THE ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND: AT FILLMORE EAST (1971)
1) Statesboro Blues; 2) Done Somebody Wrong; 3) Stormy Monday; 4) You Don't Love Me; 5) Hot 'Lanta; 6) In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed; 7) Whipping Post.
Although this might easily be one of the five, six, or ten greatest live albums ever, it is fairly hard to review it without sounding like a dick. People who tear it down for the boringness of its long-winded jams have a point — courtesy of Captain Obvious. People who praise it, however, may just as well come across as art-brain-washed retards who'd slobber over any piece of improvisation as long as it crossed the ten-minute mark. Essentially, At Fillmore East is one of those perfect excuses for an argument that keep life boiling — so let's argue.
There are several editions commemorating the Allman Brothers' legendary performances at Bill Graham's Fillmore East on March 12-13, 1971; the 1992 version, The Fillmore Concerts, in particular, is longer and more informative (and, of course, even more excruciating for jam-haters), but since much of its additional material comes from Eat A Peach anyway, in this review I am sticking to the original double-LP. A double LP, that is, that barely manages to pack seven numbers in its eighty-minute running time. Whoo!
First, let us mark that The Allmans never came across as stage perfectionists. In the studio, mistakes were banned, and creativity was always controlled with the highest amount of polish; on stage, the atmosphere was loosened, and if you want really tight, blameless versions of 'Elizabeth Reed' or 'Whipping Post', my advice is to stick firmly to the studio originals. (This is in stark contrast to Lynyrd Skynyrd, for example, who always exercised at least as much as discipline on stage as they did in the studio — not that it makes any sense to hang out the «good» and «bad» labels on this).
This puts the band straight into the «spiritual improvisers» camp: the emphasis is on picking up small strands of vibes right here and now, out of thin air, rather than on reproducing the pre-existing vibes synthesized during studio hours. Stage jamming was, of course, nothing new by the time 1971 rolled along: every respectable live band that pretended to go beyond mere cheap entertainment had to engage in it. And at first, it is easy to take the extended duelling of Duane and Dickey for just another in a long, long series of similar examples, brushing it away with a «oh no, not another infinitesimal jam band» attitude. I mean — holy crap! — 'Whippin' Post' drags on for over twenty minutes! ('Mountain Jam' could easily spill over fourty). Overkill.
But, in fact, these jams are quite different. Now, the band's style is obviously influenced by such jamming traditions as, let us name them arbitrarily, the «Airplane way» and the «Cream way» (both of which, in turn, owe a lot to free-form jazz, but let us not get carried too far away). The former emphasizes psychedelia — the player is actually possessed by a pink elephant while plucking the strings — where the latter emphasizes technique, complexity, and elite-ness — the player is on a mission to bring intellectual respect to the guitar-bass-drums combo. Then there is also a third tradition, the «Who way» of doing it, which essentially says: «You can do whatever you want and for however long you want to do it as long as it kicks ass». It's a pretty rare tradition, actually, but it does exist.
As I sit here, listening to Dickey Betts wail away on 'Whippin' Post', it somehow looks like the Allmans, back in those good old days, did not quite fit in with any of the three traditions. There are occasional elements of psychedelia, when the pink elephants break away from the pen (as in the coda to 'You Don't Love Me', or the «chaotic» mid-section of 'Post'). There is obvious attention to technique, emanating mostly from Duane, but seriously infecting the other band members as well. And much, if not most, of it rocks quite aggressively. But none of this spells oh so clearly: «We're here to (a) open, blow, and forever change your minds; (b) show you how badass the vector geometry of our fingers is; (c) rock your pathetic asses to high heaven».
If anything, for me, it spells: «Say, why do all these good old songs really need to be three minutes long? Isn't it a shame? Why worship this stupid confinement to a particular time length? Let us just allow them to roll on for as long as might seem reasonable». There is really no mission here, no deep meaning underlying this need to jam. It's just a — why not? We can do it, so why not? If we couldn't do it — if there weren't so many of us, if we weren't all highly committed, well trained musicians — that'd be another thing. But as it now stands, what's wrong with it?
Indeed, I used to get bored a lot with the twenty-two minutes of 'Whippin' Post' — before I ended up understanding that I wanted to get bored with it, just because it was so long. But it is not as if this were some sort of ambient landscape: each minute of its instrumental sections is seriously different. First, you have Duane's scorching solo, all unpredictable jumps from behind corners. Second, you have Betts, more disciplined and rhythmic in his approach. Then you have the odd chaos section, with each of the guitarists taking turns to pull the band over to his side for some avantgarde trick or other. Then you have the second chaos section, where they even pull out a bit from 'Frère Jacques' (why not? anything goes). It's an exciting, intriguing musical journey — yes, it could have been shorter, but what are you, catching a train or something? (And, by the way, in headphones it makes for some great train voyage accompaniment).
It goes without saying that the same logic applies to the extended version of 'In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed', and to the twenty-minute take on 'You Don't Love Me', which grows out of its initial rip-roaring blues-rocker mode (featuring the most memorable organ riff of Gregg Allman's career) into an unwarranted celebration of all sorts of bluesy modalities. It never really feels as if these guys were playing these twenty-minute jams because they were expected to play twenty-minute jams — they just felt like it.
For what it's worth, far from every song develops into such a mammoth: 'Statesboro Blues' is gorgeous blues-rock at its most economical, Elmore James' 'Done Somebody Wrong' jumps around for less than five minutes, the instrumental 'Hot 'Lanta' explores its main melancholic theme reasonably briefly, and only 'Stormy Monday' takes longer than it should, mainly because it is taken, in a traditional manner, in an ultra-slow tempo. For these numbers, the band did not feel any desire to expand them, and it is easy to see why: all except 'Lanta' are traditional, and fairly generic, compositions that do not provide much incentive for the flight of the mind — unlike, say, the multi-part original structure of 'Elizabeth Reed', or the 11/4 tempo of 'Whippin' Post'.
Also, I would not go as far as the exclusive beatification of Duane Allman, sponsored by motorcycle manufacturers, but this is probably the best spot, along with his work on Layla, on which one could lay the temple foundation. Sharp, crisp, fluent leads with a proper combination of technique (Duane was a big Coltrane fan) and emotion (did I say that Duane was a big Coltrane fan?) and just a small, reasonable addition of «show-off-ey» flash to make his thang more blood-boiling than Clapton's contemporary efforts — plus, serving as a magnificent catalyst for his pals who, ever since 1971, had always struggled with finding the same kind of ignition (Wipe The Windows from 1976 shows this fairly well). If these leads are «boring», then so is improvisation as a whole, jazz and classical forms of music included — indeed, dare I say that if you do not «get» the improvised parts of Fillmore East, some of the least strained and self-conscious musical waves ever captured on tape, stick instead to your...
...All right, we got carried away. Thumbs up, particularly from the heart department, because the brain department usually endorses elegant formulae, and At Fillmore East, despite usually, and justifiedly, classified into the «roots-rock» stock, captures a glorious moment in musical history when roots-rock was about to shed its formula and advance to boundless, completely unencumbered free-flight mode. Cut short, unfortunately, with Duane's crash on October 29 same year.
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