THE ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND: IDLEWILD SOUTH (1970)
Idlewild South, the Allman Brothers' second and last Duane-era studio album, is anything but the proverbial «sophomore slump» — and yet, at the same time, it is hard to quench the feeling that, for some reason, the band was consciously trying to slightly calm down the raging spirits that dominated their first LP. Often hailed as the masterpiece, not just of the first stage of their career, but of all stages, it most probably gets that luck because it happened to put the Allmans on the commercial map — with 'Revival' and, a little later and mostly through other people's covers, 'Midnight Rider' — as well as hosting the band's most famous instrumental number. But on the overall scale, it is not quite as consistent.
In subtle contrast with the loud, bombastic, and daring debut, Idlewild South is really much more reminiscent of the generic image of «Southern rock». In particular, the country influence is felt quite acutely, e. g. on Gregg's rather formulaic ballad 'Please Call Home', which contains as much tormented-soul as that guy is capable of dispersing over four minutes — but that fact alone does not make it all too different from miriads of similar-sounding tunes that the deep South has produced since then, and not even brother Duane's tender accompaniment can salvage it.
The optimistic interpretation is that the Allmans are simply trying to broaden their scope: after all, loud, jarring blues-rock did occupy something like 80% of their last record, and with a little extra country and a little extra gospel influence, they now have a better chance to compete for that «all-Americana» slot recently invented by The Band. It is no fluke that Dickey Betts' 'Revival' had been chosen as the album opener. 'Don't Want You No More', with its immediate crash-boom-bang, was announcing the arrival of a new type of power. 'Revival' cuts down on the power aspect, letting us know that it is really tradition that these guys cherish more than brute force. Well... I'm all for tempering brute force with tradition, but do they have to rub it in so blatantly?
In short, it is not very uplifting to see a great band swap the experimental psychedelia of 'Dreams' for predictable rootsy country/gospel sounds, no matter how close those sounds are to their hearts. With an overall running length of 30 minutes, even one so-so song turns out to be fairly detrimental to the added effect, and here there are at least two or three so-so songs. Fortunately, the «so-so» does not apply to 'Midnight Rider', immortalized through its simplistic, but unforgettable acoustic riff and a little bit of Southern mysticism in the lyrics — beautiful tune, even if it never catches as much fire as its thematic follow-up three years later, 'Ramblin' Man' (which I have always thought of as Dickey Betts' «response» to Gregg Allman's «call»).
And, of course, there is plenty of the same stuff here that made The Allman Brothers Band so great. The pompous reinvention of 'Hoochie Coochie Man', with bassist Berry Oakley taking lead and all sorts of riff-a-licious embellishments thrown in. The roaring finale of 'Leave My Blues At Home', with Betts and Duane trading rapid-fire licks and the two drummers finally letting us know why the heck there are two drummers in the band. The sweaty swampy harmonica playing from common guest Thom Doucette on 'Don't Keep Me Wondering'. They all count.
But the unquestionable magnum opus — one that would go on to become magnissimum in concert — is Dickey Betts' unpredictable ode to an unknown woman's grave, one that has forever immortalized the simple name of Elizabeth Reed, whoever she was. Instrumental compositions modelled after the jazz pattern (theme, collective / individual improvisation, back to theme) were no longer news on rock albums by 1970, yet few of them, if any, had managed to capture the listeners' spirits so intently as 'In Memory...', perhaps because previous similar efforts usually came off more as technical experiments than musical compositions with a spiritual purpose.
'In Memory...', on the other hand, is wonderful exactly because its spiritual purpose is so firmly, but also humbly, engraved on its sleeve. It starts out almost like a Santana number: moody, a tad ominous, ever so slightly sad, then leads us through a series of signature changes reflecting various states of the human soul, with imaginative soloing from the two competing guitarists, a little less imaginative soloing from Gregg's organ, and a mercifully brief, up-to-the-point of solo interplay from the drummers. It is hardly «dazzling», but it is exactly its lack of dazzle that makes it so respectable: after all, if you name your song in memory of a deceased person, it does not make sense to use it as a pretext for firing on all your guns — somehow, you have to channel your talents into respectful servitude for the roaming spirits, and 'In Memory...' succeeds admirably at that. In fact, this relatively sparse studio version may be more likable than its drawn-out live counterparts, where the «show-off» element would inevitably come through.
So, despite the fact that lamentable «Southern rock» clichés show through much more explicitly this time around, Idlewild South is still an indisputable classic, with the strengths not just outweighing the weaknesses, but almost obliterating them. And, in order to appreciate it, one does not even need to subscribe to the conventional «Dead Hero Legend»: Duane Allman, whether you worship the guy or consider him overrated, is only one of the many significant attractions on this record, whose status would be well deserved even if he hadn't played one note on it. Still fresh after all those years — thumbs up, of course.
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