Some people are just born to play and sing the blues, and The Allman Brothers Band are no exception. Originating from Jacksonville, Florida, part of the reason they were such a formidable outfit was the fact that they carried a bit more artillery than most other blues/rock groups of the time. Why have one drummer, when you can have two. Two lead guitarists? Not a problem. How many blues much less rock bands from the 1960’s were doing that? Not many, I can tell you. But it works. What also separated the Allman’s from most of their Southern brethren, was that they were one of the first to intersperse their bluesy compositions with psychedelic undertones, a fairly new idea at the time, and something which set them apart from their contemporaries, of which there was no immediate shortage of. And when Sammy Davis Jr. made the statement about Elvis Presley; “No, he’s white but he’s down-home. And that is what it’s all about. Not being black or white it’s being ‘down-home’ and which part of down-home you come from”, he could have been referring to any number of white musicians, not only in America, but in England, Australia and elsewhere around the world, all wishing they could be the next B.B. King, James Brown or Howlin’ Wolf. Such is the power of music to transcend race and gender.
Opening with the instrumental “Don’t Want You No More” (written by Spencer Davis), before segueing into the aching “It’s Not My Cross to Bear”, the Allman’s play with a ferocity and authenticity which belies their age. Gregg Allman howls like a man with not one but a few hell-hounds on his trail, while the rest of the members pluck, punch, and pound their way as if it were their last five minutes on earth. And that’s just the first two tracks!
The blues has no shortage of songs with misogynistic themes (although there’s a fair amount of misandry going on too in the blues community, let’s not forget), and “Black Hearted Woman” is one of them. But there’s no use in pointing feminist fingers, because we’ve all been there, and that’s why songs like this exist in the first place, and here they perform that role in convincing fashion.
Even by the late 60’s the blues was fast becoming something of a cliché (at least when the white man got a hold of it), however you’ll get none of that with these Southern chaps. Even on the Muddy Waters penned “Trouble No More”, you have to believe that every note they play is coming from the heart, and not coming from a bunch of accountants who just happen to enjoy playing gigs on the weekends in between their ‘real’ jobs.
Side two begins with the fierce and fiery “Every Hungry Woman”, and while entirely a band effort (when is it not), it’s really Duane and Dicky who shine the most, proving that they had a chemistry between them both few other guitarists could match.
For me the true highlights of the album (as I’m sure they are for many people) are the last two tracks, “Dreams” and “Whipping Post”. The former is a jazzy, hypnotic number, full of wistful slide, and excellent vocals by Gregg, who sounds like a man already in his middle age, suffering from a world-weariness way beyond his tender years; while the latter is built around a bass line that could have knocked out Muhammad Ali in the first round. From the start, the song just builds and builds, like a wind getting stronger and stronger, until it becomes a full on cyclone, devastating everything in its path. It’s little wonder then that “Whipping Post” would become a concert favourite, where the band would often extend and improvise over the arrangement (the most well-known example being the version preserved on Live Fillmore East, in all its 23 minutes of sonic fury).
Despite the blues’ popularity at the time, strangely the album failed to make all that much of an impression outside their beloved South (Macon, Georgia in particular), no matter what critics were saying. Regardless, The Allman Brothers Band is an accomplished debut, and one that would set the benchmark for many a Southern group to come, namely Marshall Tucker Band, The Outlaws, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Wet Willie, to mention only several out of probably a hundred others who were emerging or would emerge soon. And while many of them are still either making or selling records today, it is The Allman Brothers themselves who will forever remain the most celebrated and fondly remembered out of all their southern contemporaries (no small feat really if one considers the talent they were up against). This album is just as exciting and essential now as it was on the very first day of its release, more than 45 years ago. Not the sort of thing too many people I think will be saying about Britney Spears or Lady Gaga over the same space of time.