I knew even before track one what my issue would be with All My Friends: Celebrating The Songs and Voice of Gregg Allman, and that’s that I craved more of its namesake after each and every track of homage paid. That’s the short, should-I-get-it caveat in this otherwise remarkable audio and video set; if you can accept two-and-a-half-hours of songs iconically tied to Gregg Allman performed by people who almost always aren’t Gregg Allman, you’re in business. You’re also in for a real treat.
This January 2014 show in Atlanta feels like a Last Waltz of sorts for Allman, who may or may not be leaving his beloved Allman Brothers Band behind after this year but has declared –health challenges notwithstanding –that he’ll be on the road with some form of the Gregg Allman Band for the foreseeable future. Still, anyone who’s seen Gregg in the past year –or bit his or her lip in frustration having had tickets to one of several cancelled Allman appearances –has that nagging, back-of-mind feeling that the twilight of a legendary blues and rock’n’ roll career is firmly at hand. Artists in peak form don’t get tributes like this one.
Then again, most artists don’t get tributes like this, period. The assemblage of players at “All My Friends,” from Allman antecedents like Taj Mahal and Sam Moore, and peers like Dr. John, Chuck Leavell and Jackson Browne to legends of blues and country, to the expected showing by members of the extended Allman Brothers family, to young guns like Robert Randolph, Zac Brown and Eric Church who know and respect the lineage, speaks volumes about the long tail of Gregg Allman and the staggeringly large influence. And to be clear, it’s Allman Brothers Band songs that are most recognizable, but this is a tribute to the man, not the band, and it’s often the renderings of solo-catalog Allman cuts that provide the most depth and understanding in the tributes being paid here.
There are highlights at every turn, though. Jimmy Hall is a heat-seeking missile in “Can’t Lose What You Never Had,” with plenty of paint-peeling Robert Randolph accompaniment. Sam Moore’s “Please Call Home” is fiery-sweet church. Eternal want-him-in-your-foxhole master Warren Haynes strikes the right balance of reverent and gritty in “Come & Go Blues.” Train’s Pat Monahan ups his game, realizing how lucky he is to be part of this pageant, and delivers ace versions of “Queen of Hearts” and, with Martina McBride, the Allman/Cher duet “Can You Fool.” Keb Mo makes sweeter stuff out of “Just Another Rider,” far more forlorn in its original form on Allman’s 2011 album Low Country Blues. Eric Church nails “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More” and then owns “Win Lose or Draw.” Allman himself finally arrives to boogie up “Statesboro Blues” with Taj Mahal and later join Browne for predictably let’s-assess-this-road-we’ve-traveled versions of “These Days” and “Melissa.”
There are misfires, too; oaken-voiced Trace Adkins is a glove-fit for “I’m No Angel” but turns “Trouble No More” into something thin and countrypolitan. Country boy Brantley Gilbert doesn’t grab on to much of “Just Before the Bullets Fly.” Derek Trucks provides a needed push on Widespread Panic through an unremarkable “Wasted Words.” And to leave all but the last 20 minutes free of the Allman Brothers Band itself –a stylistic choice, understood, but come on now –seems like a little too much deference.
But you get what you pay for, with a nice “Dreams” and “Whipping Post” one-two before the pile-up on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” –a final bit of magic with Allman himself finding his vocal footing and hearing from Mahal, Moore, Susan Tedeschi, Haynes, Browne and Dr. John in one of those should-be-too-many-cooks scenarios that miraculously seems to work.
And here’s a secret for you cravers of life’s little bonuses. One of the best reasons to pick up this collection isn’t the all-star vocal and front person salute to Allman, but the backing band, which was assembled by Don Was and includes Leavell, Kenny Aronoff, Rami Jaffee, a smoldering horn section, and best of all, the great Jack Pearson, whom Allman himself considers one of the best axemen to ever share his stage. You’ll feel guilty at times for wanting more of Pearson than whatever able-to-excellent interpreter he’s helping back up. Don’t feel guilty.
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