ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND: BROTHERS AND SISTERS (1973)
With the departure of Berry Oakley, whose bass playing is rarely mentioned in greatest-ever lists but who was nevertheless quite innovative, and a good foil for Duane, it became rather obvious that the powers-on-high were quite seriously bent on having «The Allmans» tone down their ambitions, put a stop to their experiments, and become a regular Southern rock band. Brothers And Sisters saw them coming to terms with their destiny. But still — what a band!
Of the two remaining founding fathers (if, true to tradition, we omit the drummers), Dickey Betts was left as the major motivating force; Gregg's contributions here involve writing two out of seven songs, contributing vocals to two more, and mostly staying in the background with his playing, as the role of primary keyboardist is ceded to newcomer Chuck Leavell. And since Betts had been the «traditionalist» all along, suitably complementing Duane's forward drive, an album dominated by his presence can have no hope of harboring even a minor musical revolution. Instead, the emphasis is on melody writing — and playing.
The key track is 'Ramblin' Man': if its quintessentially Southern sound bugs your sophisticated urban ears, or if its constant presence on classic rock radio has forever annihilated its potential (one reason why no rational person should ever listen to classic rock radio), Brothers And Sisters as a whole will hardly feel attractive. On the surface, it is a very, very generic song — exemplified by its lyrics, which intentionally milk one bad cliché after another; I particularly «like» the lines about "on my way to New Orleans this morning, leaving out of Nashville, Tennessee". But there is some sort of magical ambiguity concealed in its chorus, a hard-to-tell invisible hook, a subtle touch of sorrow in the "When it comes to leaving..." line that raises it high and above so many other generic Southern rock anthems.
And then, of course, it can be seriously argued that the vocal part of the song as such is merely a prelude to the purely instrumental second part — not a «coda», since it is almost as long as the vocal section itself, but a brief symphonic bit, with guest guitarist Les Dudek supporting Betts as he dumps the vocals and goes on celebrating the reckless joys of livin' on the road by serenading them with shrill, jubilant, overdriven phrasing, none of which is too complex, but each segment simply bursting with emotion.
On 'Southbound', a fairly generic blues-rocker given to Gregg for the singing, Dickey adopts an even shriller, crisply-stinging tone, and transforms it from a forgettable piece of filler into a virtual textbook on the art of making classic rock'n'roll into a feast for the senses. His mid-part and coda solos on the song have all the construction perfection — and thus, all the memorability — of an A-level John Fogerty solo, but throw on a bit more complexity. None of the live recordings of the tune that I've heard have managed to recapture or successfully reinvent the smoothness of the original; I'm guessing that the man must have worked out quite a sweat by the time he got that take just right, but all the more respect for not allowing himself to be satisfied with anything less than pure perfection. Honorary second prize goes to Leavell, whose piano part manages to rock nearly as hard — clearly, his presence was still enough to spur Dickey on to giving it his best, preserving the «competition» angle that had been so important for the Duane years.
If the guitar solos on 'Southbound' easily make my personal Top 50 or so for guitar solos, then 'Jessica' can easily qualify for the Top 10 most unabashedly joyful songs ever produced by mortal man. Written by Dickey for his newly-born daughter in the key of A major, of which key Christian Schubart once said that it is most suitable for "declarations of innocent love, youthful cheerfulness and trust in God" — 'Jessica' exemplifies all three purposes, with major emphasis on «innocent» (all cynics are required to log off now!): there is a certain unbeatable purity of feeling about this simple, honest celebration of the miracle of birth.
As «cool» as it is to profess one's love for the demanding, complex instrumental compositions of Thelonius Monk or Miles Davis, and, in comparison, dismiss tunes like 'Jessica' for pandering to simplistic tastes, I would never want to subscribe to that ideology. To me, 'Jessica' simply embodies every good quality that a meaningful pop music instrumental could want: from professionalism and technicality to meaning and emotion, not one second wasted on anything I do not «get» or «like». In terms of complexity, 'Elizabeth Reed' may be the more enduring Betts classic, but its mid-section is way too detached from the main theme — the song does begin like a stern memorial service, but then quickly disconnects into awesome, yet unrelated jamming. In comparison, all of 'Jessica' — the main theme, the little repetitive bridge bit, Leavell's piano and Betts' guitar solos — is placed along the same highway of delight, diverse enough in sonic texture so as to never become boring, but never ever straining from its primary purpose. Fabulous thing.
With these three classics, the rest of the album could have been Osmonds' covers and it would still command a fine rating. But there is still nothing to be ashamed of. Gregg's 'Wasted Words' is a gritty, slide-dominated rocker that easily ranks alongside any of his Idlewild South originals; 'Come And Go Blues' is a fine showcase for Leavell's flourish technique; 'Jelly Jelly' is a bit overdrawn, but still culminates in a series of ear-splitting licks from Dickey; and the acoustic country shuffle 'Pony Boy' is just a cute little throwaway to end the album on a lighter, less breathtaking note after the fireworks of 'Jessica'.
So Brothers And Sisters does not make a point of straddling away from the conventions of «roots rock», «Southern rock», «redneck rock», or whatever else one might be predisposed to call it. But if only most Southern rock had the same inspiration and talent with which the Allmans, in 1973, were able to assault these conventions, the world would have been one step closer to the kind of paradise that is so vividly depicted on the sleeve photos. It's pretty doggone sad that even for the Allmans, this paradise did not manage to last long. Thumbs up — and yes, I am quite ready to go on record with the opinion that this is the Southern rock album if you are only going to get one Southern rock album. Beats Skynyrd to pulp, and what other contenders are there?
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