Monday, November 9, 2009

Thoughts of An Aspiring Music Snob: Week 33 - The Allman Brothers Band

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

My initial musical tastes were formed by classical music, and as a result, I had a hard time for a while grasping the concept of a "live" album. In classical music, the notes are notated with such specificity that studio and live recordings end up being pretty much the same thing. Once upon a time, back in the Baroque era, there was room for some improvisation in a work. But as classical music has made its way to the 21st-century, it has shunned such elasticity and improvisatory elements.

So the fact that a musical artist can be a good studio act but not a good live one (or vice-versa) took me a while to grasp. I suppose this is the primary difference between the two traditions - classical music exists first and foremost as a notated score, to be performed with detailed precision. (There is some room for the conductor to make his or her mark in regards to tempo, dynamics, and the styling of musical phrases, but usually one needs some familiarity with the repertoire before one can notice these differences). Popular music, by contrast, usually consists of a chord progression and some lyrics. Not every note is indicated, and there's a lot more room for improvisation within one's performance. Popular music can have "live" versions and cover songs that, while still recognizable as the original song, are substantially different entities. Classical music can not do this.

I've resisted adding live albums to my listening, up until now. Perhaps it was because of my classical music bias, but it was also because I usually had too much listening to do without adding on more albums. However, with my pick this week of band whose live album is not just one of their best albums, but often listed as one of the best albums of all time, I thought it was time to give a live album a listen.

It was awesome.


Artist of the Week: The Allman Brothers Band

What I Knew Before: My mother raised me on a steady diet of classic rock radio while driving in the car, so "Midnight Rider", "Ramblin' Man" and "Jessica" were all pretty familiar to me. As a result, I thought that the Allman Brothers Band was far less blues-inspired than they really are. Those three songs turned out to be three of their poppier endeavors.

My Listening: The band has been active for close to 40 years now, but I chose stuff from their heyday. I listened to Idlewild South (1970), At Fillmore East (1971), Eat a Peach (1972), and Brothers and Sisters (1973). I listened to At Fillmore East every day this week; I listened to each of the other albums at least twice.

What I Liked:

First of all, At Fillmore East is amazing. Why has no one told me about this album before? If you were aware of the existence of this album and never told me about it, I have a bone to pick with you. You are all equally to blame.

As a live band, the Allman Brothers are amazing, especially when they still had Duane Allman playing slide guitar with them. They can play a short, blues-y song with a ton of energy, as evidenced on "Statesboro Blues". Or, they can take another short blues song and extend it into a twenty-three minute masterpiece, as they do with "Whipping Post". These extended jam sessions could easily be showy or tiresome, but they never fail to be exciting all the way through. Every note feels necessary, and most of the jams have an internal structure that leads to some sort of cathartic moment, as when Duane Allman finally sings "Good Lord, I feel like I'm dyin'..." at the end of "Whipping Post".

I like bluesy jam sessions and the display of technical prowess. I even like when Duane Allman can slip into the melody from "Joy to the World" at the end of "You Don't Love Me". I realize that the term "jam band" is sort of anathema among music snobs, the same as "corporate pop" or "smooth jazz". But the coherence is incredible - again, I cite the 23-minute "Whipping Post", in which Duane Allman and Dickey Betts play two guitar parts that mesh together the way the best jazz ensembles do. And these jams never feel directionless or meandering. The song, no matter how long, is always propelling its way forward.

Perhaps this improvisatory energy is due to the Allman Brothers' blues influences, which is another aspect I really liked. As I said earlier, I thought that the band was more southern rock in the vein of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Instead, it turns out that they are an amazing blues-rock outfit. I loved it. Here is blues-rock that doesn't shun its roots in the American south. Duane Allman's guitar lines are dense and heavy, yet simultaneously beautiful and pure. And Gregg Allman has the perfect gritty voice for this sort of music.

Have I talked too much about their live stuff? Quickly, let me add that their studio recordings are just as good. Particularly, pianist Chuck Leavell, who joined the band in 1972, can play a mean piano riff. Rock keyboardists are usually the black sheep of the ensemble, but the songs that feature him manage to integrate the keyboard perfectly.

What I Didn't Like:

I liked nearly all of it, so this category will be rather empty this week. However, there's no denying that the band lost something when Duane Allman died in a motorcycle crash in 1971. With the death of bass player Berry Oakley the following year, the band was without the glue that held its bluesier stuff together. The following albums, Eat a Peach and Brothers and Sisters, while still decent albums, trend towards a softer version of Southern Rock. It's fine stuff, and "Jessica" is a great rock instrumental, but it's a shame that we didn't get more of the heavier, bluesier music.

Other than that, these four albums are pretty unimpeachable. Ha ha! Get it? They're from Georgia!

It's been a long week.

What I Learned:

I learned that Duane Allman plays a mean guitar (in addition to his work with the Allman Brothers, you can hear him play with Clapton on "Layla"). He's a breed you don't see around much anymore - the redneck hippie. Additionally, he named his daughter "Galadrielle", after the elf queen in The Lord of the Rings. It's a very pretty name, but I wonder how she feels about that.

Looking at the bigger picture, I learned that I can totally appreciate and see the merit in live albums. I also learned that I really like southern and blues-influenced music, and I even have an affinity for extended instrumental jams. Perhaps I even like jam bands! (Though Gregg Allman insists that the Allman Brothers Band is not a jam band, but a "band that jams"). Readers beware: The Grateful Dead is now on my list of "Musical Acts to Listen To Someday".

Cool Fact of the Week:

"Whipping Post" was the original lengthy Southern Rock song that audiences annoyingly clamored for at concerts, way before "Freebird". The next time I am at a concert and someone shouts a request for "Freebird!", I'm going to counter by shouting "Whipping Post!" This seems like the sort of thing a music snob would do. Ironically requesting "Freebird" is henceforth only for musical amateurs and Philistines.

Further Exploration Would Entail:

In addition to their first self-titled album from 1969, the Allman Brothers Band has fourteen other album releases. However, I think I'd be more interested in pursuing their live albums and concert bootlegs from the Duane Allman era. If they all have the energy and talent of At Fillmore East, they're definitely worth a listen.

Also, I'd like to explore of this southern blues-rock, but where do I go from here? The Band? Lynyrd Skynyrd? These acts seem less influenced by blues and more influenced by country western. Any other similar acts any of you readers know about? If you give me a decent suggestion, I'll forgive you for hiding At Fillmore East from me for so long.

(Update: Since I first wrote this, I have talked with my mother, an avowed fan of southern rock. She recommended The Marshall Tucker Band, and the Outlaws, among others. Actually, she gave me a list of suggestions that is going to take me months to get through. I think she's happy I'm listening to something besides Beethoven or Kraftwerk).

Opportunities for Extra Credit:

The original Allman Brothers Band lineup used to rehearse in a cemetery in Macon, Georgia. Here, a certain tombstone inspired the title of "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed". Later, Duane Allman and Berry Oakley were buried here. As it turns out, I will be driving through Macon on the trek north to my parents' house for the holidays. I might take a stop and pay my tributes to the original stomping ground of the band. I might even eat a peach, while I'm there.

Best Song You've Heard: "Jessica"

Best Song You Haven't Heard: The 18-minute live version of "You Don't Love Me", which is so long that YouTube has it in two parts.

Next Week's Artist: The Talking Heads