Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Allman Brothers Band

For the past fifteen years or so, I have been much taken by North American music of a more rootsy nature, the musical sub-genre which appeared in the late 60s, and continued to flourish for part of the following decade. Into this category I placed the late-period Byrds, The Band, Little Feat, Creedence Clearwater Revival and others.

One outfit which had escaped my closer attention was The Allman Brothers Band. Because they were habitually categorized as "Southern Rock", I lazily assumed that they were of the same ilk as Lynyrd Skynyrd and its imitators. Only much later was I resoundingly disabused of this notion...

When I refer to "The Allman Brothers Band" here I am speaking specifically about the period in which Duane Allman was part of the group, prior to his tragic death in 1971. To all intents and purposes, this encompasses the first three studio albums, plus the masterly Live At Fillmore East.

In the early 1970s, there was a surfeit of groups offering a "stew" of various forms of American roots music (Little Feat, Stephen Stills' Manassas to name but two), but the Allman Brothers Band were ahead of the game in several departments. By employing two drummers, they instilled a funkiness and rhythmic depth to their sound, which set them apart from their contemporaries for a while.

The sheer breadth and scope of their influences is also sometimes overlooked.  Although the blues and country appeared to predominate, especially on the first two studio albums, if one listens closely it is easy to detect traces of jazz, Latin and even gospel. Sometimes one or more style was superimposed on top of others within the same song, to startling effect. "Whipping Post" is arguably a case in point.

Another strength of the Allman Brothers Band was the tendency for lengthy and outlandish jams to co-exist happily with more accessible and catchy material.  There were perhaps signs on the studio cuts on Eat A Peach of a shift towards more concise musical statements, but many of the trademarks remained, notably the contrasting guitar sounds of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts.  This, along with the keyboards of Gregg Allman, gave the group's music a texture lacking in that of most of their peers.

Although the original "classic" line-up was in place for a comparatively brief period, its legacy remains formidable.  The track "Stand Back", from Eat A Peach, encapsulates in three-and-a-quarter minutes all that was instantly infectious and compelling about the band, while the various live renditions of "Whipping Post" showcase their penchant for improvisation and extemporisation.

In their sphere, the Allman Brothers Band were unusual in offering a heady brew of gritty immediacy, technical virtuosity and often ethereal soundscapes. They are an essential reference point for anyone tracing the development of rock music in the early Seventies.

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