The Allman Brothers Band – At Fillmore East

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The Allman Brothers Band – At Fillmore East
Released July, 1971

The Allman Brothers Band was formed in 1969 by brothers Duane and Greg Allman, Dicky Betts, Butch Trucks, Berry Oakley and Jai Johnny Johnson. The band was originally formed in Daytona, Florida (USA) but eventually came to be based in Macon, Georgia. The Allman Brothers Band have been credited for perfecting the Southern Rock sound – a fusion of country, rock and roll and blues, and a sound that is now synonymous with bands like ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd and is found in the works of musicians like guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, John Mayer, Kid Rock, The Black Crows, and many more.

The Allman Brothers band has seen many lineup changes in its long career, but the original band consisted of Duane Allman as lead and slide guitarist, Gregg Allman on vocals and organ, Dickey Betts also on lead guitar and on vocals, Berry Oakley on bass and both Jai Johnny Johnson and Butch Trucks on drums.  The band was formed largely by Duane, who had been working as a session guitarist for a music studio and began jamming with Betts, Trucks and Oatley. Gregg, who had been working in LA, was tied up in a dead-end contract with Liberty Records, but returned to Jacksonville at Duane’s persuasion.  Lastly, Duane called upon Jai Johnny (‘Jaimoe’) Johnson, who he had worked with in the past, to be their drummer. The band started out playing shows in the South, during which time they established a reputation for lengthy improvisations and their jam-style performances.

The band released their debut album, “The Allman Brothers Band” in their first year. The album was well-received by the critics and won them a small fan-base that continued to grow steadily. They released a further album as well as a live album in 1970, both of which were more successful than the previous and also gained critical acclaim. But it was their 1971 release,  “Live at the Fillmore East” that cemented their success, and would eventually earn them a place in the top 50 of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list.  ‘Live at the Fillmore East’ was recorded  over 2 nights of shows at the legendary “Church of Rock and Roll”, the Fillmore East in Manhattan, they were the last band to play there before its doors closed later that same year.  The band would play the venue quite often, to the point that they were sometimes cheekily referred to as (Fillmore East owner) “Bill Graham’s house band”. Their final shows at the Fillmore became somewhat of a legend, with the band playing all night and the show literally going until sunrise. Funnily enough, it’s not that hard to believe when you listen to the jams contained on the album.

Duane Allman was tragically killed in a motorbike accident shortly after “Fillmore East” hit it’s peak, achieving gold status. Berry Oatley died only months later, also as a result of a motorbike accident. Duane’s role was filled by Dickey Betts, Oatley’s was filled by Lamar Williams. The band split in the late 70’s and would continue a pattern of reform and break ups for the following 20 years, and finally getting it together in the early noughties.

“At Fillmore East” is most certainly not the album for people with short attention spans. This album clocks in at a massive 77 minutes, with the average song length at 11 minutes. To listen to it is, quite franky, exhausting. The songs are stretched out to the enth degree with extremely loooooooooong guitar masturbation interludes.  In order to be able to listen to this album multiple times, I broke it down into sections to avoid a) tuning out and b) stabbing myself in the eye. That being said, I must give credit where it’s due: These guys are real virtuoso musicians, and the album showcases their abilities to the fore. The unique use of two lead guitars (by Allman and Betts) played simultaneously to create a harmony works a treat, and became one of their trademark sounds. The band is so tight and the performance so smooth, that it’s hard to believe that it’s live, let alone improvised.  The performance on “At Fillmore East” showcases all of the different styles that the band worked in and around, including blues, rock and roll, jazz and country. My favourite jam on the album is ‘In Memory of Elizabeth Reed’, I like the Latin vibe and rhythm that it has to it. Not really my kind of album, but what an album it was.

