Allman Brothers Band,
Live at the Beacon Theatre
(Peach/Sanctuary, 2003)

It is always daunting to be tasked with reviewing the work of a group whose work has been central in one's listening life, but both they and you have come some miles downstream since those halcyon days. In this context, then, we examine Live at the Beacon Theatre.

This DVD is a compilation of live performances by the Allman Brothers Band at the Beacon Theatre in New York City over two nights, March 25-26, 2003. To deal with the technical aspects of this two-disc offering first, the visuals are strong and generally well chosen, and the audio mix is clean and largely on target, though at times there is a curious suppression of vocal or lead guitar tracks in the mix. This would not stand out nearly so much if the general audio mix was less well done.

More than many long-running popular acts, the ABB has been through a number of personnel changes down through the years. From the golden age of the band, Gregg Allman is still at the keyboards and carrying a substantial portion of the lead vocals, and Butch Trucks and Jaimoe are still propulsive on twinned drum kits. This veteran core is joined by a masterful bass presence in Oteil Burbridge, Marc Quinones on added percussion and backing vocals, Trucks' son Derek on slide/lead guitar, and Warren Haynes (late of Gov't. Mule) on lead guitar and sharing vocal lead. It is these latter two gentlemen who bring exceptional technical polish to a band, which had nearly impossible shoes to fill in the form of Dickie Betts and the masterful Duane Allman.

Just a word or two about the general set. This tour was in support of the studio album Hittin' the Note, the first full ABB studio album in nine years. Performances were generally focused and uniformly accomplished technically. The backdrop consisted of a retro light show evocative of the Fillmore or the Avalon, which generally complemented rather than distracted from the music being played.

There are 21 songs in the regular set, and a single encore. As is always the case in these concerts, there is the audience expectation that the full catalogue of hits will predominate, and the desire of those in the band to use the show to advance new/newer material. This dynamic tension creates a potential for disaster, but in this performance, the skill of the musicians overwhelms whatever disappointment one might feel at not being treated to a cavalcade of All-Time Greatest Hits. In the case of the ABB, we have an ensemble that effectively began a whole new musical exploration a couple of years ago with the addition of Haynes and the younger Trucks, and it is noteworthy that such fire as appears onstage occurs almost exclusively with the newer material.

Rather than take the viewer/listener track by track, a few highlights are noted for special attention. Three songs in, "Statesboro Blues" is given a slower treatment than the original, but the slide work by Haynes is strong. It is followed by a cover of the old Freddy King standard, "Woman Across the River," which showcases a strong and bluesy vocal by Haynes. Allman next takes the vocal on "Change is Gonna Come," turning it into a blues hymn whose effect is only blunted somewhat by the flattening of the vocal in the second verse. Burbridge jumps up the first of several strong bass licks in "Maydell" and "Come & Go Blues," and "Rockin' Horse" features a syncopated boogie beat again fronted by a strong Haynes vocal.

A few songs later, the band makes its way through an again down-tempo classic, "Midnight Rider," and Allman gives a soulful vocal treatment to the newer (and appropriately named) "Soulshine." This eventually leads to the earned "Old Before My Time" as Allman wears the years on the road in every vocal intonation; it is followed by the up-tempo "The Same Thing," a Stax-flavored soul groove complete with hot horns swapping licks with the band. The strongest classic reading follows in "Melissa," as Allman again bares his scars and wears his pain in his voice.

This in turn is followed by the strongest cut of the evening, the instrumental blues/jazz jam "Instrumental Illness." Burbridge's hot bass licks propel the band into an extended session of head cutting, with Derek Trucks finally getting to shine a bit on his SG. This gives way to the slow-burn blues of "Worried Down with the Blues," featuring yet another strong Haynes vocal, and eventually takes the listener to the main set closer, a rather pallid read of "Whippin' Post." The encore is a solid but not particularly inspired rendition of "One Way Out." Oddly enough, the bonus song on the DVD is a backstage acoustic duet by Haynes and the younger Trucks of the blues classic "Old Friend," and it is given the most passionate read of any performance on the disc. It is the chief weakness of the concert that, for all its technical brilliance (and we still see in this iteration of the ABB strong threads of the ensemble once lauded by Tom Dowd for its extraordinary ability to move at ease through time and key changes, and fluid flows from one idiom to the next), the fire is largely banked. Certainly few know how tired the road can make you better than Gregg Allman, but it is sad to see such an exceptional talent so controlled, so subdued, so restrained.

That said, I still highly recommend this DVD as a splendid example of fusion technique married to the kind of performance skill not often seen in more "modern" ensembles. After all these years, it remains true that nobody does what the Allman Brothers Band does nearly as well, and that is reason enough to add this selection to their canon.

- Rambles
written by Gilbert Head
published 1 October 2005

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