THE ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND: THE ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND (1969)
1) Don't Want You No More; 2) It's Not My Cross To Bear; 3) Black Hearted Woman; 4) Trouble No More; 5) Every Hungry Woman; 6) Dreams; 7) Whipping Post.
«Southern rock» is often described as having started out with this album — brother Gregg Allman on keyboards and vocals, brother Duane Allman on fabulous virtuoso guitar, brother Dickey Betts on fabulous, but non-virtuoso second guitar, brother Berry Oakley on bass, brother Jai Johanny Johanson on drums, and brother Butch Trucks also on drums, the two of them so well coordinated that most people would never guess about their coexistence.
But «Southern rock» is also a term that does serious injustice to the band. Whoever coined it back in the day was stupid enough not to foresee the consequences — that the word «Southern» would rather be associated with Dixie and, perhaps, the plantator's whip, rather than something remotely intelligent and humanistic in nature. The Allman Brothers did come up with a seriously new type of music, but nothing about their synthesis makes it so goddamn inherently «Southern», except for the indisputable fact that most of the band members came from the South (with the sole exception of Oakley, born and raised in Chicago).
On first sight and sound, The Allman Brothers Band is merely another blues-rock album from a fresh team of American musicians, following in the steps of Paul Butterfield, Canned Heat, and the like; the fact that most of the material is original, generally written by Gregg Allman, is hardly all that significant, since both his melodies and lyrics rarely rise above slightly individualistic variations on common blues patterns. This may explain why the world was a bit slow to catch on to this new development — the record sold poorly, and it took the band's blistering (but also gruelling) tour schedule to patch it up.
On second sight and sound, The Allman Brothers Band tears Paul Butterfield and Canned Heat to shreds, scattering them along the road as pretty historical curios. These guys' purpose was not simply to pay tribute to their adored Delta and Chicago heroes, or to show off their naïve adoration for dangerous-sounding, voodoo-laden music of the past. As the instrumental introduction, 'Don't Want You No More', explodes out of your speakers without warning, it becomes obvious that the Allmans had been attentively listening to Cream and Hendrix at least as much as, and probably maybe more than, Elmore James and Otis Rush. Further down along the line, it becomes transparent that they were quite deeply interested in various forms of jazz from all over the last two decades. And, once you reach 'Dreams', it is crystal clear that they were all ears when it came to the psychedelic sounds emanating from San Francisco.
Another aspect of it, lost over time, is that in 1969, for an American rock band that did not specifically target itself for cult «proto-punkish» or «proto-metallic» audiences, the album was jarringly, abysmally loud and heavy. The big drum sound, the two overdriven guitars battling with each other at top volume, amplifying techniques that really owed far more to the fat, overwhelming sound of Hendrix than the thin, lonesome wailing of the Byrds or Buffalo Springfield — if this was blues-rock, no one in America really played blues-rock in such a defiant manner back in 1969. (With, perhaps, the lone exception of Grand Funk Railroad, who released their first record a couple months prior to the Allmans — not that GFR, even at their best, possessed one fifth of the dexterity and intelligence of the brothers). Today, of course, it's the norm rather than the exception, and way too many «Southern rock» bands have turned that loudness into dumb, empty, and sometimes offensive pomp; but even today, it does not take much to clearly draw the line between The Allman Brothers Band and, say, Black Oak Arkansas.
At the heart of The Allman Brothers Band is brother Gregg, twenty-two years old at the time but blessed with the ability to come across — convincingly — as a fifty-two years old, belting out heartbroken tunes about waves upon waves of soulless bitches who continuously let him down in the good old blues tradition. However, it takes the collective vision of the band to turn his relatively simple melodies into compositions of epic proportion: sometimes by turning them into spectacular riff-fests ('Black Hearted Woman', with more memorable guitar lines to it than a single generic blues-rock LP will ever hold), sometimes by imbuing them with jampower ('Dreams', which does perfect justice to the title as it is extended to seven minutes' length through a long, unpredictable, impressionistic guitar solo that could put Jerry Garcia to shame), sometimes simply through a series of build-ups and calm-downs and more build-ups that convey all the pain in the world ('Whippin' Post', probably the most well-known tune from the album, and understandably so — the joint agony of Gregg singing "Sometimes I feel like I've been tied to the whipping post, good Lord I feel like I'm dying" and the band imitating his feelings is one of the most unforgettable moments in blues-rock history indeed).
The album takes itself dead serious. There are no lightweight boogie pieces, no humoristic aspect at all; song after song, Gregg rips apart all of the shirts in his wardrobe and scoops out all of the ashes in his fireplace. This is the blues completely shucked off of its «ladies-and-gentlemen entertainment» husk, elevated to bombastic, tragical levels of Wagnerian opera — these guys were no purists, they came there to make «high art» out of the legacy of Robert Johnson. Some may find this a priori annoying; if prog-rockers were so cruelly castigated by the establishment for violating the spirit of rock'n'roll, I see no reason why the Allmans couldn't be «tied to the whipping post» for pretentiously tampering with the spirit of the blues. But in the end, it's all bullshit: just as Emerson, Lake & Palmer were doing their thang on one end of the spectrum, the Allmans did their hyperbolic show on the other one, and both excelled at it.
In a certain way, the band's debut has never been bested — subsequent albums would be more complex, diverse, and experimental from a «purely» musical point of view, but The Allman Brothers Band, all seven songs of it, each one a small masterpiece in its own rights, provides a complete, convincing, and accessible explanation of why God really put these six people in the same place, an explanation that has no need whatsoever to be repeated or rephrased. Oh, and haven't I mentioned yet that this record kicks major ass? Thumbs up.
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