In two weeks I will be making my annual sojourn to New York City to see The Allman Brothers Band play at their home away from home, the Beacon Theatre. But something will be very different this time, as after more than forty-five years, the band is calling it quits at the end of the year, and this will be the last time I will see them perform. Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes, the two current guitarists, announced earlier this year that they were both leaving to pursue their own projects. Shortly thereafter, Gregg Allman announced there would not be an attempt to replace them, and this would be their final year.
Frankly, it seems Gregg doesn't have the energy to keep going anymore. He underwent liver transplant surgery a couple of years ago, and although the procedure was successful, he now labors to get through shows, often times taking multiple breaks. To me, he will always have one of the best whiskey and cigarette voices around, the kind of voice that helped put the Southern Rock genre on the map.
I will reminisce about all of the great shows I've seen, the various lineups throughout the years, the unexpected guests who stopped in for a song or two, the jams that lasted a half an hour, the long and amazing guitar solos, Gregg blowing cigarette smoke from behind his Hammond organ, the heads in front of me all bobbing together to the music keeping perfect time, and the smell of marijuana wafting through the air from an excited yet mellow audience.
I regret that I am too young to have had the chance to see the legendary Skydog himself, Duane Allman. Thank goodness for YouTube and old footage to keep his memory alive. I love to watch Duane rip through his guitar solos, as he seemingly howls at his instrument, coaxing every last note out of it. But I feel like the spirit of Duane now lives on through the magic of Derek Trucks.
Derek was born into rock royalty (his uncle is drummer Butch Trucks) and he is now arguably the best slide guitarist in the world. Derek was never handed anything, though, as he worked hard to hone his craft. He was touring with his own band by the time he was fifteen, and he now tours with his wife, blues singer Susan Tedeschi, in The Tedeschi Trucks Band.
In recent years Derek has been an onstage caretaker for Gregg, always playing next to him and occasionally whispering in his ear to make sure he's okay, like a dutiful son looking after his revered father. So the cycle continues. It always has with the ABB.
This is a band that has been fueled by tragedy. In 1971 Duane was killed in a motorcycle accident in the band's hometown of Macon, Georgia. A little more than a year later, bassist Berry Oakley was also killed in a motorcycle crash, only a few blocks from the site of Duane's crash.
But Gregg and the remaining members, drummers Butch Trucks and Jaimoe, along with guitarist and vocalist Dickey Betts, soldiered on and seemed to gain strength from the losses they suffered. Gregg began to write about grief, depression, and loss, which are always the best ingredients for The Blues. And Dickey was now forced to step up and take his songwriting and guitar playing more seriously. The formula worked and they wrote and recorded some of their best work after the loss of Duane and Berry.
Throughout their history, the ABB drew heavily on The Blues and they wrote songs like "Midnight Rider", a cautionary tale of a wayward traveler. Then there was "Dreams", which Gregg wrote at a friend's retreat while suffering through a deeply depressed period. Another classic, "Ain't Wastin' Time No More", was Gregg's vow to his late brother that he would push on in his honor.
Throughout the seventies, problems with drugs and alcohol took its toll on the band. Gregg testified in court against the band's drug supplier, leaving a lot of resentment. Dickey, who wrote many of the ABB classics, was finally voted out of the band, as his substance abuse was causing him to miss practices and gigs.
Dickey was the unabashed redneck. The kind of guy who never shied away from a good bar fight or a chance to settle a score. Despite his transgressions, Dickey became an accomplished songwriter in addition to his legendary guitar playing skills. Two of his finest works are both instrumentals. First, is the spirited "Jessica", which Dickey named after his infant daughter. But the song really was a tribute to the finest of the Gypsy jazz musicians, Django Reinhardt, a great guitar player despite having limited use of his fingers due to an injury he suffered in a fire. "Jessica", can be played with only two fingers, and thus the tribute to Reinhardt. Dickey also wrote "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed", a beautiful, flowing instrumental about a woman in Dickey's life. Elizabeth Reed was a name that Dickey found on a gravestone he often visited, as he wanted to keep the true identity of the woman in question anonymous.
Dickey has vowed never to return, and a lot of ill feelings and bad blood remains. But that doesn't stop me from hoping that for one night, Dickey will be absolved of his sins, real and imagined, and the prodigal son will walk out onstage with his band mates one last time before it all ends.
As Gregg's famous lyric asks, " Crossroads, will you ever let him go?".