Oft-ignored classic by one of blues-rock’s finest
Just because one is in a band, doesn’t necessarily mean that one can’t break out and do one’s own thing every now and then. This is obviously how Gregg Allman must have seen it when he decided to record his first solo album in 1973. And while Laid Back is somewhat of a departure from his work with The Allman Brothers Band, it is no less engaging, nor entertaining for that matter. Co-producer Johnny Sandler was largely responsible for much of the LP’s overall sound, turning it into an extremely smooth and polished affair, very different from anything Allman had done previously, adding horns, strings and choirs to several of the arrangements, both to fine, although perhaps sometimes extraneous effect.
First up is a reworking of “Midnight Rider”, off The Allman Brothers’ second LP Idlewild South. Now I have to say that whenever an artist chooses to do a remake of one of their own classic songs, especially when there was nothing actually wrong with the original in the first place, I tend to approach such a practise with a certain degree of cynicism. However Allman pulls it off rather nicely, managing to maintain that “I’ve lived on this earth longer than you” sentiment, while the dobro and piano complement each other in a way that is both memorable and haunting.
The bluesy “Queen of Hearts” has a late night ambience to it that just makes one want to light up a smoke and pour another whisky. At the five-minute mark the tune breaks out into a lovely, but all too brief, jazz section, courtesy of David Newman (Sax) and Chuck Leavell (keyboard). “Please Call Home” is a plaintive ballad, and another Allman Brothers reworking. Although here it gets the full gospel choir treatment, along with strings and probably just about every other instrument one can think of. Personally I prefer the version on Idlewild South, where Gregg had a far more down to earth delivery, however just as with “Midnight Rider”, both reinterpretations are enjoyable, where fortunately the level of pathos hasn’t been quite so sanitised by the production. We change pace with the entertaining “Don’t Mess Up A Good Thing”, whose lively party vibe manages to get the blood flowing.
Every LP needs a piss-break, and “These Days” is probably it (no offence to Jackson Browne, who wrote it). A pleasant albeit forgettable little country number adequately sung and played but nothing truly memorable lingers in my mind or heart. Not so “Multi-coloured Lady”, which is one of the finest ballads Allman has ever written, and while the strings can seem a little saccharine, the overall deliverance is exquisite. “All My Friends” is another reflective and maudlin piece, full of gospel-inspired backing vocals and George Harrison “All Things Must Pass” era sentiments. Not a bad thing to be sure, but I guess I’m just not much of a fan of Gospel in general, in the same way that some people can’t relate to jazz (something which I respect but find rather weird by the way). Speaking of Gospel, the album ends with “Will the Circle be Unbroken”, where Gregg and all involved really do raise the roof off the Baptist church. It’s an uplifting, emotional number, although really not quite my cup of tea. But no matter, because Allman’s solo debut maintains the gruff with little fluff, and that’s what matters at the end of the day. Or at least after 36 or so minutes.
Laid Back may lack the meat and potatoes instrumental prowess of The Allman Brothers, yet it remains a strong and pleasurable record all the same, and one which Allman obviously felt he needed to do, whether due to tensions in the band itself or as a means of furthering his artistic horizons. Either way, I’m glad he did. Because this minor gem is definitely worth investigating regardless of whether one is a fan of his more famous outfit, or anyone who is simply into good music.