By: Nancy Dunham
Craziness may rage outside the Beacon Theatre in New York but life is calm at 'Bert's house.'
That's what the Allman Brothers long-time manager Bert Holman calls the suite where he's living during the weeks the Brothers are in residency at their unofficial home base. As he dines on a breakfast of coffee and a bagel inside his suite the morning after one of the first Beacon shows, he is the calm ringmaster controlling what could easily explode into madness just on the basis of star power alone.
"We've been talking about it for over a year now," said Holman of the plans for this year's 15 show run, which mark the Brothers' 20th year at the Beacon and 40th year as a band. "We just said let's do something special. And it's still evolving. We're calling people we talked to at the beginning [of the planning]. People are calling us. Bruce Willis was there [one] night."
So, how can Holman and the Brothers relax on this day off as appearances by Ronnie Wood, Eric Clapton, Billy Bob Thornton, and other musical luminaries are bandied about? You could say it's the school of hard knocks endured dating back to 1967 when budding guitar master Duane Allman convinced his brother Gregg to leave Los Angeles and bring his vocal and keyboard skills to "fill out" Duane's Jacksonville, Florida-based band.
The Roots of ABB
As fans know, Duane and Gregg were members of The Escorts, which became The Allman Joys and then morphed into Hour Glass before becoming the Allman Brothers Band in 1969.
It was during the Allman Joy days that ABB founding drummer Butch Trucks first met the brothers Allman.
"I was playing with a band and in walked The Beatles; well, they were to me," said Trucks. "The Allman Joys – Duane and Gregg – walked in the room and there was such a presence. Duane [exuded] so much strength and grace and Gregg with his long, blonde hair [was captivating], and they really liked our band and we went to their house and were sleeping on the floor."
It wasn't long before Duane called and Trucks became a member of the Allman Brothers Band. Officially born March 26, 1969, the original founding members included Duane, Gregg, Butch, percussionist Jai Johanny "Jaimoe" Johansen, guitarist-singer Dickey Betts and bassist Berry Oakley.
"Those first couple years we'd go set up at a park on our days off. The first time we did that was Piedmont Park in Atlanta, and we just found some plugs and set up and started playing," Trucks said. "We didn't ask anybody. We just started playing."
And as the saying goes, if you build it they will come. That was certainly true for the ABB. When people heard the music they gathered and the crowd grew throughout the day. When the Brothers returned, the word-of-mouth spread and the crowds multiplied.
"The next Sunday somebody brought a flatbed truck for the stage and two or three other bands wanted to play," said Trucks. "In a few weeks we had 10,000 people [in the audience] and it just became this thing. The police were cool, just trying to keep harmony."
Playing For Time
Although the band's albums, starting with the 1969 debut The Allman Brothers Band - which was especially noteworthy due to "Dreams" and "Whipping Post" – received critical and popular acclaim, there were tensions fueled by stress, drugs and alcohol.
"Alcohol was my nemesis. You can get it anywhere, take it anywhere and it's accepted," said Gregg Allman as he rehearsed a few months before the Beacon gigs. "I used to always have a big jug in my bag. Always."
Just as Rolling Stone magazine heaped kudos on the band and their legendary 1971 live album, At Fillmore East, caught fire, Duane was killed when a truck hit his motorcycle on October 29, 1971. The breakdown of the band accelerated, but not right away, of course.
Dickey Betts filled in playing both his own and Duane's parts, and the band completed its in-progress album, Eat a Peach, to critical acclaim. Instead of trying to replace Duane, the group added Chuck Leavell as a second pianist and continued to record and tour. Then, Oakley died in a motorcycle crash in 1972, just a few blocks from where Duane had died.
When Oakley was replaced the group finished Brothers and Sisters, which had the powerhouse hits "Ramblin' Man" and "Jessica," and the band was one of the top concert bands in the country. However, its members were close to breakdowns.
"In 1976 there were a lot of reasons we were the biggest band in the country and we lost all that in a rock & roll fantasy," said Trucks. "Drugs and alcohol were incredibly destructive and I met a woman – we just had our 31st wedding anniversary – and she told me, 'Alcohol is not the best thing to do. You're a complete asshole when you're drunk.'"
As the band began to spiral out of control Gregg held onto alcohol until he was "almost completely dead," said Trucks.
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Right now we've got the right mix of players, maybe the best since [my brother died]. When we're together there is no bullshit, credit grabbing or paranoia. It's just a group of seven guys playing music, which is what it should be.
The band broke up, reconciled and broke up again numerous times gaining and losing more members than Christopher Guest's fictional "New Main Street Singers." Through it all they continued to perform, have hits and pull plenty of fans to their shows, netting Gold and Platinum records, a Grammy Award (for "Jessica") and sold-out tours.
The turning point for Gregg Allman, and in many ways the band, was when he saw a video of himself giving the acceptance speech during the band's 1995 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
|Betts, Haynes & Woody - ABB by Blakesberg|
"For years doctors told him, 'If you don't stop drinking you'll die.' And he would say to the doctors, 'I’ve been hearing that for years and I'm still here,'" said Trucks. "When he saw that speech and how bad he looked that is what straightened him up."
Although Allman has been sober for years, he suffers from a host of ailments including Hepatitis C and a back condition that forces him to have ample rest between shows. Allman said his drinking is a major regret of his life.
"I tell my kids, 'You are not going to live forever. Don't put anything in your mouth that will shorten your life. If you don't do it, then my illness won't be in vain,'" he said.
Son Devon Allman, who heads the band Honeytribe, took his father's message to heart.
