A FEW MINUTES WITH… Gregg Allman
Interview and story by Don Wilcock
How many times over the last 46 years, have rock fans held their collective breath fearing that the downs in the Allman Brothers Band’s career would spell the end to keyboardist-singer Gregg Allman’s performing, songwriting and recording?
Not yet, brothers and sisters, not yet…
A year and a half after “the last Allman Brothers concert” at New York’s Beacon Theater, guitarist Warren Haynes has moved on with his band Gov’t Mule and hosting Mountain Jam; guitarist DerekTrucks is touring with the Tedeschi/Trucks Band, who played Saratoga Performing Arts Center last month; and Gregg Allman plays SPAC with his solo band on Friday (September 4), the last show of a three-month summer tour package with the Doobie Brothers.
Meanwhile, Rounder Records has released a 2-CD, single-DVD package Gregg Allman Live Back to Macon, Ga.; and Allman has plans to record a new solo record with producer Don Was, whose credits include the Neville Brothers’ best-ever record, Yellow Moon.
“I am writing new songs,” says Allman. “I’m working on some things to take into the studio in December. I’m going to be working with Don Was, who has produced the Stones and Bonnie Raitt, among many other greats. I’m very excited about that; the future looks bright, brother!”
Shortly after the Allman Brothers’ farewell show last year, ABB guitarist Warren Haynes told me, “Derek Trucks and myself have never felt entirely comfortable with there being an Allman Brothers Band without Duane and Dickey Betts. In both of our minds, the big two guitar players in the Allman Brothers are Duane and Dickey. So conceptually inserting ourselves in that picture is a little strange and awkward.”
Guitarist Duane Allman started the band with Betts in 1969 and died in 1971. Decades later, Betts was fired, and Haynes and Derek Trucks’ twin guitars have often been cited as being responsible for advancing the robust improvisational style of the Allman Brothers’ legendary concerts. About the difference between the Allmans and his solo shows Allman says, “The biggest difference is with my band there is only one cook in the kitchen, if you follow me. With the Brothers, there were three of four people with input, and that led to some drama from time to time.”
The ultimate diplomat, Haynes would never say anything about internal strife in the Allman Brothers Band, but he did seem to bristle about Gregg Allman’s firing of Betts. “In
the years I spent with Dickey, there was a lot of amazing music made. I left the Allman Brothers in ’97 based on the fact that Gov’t Mule was catching fire and really enjoying ourselves in a really creative and fertile time period compared to where the Allman Brothers Band was at that time which was really dysfunctional – no communications, no rehearsing, no writing, no plans to record – and I left the band.”
Haynes returned to the Allmans fold in 2000. Betts was gone, and the fiery young turk Derek Trucks was Warren’s new foil. “Derek and I love working together. We play great together. Our
relationship as guitar players was getting stronger and stronger and stronger, and we felt like once we decided to take on that task, our job would be to be the best on that task, but that would never change the fact in our minds the Allman Brothers Band was centered around the guitar interplay of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts and in that way neither of us looked at it as our thing. We were doing a job to make it the best we could make it and playing some amazing music along the way.”
On Gregg Allman Live – Back to Macon, GA, Scott Sharrad plays solo lead guitar. There are fewer surprises than in the Allman Brothers’ live performances, thrusting Allman more in the spotlight with some spirited vocals delivered at a show in his hometown of Macon at the Grand Opera House. “It’s a beautiful old hall and has wonderful acoustics,” says Allman. “Like a lot of places in Macon, I have memories of the Opera House that go back to the early days of the Brothers, so I love playing there. The Beacon with the Brothers and the Opera House with my solo band? The Beacon was something unique, and I loved it, but right now I couldn’t be happier doing what I’m doing with my band.”
Many of the songs remain the same on Gregg’s new solo package that features long, live versions of 16 songs opening with “Statesboro Blues” and ending with “One Way Out,” but guitarist Sharrard has a lighter touch than Haynes or Trucks. The horn section gives the arrangements a jazzier feel, and Allman is more center stage, playing some of his more emotionally invested vocals and B-3 organ runs in years.
“As far as the Allman Brothers’ decision to stop touring after the 45th anniversary,” says Haynes, “that was a band decision all of us have been talking about for about three years now, and I agree with that decision for that to happen, but it’s also a very emotional time period. We’re all going to miss it and this playing together and the majesty of the music. The concept always was when we see the threat of the band becoming an oldies act on the
horizon, it will be time to stop, and I understand that and agreed with it totally, mostly based on the fact that the Allman Brothers Band is a unique entity in that it leaves everything on the stage every night, strives to break ground every night even in some cases within the structures of songs that have been there for 45 years, and it’s so steeped in improvisation that it’s not a band that can go out and go through the motions and play its hits the way that some bands could and get away with it.
“I think we all kind of realized that, and it’s something going back to ’89 when I joined the band. It’s something that all the original members have felt for a long time, and it doesn’t make it easy to make that decision when the time comes, but I think the important factor here is the fact the band never reached that point. The band was able to do what it does up until the end of the 45th anniversary knowing that that time is on the horizon.”
So, is Gregg Allman an oldies act, or is he a survivor who still has the juice?
Well, I wouldn’t count him out. He sounds great on the new album; he’s weathered his brother’s early death, the death of fellow Allman Brothers band members, a liver transplant, drug and alcohol addiction, and the recent passing of his mom. The music is his steroids. “I’ve said it many, many times; music is my life’s blood, man, and it has gotten me through lots of tough times.”
WHO: The Doobie Brothers
WITH: Gregg Allman
WHEN: Friday (September 4), 7:30pm
WHERE: Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs
HOW MUCH: $35, $45 & $85; no lawn tickets are being sold for this show.