THE ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND: HITTIN' THE NOTE (2003)
1) Firing Line; 2) High Cost Of Low Living; 3) Desdemona; 4) Woman Across The River; 5) Old Before My Time; 6) Who To Believe; 7) Maydelle; 8) Rockin' Horse; 9) Heart Of Stone; 10) Instrumental Illness; 11) Old Friend.
Fortunately for all, the Allmans' latest streak of bad luck took less time and less toll on the band than earlier ones. By 2001, Warren Haynes had learnt to doubletrack, and so regained the status of a full-fledged Allman Brother. The balance was now restored; with the band once again featuring a monster twin-guitar attack as its main point of interest, they had a good chance of taking the Allman Brothers' legacy into the 21st century — and, sure enough, they didn't miss it.
Comparisons between the Haynes/Trucks and Duane/Dickey pairings are as inevitable as they are pointless, because all four guitarists have fairly individual styles. Trucks may occasionally «quote» from Duane, and Haynes may sometimes try to replicate some of Betts' Southern geometry, but neither of the two players could in any way be regarded as «reincarnations» — exalted cries of «Duane lives on through Dereck's playing!» should rather be treated as expressions of justified respect for Dereck's contributions than even semi-literal truths. But, obviously, this is a major advantage rather than flaw: the fact that these guys, with their own styles of playing, still make the final result seem like a natural, easy-going progression from the classic ABB sound, serve to confirm the band's exceptional status — ahead of the pack in 1969, still way ahead of the same pack in 2003, no mean feat considering how huge the pack has become since then. (The only other example of a similar late-period revitalization I can think of at the moment is Deep Purple, a band that, likewise, gained a new, fresh future from a smart lineup change).
The first and, for now, latest Haynes/Trucks-lineup studio LP, aptly titled Hittin' The Note, got no less than slobbering rave reviews from pretty much every critic alive — and there is no reason for any of us amateur evaluators to play it differently for the sake of being different. I do not know if it is really «better» than Seven Turns and the like, or how tall it stands in comparison to the Brothers' classic original output, but as far as energetic, heartfelt, and intelligent roots-rock can actually go in 2003, it certainly goes there — and then, just a little bit beyond, so that nobody could open his big mouth and say «Well, it's awful good, although, naturally, quite formulaic, so if you like good old Southern rock, grab this some time before your paycheck runs out».
Of course, you needn't expect any jaw-drop marvels of songwriting. Their oddball (but wonderfully sweet) inclusion of 'Heart Of Stone' states this explicitly: «Mick and Keith — there's two great songwriters for you. We suck in comparison. But we can still blow 'em off the air any time of day». The material is standard fare — some fiery blues-rock to crispen up your day, some soulful balladry to soothe the spirit, some on-the-spot experimentation to keep the brain busy and the finger nerves well-trained. But that's how it would be on paper. With the talents pooled together for these sessions, and the clearly seen determination to pull it through no matter what, they could record an album of Barry Manilow covers, and still come up with a winner.
Actually, I must say that it's a big relief to see Trucks and Haynes constantly play off each other. Dereck is truly a magnificent, unique musician, but the fact that he always sticks to his sliding style makes it all a bit monotonous. Usually, as befits a traditional blues-rocker, he takes his time to get to the searing/soaring parts, and even if each individual solo culminates in near-psychedelic ecstasy, at least the early parts eventually start coming off as too predictable. The same can be said about Haynes, whose «normal» sound we have already studied to bits on his 1990s records for both the Allmans and Gov't Mule; he has not added much to it since then.
So it is the matching of the two styles that is Hittin' The Note's biggest attraction. On most of the tunes, true lightning strikes not when the two players are taking turns, but when they join together in a smorgasbord of sounds such as you never heard before on any Allmans' record. With Haynes' six-string all but choking on the amount of sonic venom it regurgitates, and Trucks' slide thing buzzing and stinging all over the surrounding space, it's a hell of a charge on the senses. It doesn't arrive too often, but watch out for it — for instance, during the final minutes of 'Woman Across The River', a song that would justify the existence of this seventy-plus-minute-long record on its own. Fortunately for us, there isn't really a single bad track anywhere in sight.
To be completely fair, one should also mention the damn fine form Gregg Allman is in — it is his presence, after all, that continues to provide the band with legitimacy after all these years, and justifies their not having, as of yet, changed the name to «The Trucks Family Band». Not only does he receive a grand five co-writing credits on here (an absolute record since the 1969 debut!), but his singing also had not been so bravely upfront in almost as many years. And now, finally, his age matches his pathos: 'Old Before My Time' is a heartbreaking confession of a man looking down — in horror! — at all the different ways in which his life has been wasted, so aching and sincere that it could depress the living hell out of anyone... had that been its purpose — in reality, 'Old Before My Time' is a sad, but optimistic tune for somebody who has finally come to terms with himself. No two opinions about it, Mr. Allman: you may well have been «old before your time» back in 1970 or even 1979, but now you are exactly as old as your time requires of you.
Thus, with the two guitarists crackling a seemingly endless storehouse of fireworks and the singer adding his stately touch to ballads and rockers alike, Hittin' The Note truly never feels overlong for one bit. The twelve-minute jam 'Instrumental Illness' may be just a bit overdone, but the same things I used to say about the jam length in the Dickey/Duane period apply here as well — they go when they feel like going, and they stop when they feel they have really got nothing left to say. And even if the individual songs may feel underwritten, most at least have a line, a chord change, an odd gimmick or two to hold attention. Such as the ridiculously kiddie-like riff that opens and drives 'Maydelle', the album's heaviest number — I may be alone in thinking how much it reminds me of 'The Itsy Bitsy Spider', but regardless of whether it only reflects my own craziness or if I really cracked a consciously idiosyncratic code here, it's FUN.
Other instances of FUN include the ballad 'Desdemona' (nothing to do with The Moor of Venice, unfortunately; I suppose they just thought of it as a cool name to use, being all out of 'Melissas' and 'Jessicas') suddenly transforming into slide-driven free-form jazz for the mid-section; the dark, smoking blues-rock of 'Who To Believe' totally owned by Gregg as if it were only yesterday that Cher finally blocked body access, and it hurts goddamn bad; and the Stones' 'Heart Of Stone' burdened down with years of experience and graced with weeping solos unthinkable on any Stones record, even of the Mick Taylor period. Each new listen brings out some minor delight, and it almost makes you feel sad for poor old Dickey Betts — ten to one he never dreamed his old band could undergo another rejuvenation at his expense. But he did have this occasional nasty penchant for dragging them into generic Southern rock — and Hittin' The Note is certainly drenched in Southern, yet there is nothing generic about a record that kicks ass, surprises, provokes, and drains your emotions at the same time. Thumbs up, of course.
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