost became secondary. I hate to say that but it really is true and I think that’s what made this year so special because once again we were able to get back to the music. Clinton said, ‘it’s the economy, stupid,’ well it’s the music.” The spare furnishings in the Beacon dressing rooms can be seen as a counter to the band’s excess of the past. Anyone’s limited pre-show consumption doesn’t run beyond a few glasses of Chardonnay or the sparking of a joint.
It’s Butch’s aching joints that may dictate his future with the band. When he returned to his Palm Beach home after the Beacon run, “I felt like a truckload of smashed assholes for three days. My wife said, ‘Well Butch why don’t you just not play so hard,’ but it wouldn’t be the Allman Brothers if I started slacking up. That’s when I gotta quit because then we become all those other 70’s bands who have gotten back together and are a parody of themselves. If I didn’t know we were out there kicking ass and playing with the intensity we played with in 69 and 70 then I just wouldn’t be doing it. When we put this together in 89 if you told me we’re going to still be here in 2003 I’d have told you’re damn crazy. I’ll be 56 years old and I doubt I’ll be doing this after I’m 60 but then again never ina million years did I think I’d be at it when I’m 55 or 56. Life you live a day at a time and all I can say is as long as we’re playing like we’re playing now I’m going to keep doing it. How long that is, there is no way of telling.
“I have this renewed energy.” Allman proclaims. “That’s what happens whenever you have new songs and they really kick ass. When you’ve been everywhere and heard so much and played so much, it takes a lot to blow your dress up like when you first heard Hendrix. I don’t know how many years are left the Allman Brothers, hopefully we’ll always play. Les Paul plays every Monday night at this club in New York. I would like it to come out kind of kind that. He’s 82 and he still hits it.”