"I am nearly a year sober," said Devon. "The road can swallow you up if you let it. You have to make the decision, 'No, I am not going to find an after party or find a place to jam.' When the house lights go up and people go home, you have to go home. I am so happy and proud that my dad is happy and healthy and sober enough to do this. My hat's off to him and the other Brothers."
However, Allman's sobriety didn't end the band's troubles. Trucks explains how various internal uproars kept pushing him to leave the group.
"It was almost always because of one person and when I finally did make the decision to leave that's when we decided to change personnel," said Trucks of the dark days of 2000. "Dickey just couldn't stop drinking. When Gregg would get drunk, he'd try to stay out of the way. We'd run his mic down, turn is organ down and play more instrumental. Dickey stayed right in the middle of the stage and became very mean and aggressive. At one point I said, 'I can't do this anymore.' I called Gregg and he felt the same way."
The band sent Betts a letter urging him to seek help while they toured without him.
"Instead of seeking help, he sought a lawyer," said Trucks and a lengthy litigation continued. "That's when he was out."
After Betts left, the band went through several personnel shifts before it settled into the current lineup of Allman, Trucks, Jaimoe, percussionist Marc Quiñones, guitarist Derek Trucks (Butch's nephew), bassist Oteil Burbridge and guitarist-singer Warren Haynes.
|Haynes & Allman - ABB by Blakesberg|
"Right now we've got the right mix of players, maybe the best since [my brother died]," said Allman. "When we're together there is no bullshit, credit grabbing,or paranoia. It's just a group of seven guys playing music, which is what it should be."
Holman said residencies like the Beacon keep the members centered and give Gregg the much-needed time he needs to recharge before playing the marathon three-plus hour shows for which the band is famous. The result, said Trucks, is apparent on stage.
"It is getting better and better and better – it's like it was in this early days," he said. "We are all playing music because we like playing music. We like each other. We respect each other. If we have a little blow up we confront it and get it out and the band is stronger than ever. The people in the band are acting like adults rather than children. It's the right chemistry."
And that, observes Allman, is the reason he plans to continue playing with these guys for as many years as possible.
"I guess there is part of me that thinks there will come a day I can only sit back and watch," he said. "I want to get in as many shows as I can without taking anything away from the fans. I won't do the show half assed."
The Allman Brothers Band is currently in the midst of their annual Beacon Theatre run and recently announced West Coast dates. Details available here.
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Continue reading for further thoughts on the Beacon run...
Best of The Beacon
By: Nancy Dunham
It's a given that some Allman Brothers' fans will stay in New York for several nights to see shows during the band's annual Beacon residency.
|Gregg Allman :: 03.16.09 :: Beacon Theatre by Perrucci|
Johnny Winter, Buddy Guy, Bruce Willis, Taj Mahal, Stanley Clarke plus Trey Anastasio and Page McConnell of Phish are just some of the musical guests who've joined the band during the shows thus far. Eric Clapton, Ronnie Wood and others are on the short list of those expected to make appearances before the run is over.
"I can't spoil all the surprises," said Gregg Allman. "We're mixing it up."
Aside from the excitement generated by secret guests and set lists, the ABB isn't making many plans public because they don't know what's around the corner during this residency. Take the second night when David Hidalgo and Cesar Rojas of Los Lobos joined the band.
"The guys from Los Lobos came directly from JFK [airport] to play," said long-time ABB manager Bert Holman. "They had just flown in, took a cab to the Beacon, and walked in. They gave [us] the high sign and came up and played... They stayed on until 1 am, all of us just talking."
That kind of connection is what convinced Devon Allman, Gregg's son, to become a musician.
"The first song at the first concert [at a 1989 show in Miami] I knew," said Devon, who will play a Beacon after party show with his band Honeytribe on March 27. "The electricity, the bond between the band and crowd was overwhelming. It's not about being a 'rock star,' it's about being able to touch people with that type of energy."
Although the 15 nights of shows are sold out, fans can check out live streaming videos of each show at Moogis.com. Founding drummer Butch Trucks started the site, which includes extras such as interviews with band members and archived video.
"Every day we keep raising the bar," said Holman. "It's always part of the challenge."
Continue reading to see what's up with Devon Allman's Honeytribe...
Space Age Blues: Devon Allman's Honeytribe
By: Nancy Dunham
Where, oh where, has Devon Allman's Honeytribe gone?
Fear not, they've just been on an eight-week break and are coming back to tour and road test some of the songs Devon's written for the band's new album, Space Age Blues.
"It's halfway written," said Gregg's son. "There is a lot of funky stuff that is different for us. It's hard to describe stylistically but it's really steeped in the old school thing."
Devon knows that avoiding the dreaded "sophomore slump" is key to keeping his band on track. That's why he's taking his time writing this second album, which he expects to have about a dozen songs.
"Everyone gets a [honeymoon for their] debut, but the second record is so important. It's a real statement," he said. "I am not in a rush but I am. It's been two and a half years since the last release and I really want this to be a jaw dropper and heartbreaker."
Devon's currently deciding whether to record in Ardent Studios in Memphis, in a studio owned by friend Billy Bob Thornton or elsewhere (trivia alert: Ardent is the studio where Honeytribe recorded its debut Torch. It's also where the Allman Brothers Band, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin and many other musical legends have recorded). Whichever studio he chooses, he sees the album as advancing the band, especially now that drummer Gabriel Strange has joined.
"I think we are still exploring our signature sound," said Devon. "The principals have always been and will also be the dynamics. It's kind of where it's going organically. We aren't in this for MTV or to have hit singles. We're trying to perpetuate the first decade out of the bag and if you want a career in this business you have to slam it down people's throats."
Find Devon Allman and Honeytribe's tour dates here.
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