THE ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND: AN EVENING WITH THE ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND - FIRST SET (1992)
1) End Of The Line; 2) Blue Sky; 3) Get On With Your Life; 4) Southbound; 5) Midnight Blues; 6) Melissa; 7) Nobody Knows; 8) Dreams; 9) Revival.
With the kind of high standard that the revived Allmans set themselves on their first two studio LPs, there was hardly any question that they'd be kicking the same sort of ass onstage. Even so, the band's first live album in sixteen years (the 1979-81 lineup wisely avoided official live releases) manages not just to meet expectations, but to trump them — decisively.
Many people — way too many people — state their opinions along the lines of «this is some damn fine playing out there, though, of course, not quite on the level of the Fillmore shows». I would beg to differ — or even suggest that they might be deluding themselves, perhaps out of some subconscious fear of Duane Allman's ghost: An Evening With The Allman Brothers Band is completely on the level of the Fillmore concerts. Four of the original band members are present in the shapeliest of shapes, and number five is Warren Haynes, one of the most expressive Southern-style guitar players who ever lived.
The only area in which this band cannot beat the original lineup is freshness — compared to the Fillmore Concerts, these are expert swimmers showcasing their skills on a public beach rather than intrepid risk-takers diving from cliffs into unknown waters. But, on one hand, this is sort of understood, and on the other, both angles have their strengths and weaknesses. In terms of sheer musical pleasure, the Betts/Haynes version of this band has completely restored its former magnificence. Short songs, long songs, genre fiddlings, experiments, they do it all.
The setlist mixes new numbers, mostly from Shades, in with the old warhorses in such a way that nobody will really feel the difference: 'Get On With Your Life' is slow burning blues that is well on par with the old classics like 'Stormy Monday', and fifteen minutes of colorful guitar wanking on 'Nobody Knows' are simply variations on whatever it was that they used to do about 'Whippin' Post'. Best news is, the setlist has enough variety to save this from becoming a monotonous celebration of cool crisp guitar sound: slow blues, fast boogie, country-rock, acoustic balladry, psychedelia (they dust off 'Dreams', which Gregg introduces as the only song he had in his pockets when the band was formed), and gospel ('Revival').
I may have a minor beef with the band for its reinvention of 'Southbound' as a slower, funkier, more danceable rocker — for the first three minutes, it deprives the song of its usual kicks. But once the instrumental part starts, it's all forgiven as Haynes and Betts battle it out till your speakers start tearing apart at the seams. If anything, Dickey only got better through the years: abandoning the occasionally whiny, wimpy tone he used to have on stage, he goes for the same thick, brawny wail as Warren, yet the two's styles are still distinct enough, and the symphonic effect they achieve on the track — as well as several other crescendos, most notably on 'Get On With Your Life' — has to be heard to be believed.
Another major highlight is 'Blue Sky', turned into a veritable propaganda campaign for slide guitar. As much as I love the studio version, Haynes merely uses it as a foundation to transform the song into something twice as anthemic and celestial as it used to be; in his hands, the guitar becomes, at one point, a kid angel, at another, an exuberant little piggie, and sometimes both at the same time. Once Betts enters the picture, he plays with such precision and feeling he'd previously demonstrated only in his studio work, never on stage. Overdubs? I don't think so — rather just years and years of experience, plus being goaded into action by the first serious chunk of competition he'd seen in twenty years.
These remarks alone, I hope, will be enough to free the reader of the vain idea that he already knows all these songs, but there's more: the gorgeous acoustic trills at the end of 'Melissa'; Haynes' «slide nightmare» contribution to the mid-part of 'Dreams'; the way they work out hard rock bits into 'Revival', etc. By no means are these guys coasting; the Allmans, in 1992, were a full-time working band that made good use of their past glories, but never relied upon them as sacred cows — making First Set an absolute must-have; in fact, it should probably go on the list before that period's studio albums. Thumbs up from all directions.
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