Right from the opening shuffle and chug of Blind Willie McTell’s ‘Statesboro Blues’, the Allman Brothers Band have won over the audience on this exceptional live album. The distinctive vocal work of organist Gregg Allman isn’t the only voice here. Brother Duane’s expressive guitar playing, and interplay with fellow axe-man Dickey Betts, is as melodic and accessible as any lead singer’s chorus chants. The group’s instrumental tribute to Miles Davis, ‘In Memory of Elizabeth Reed’ showcases this focus on melody without words. Unafraid to stretch out their songs’ running time, the band’s jazz-like improvisational skills successfully follow the soloist, whomever that may be at the time. I love the awed hush over the venue when Duane is given the spotlight in ‘You Don’t Love Me’. The way the band try to follow along as he breaks into the Christmas carol ‘Joy to the World’ is indicative of how well they read each other. They expand the classic ‘Whipping Post’ from their 1969 debut album to a massive twenty three minutes by messing with the feel, tempo and structure. The crowd are all too willing to be taken on this journey, and I reckon the atmosphere at those concerts would have been amazing. Duane Allman died in a motorcycle accident only a few months after this album’s release. He’d been a session guitarist for years, working with music giants such as Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin. Eric Clapton also invited him to play on his Derek & The Dominos album “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs”. A sad loss for the music industry, this album serves as a reminder of Duane’s remarkable talent. If I have to listen to a slice of blues, I’ll take it with a side of rock and a whole lotta soul please! Oh, and having two drummers never hurts either; godfathers of Southern rock indeed!

If the 60s gave us Drug Fuelled Nonsense and High School Poetry then I think it’s fair to say that the 70s is the heralding of Guitar Masturbation. And boy what an album to introduce that concept. The Allman Brothers didn’t really have that much success with the release of their first two albums. Despite this they had started to garner a strong live following. Their strength lay in the long improvised jam, so it makes sense that they would capitalise on that with their third release being a live album. The heart of the band were brothers Gregg and Duane and it is evident that they spent many years before this point playing a lot of music together. As session players they were also adept at reading the situation and responding accordingly. It is this fact that allows the Allman Brothers Band stand above other bands of the time. Quite simply, they were bloody good at what they did. “At Fillmore East” is a beast of an album. Clocking in at 77 minutes over 7 tracks it’s not for the faint of heart. As a guitar player, albeit a very amateur one, I can appreciate the musicianship displayed here. The jazz comparisons are deserved and at times the improvising between band members reminded me a lot of 60s favourites of mine John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Having said that I did find the overly long guitar jams slightly boring a few tracks in. I can appreciate the musicianship and I can see why the band received such high accolades. The compulsory three listens however were enough for this reviewer.

What an amazing album! (How many of you saw that coming? All of you? Oh.) It’s not a secret I love me guitar rock. And damned if this album isn’t a stellar example of great guitar rock. I know some of the others struggled with “At Fillmore East”. They called it too long. They called it guitar masturbation. But this is more than just shredding. Duane Allman not only plays technically and rapidly, but his solos have feeling. This is best heard in ‘In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed’. The thirteen minute track features a lot of the band soloing, but the first part has Duane Allman feeling a Latin, almost Santana-esque kinda vibe. ‘Whipping Post’ was a great way to finish the album. Starting in an unusual time signature of 11/4 (coz why not?), the song goes for twenty three minutes, which would test even the most hardcore of fans. I doubt even Duane and Gregg Allman’s mum listened to this all the way through. But I did (because I had to) and I really quite enjoyed it. Even though it is so long, ‘Whipping Post’ is made up of several parts, each with a different groove. My favourite track is the bluesy goodness of ‘Statesboro Blues’. The thing that sets it apart from many other standard blues tracks is Duane Allman’s slide guitaring. This effort got the Allman Brothers Band’s version of ‘Statesboro Blues’ to number nine on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time. Quite a feat when you think of all the best guitar songs. I never knew much about the Allman Brothers Band, but now I’m making up for lost time. “At Fillmore East” is such a great guitar album that I am actually angry at myself for not listening to it before now.

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