When it comes to the title of ‘greatest live albums of all time’ there is certainly no shortage of contenders. Whether it’s Live Rust by Neil Young; The Who’s Live at Leeds; Duke Ellington Ellington at Newport; Van Morrison’s It’s Too Late to Stop Now, or The Band’s The Last Waltz, the list just goes on and on. At Fillmore East could definitely be one of them. And if perhaps not the best live album, it is unequivocally the finest live document ever released by The Allman Brothers, so much so that I’d go so far as to say that it is arguably the finest LP of their career.
This was the band’s third album and captures the classic line up at the absolute peak of their powers. Gregg Allman (organ, piano, vocals); his brother Duane Allman (lead guitar); Dickey Betts (lead guitar); Berry Oakley (bass); Jai Johanny Johanso (otherwise known as Jaimoe, on drums, percussion); and Butch Trucks, the father of slide guitarist Derek Trucks (drums). When this lot were in full flight on stage, they were virtually bullet proof, generating enough energy to deflect even heavy cannon fire.
Culled from shows recorded over three nights at Bill Graham’s famous venue, At Fillmore East is nothing less than an exceptional journey of outstanding musicianship. First up is a cover of Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues”, where Duane shows off his considerable skills on slide guitar. Gregg supplies the gruff, world-weary vocals necessary for this sort of song, while the other members provide solid backup. “Done Somebody Wrong” quickly follows with some nice blues harp by Thom Doucette and high quality guitar by both Duane and Dickey. The band brings things down a few notches with the T. Bone Walker classic “Stormy Monday”. Allman and Betts swap solos, while Gregg Allman adds a little atmosphere on the organ. It’s easily the best performance on side one, and proves that these boys from Florida really knew how to convey the blues in a completely honest and convincing fashion.
“You Don’t Love Me” takes up the whole of side two, so you might as well just sit back and light that jangle, because you’re in for a crazy ride. Allman and Betts’s guitars conjoin and interweave like a southern Keef and Ronnie, while the entire song just rocks along until at one point the band pause to allow Duane to perform unaccompanied, after which things soon move into a more jazzy direction. While jams are often exciting to witness on the night, rarely do they translate that well onto record. This is definitely one of those exciting exceptions.
“Hot ‘Lanta” begins side three, and it’s a scorcher, with some burning organ and guitar interplay. The drummers keep the whole freight train rolling, raising the temperature even further, to the point where it’s amazing that none of the musicians didn’t suddenly burst into spontaneous combustion at some stage through the performance. However the amps are given a chance to cool down (for a while anyway) with Dickey Betts’s excellent “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”, which has a strong jazz-Latin feel, along with some rather spacey, trippy melodies. It’s on compositions such as these where the Allmans demonstrated that they were not just you’re average southern blues band, belting out Elmore James tunes every night. If anything this is more like ‘head music’, and at thirteen minutes, it’s just as dreamy and otherworldly as anything by The Grateful Dead, only with considerably more muscle.
Side four is where The Allman Brothers get to display their impressive instrumental abilities on the extraordinary “Whipping Post”, recorded on their first LP. At five minutes in length, the original truly pales in comparison next to this version, where for twenty-three minutes the group manage to pull out all the stops. The twin guitar assault of Allman and Betts is a wonder to behold (or hear), and is as momentous as it is unrelenting. If you are into long extended solo workouts (and you wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t), then this is the song for you. Some of the time signatures are also quite unique and brave as far as most rock bands are concerned (I’m sure that if Bon Jovi broke out into something similar the majority of its SUV and four-four loving audience would probably wind up in the emergency ward before the night was out). Whether it was the drugs, or the simple fact that people had longer attention spans back then I know not, but “Whipping post” is as exhaustive as it is exhilarating (especially if you’re hearing it for the first time).
While their previous albums had taken a while to catch on, At Fillmore East began to sell the day it hit the stores, regardless of their record company’s doubts as to whether a double album would shift as many units as a single LP, which is of course what they wanted. Sadly this would be the last album issued by the original line-up, as Duane Allman would pass away from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident only a few months after its release. He was only twenty-four, the same age as James Dean interestingly enough.
The band would eventually go on to attain even greater commercial success, but for many fans this album represents the pinnacle of their achievements as a live group. The expanded edition of the LP includes several additional performances recorded on those legendary nights, and is therefore essential for any devotee of the early Allman Brothers, in all their unmatched and inimitable glory.