Earlier this year, the Allman Brothers Band announced they were breaking up, apparently for good, after 45 years. On Tuesday of this week they played their final show at their venue of choice, New York’s Beacon Theater. Though I wasn’t at that final performance, my buddy Robert DeFer and I (we’re both from St. Louis, a hotbed of Allman Brothers fandom) did manage to catch the first show of that final run at the Beacon on October 21st. And yes, the show was freaking great. Here’s the set list. Here’s a YouTube of one of the songs they played that night.
Also, for the last few days Sirius/XM Radio has been rebroadcasting that final show on its classic rock channel 26, which I’ve been listening to in the car–Best Commute Ever.
The rap on the ABB is that they mostly only play their old stuff and don’t write new music. As embittered former ABB guitarist and founding member Dickey Betts says in a recent interview, they’re like an Allman Brothers tribute band. There’s definitely some truth in that. At the concert DeFer told me he was surprised at how guitarists Warren Hayes and Derek Trucks so often “quote directly” from Duane Allman and Dickey Betts, sometimes playing exactly their licks. I have to figure that part of the reason Hayes and Trucks announced they were leaving the band earlier this year, which pretty much forced Gregg and the rest of the members into agreeing to shut the band down, was the weight of having to play somebody else’s creations night after night.
That said, a few things. First, just about any band with a large repertoire winds up playing mostly their hits when they tour. It’s what fans want, and you can’t charge those high ticket prices otherwise. I don’t go to that many concerts these days, but every band I’ve seen in recent years–Foo Fighters, Cracker, Queens of the Stone Age, Presidents of the United States–does the same thing. Second, some of the best stuff we heard at the Beacon show last week was not old ABB songs but covers–for instance, they just tore it up on the Elmore James/Stevie Ray Vaughn “The Sky is Crying.” And as fans know the ABB has from the beginning done some of its best work interpreting other people’s songs. Third–and this is obvious but worth saying–the ABB is, IMHO but in the opinion of many many others, the best live band in the history of rock and roll. It’s the artistry they display live–the swelling and falling dynamics, the improvisations, the interplay among and between each other–that makes you feel like you’re seeing something fresh and alive–as opposed to seeing, say, a Stones or Who concert (not that I’ve seen those two bands live recently, but even 20 years ago when I did they came off, despite the excitement of seeing them and the energy they put in to their performances, a bit too routine, and now I gather it’s like Madam Toussauds).
The Allman Brothers Band we saw did not seem like a band that has seen better days or was winding down. When I took my family to an ABB show in Northern Virginia in 2007, my wife, who’d never seen them live but had endured two-plus decades of hearing me rave about them and had subsequently become a fan herself, was sort of stunned at how good they were. They were even better last week at the Beacon. Don’t know what to make of that, but I know it puts some doubt in my mind about whether they really are calling it quits.
On that point I’ll note that while Dickey Betts says he was fired from the band, Gregg Allman in his memoir insists that the band did not fire Betts, and a recent biography/oral history of the ABB backs up Gregg’s story. What happened instead was that Gregg and drummers Jaimoe and Butch Trucks wrote Betts a letter in 2000 saying the band was going to tour that summer without him because they’d contracted to play those shows. But Betts was welcome to come back afterwards if he’d get off the booze and deal with some other issues, like turning down his insanely-loud amps while on stage so the band could hear each other’s playing and not just Betts’ guitar. An arbitration session followed, in which Betts brought lawyers and conceded nothing, which led the other band members to bring in their lawyers etc. So that’s how it ended with Betts. He’s obviously bitter as hell and it doesn’t seem likely he’ll come back. But my sense is the door’s open.