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You wouldn't normally associate the phrase "jacket required" with a concert titled "Gregg Allman and Friends," but the gravelly-voiced singer and keyboardist hopes to find at least one waiting for him during this stop in Houston, where he got to sample some of the city's nightlife while filming his small role as an imposing drug dealer in the 1991 movie Rush.
"I remember me and [actors] Sam Elliott and Jason Patric went down to Dan Electro's Guitar Bar! Is that place still around?" he asks -- instantly conjuring up the name from a decade-old memory with the laid-back Southern drawl you'd absolutely expect. "That place was great, and the guy gave me a jacket. I've got to get me another one. It was killer!"
On hiatus from his duties from that little family act known as the Allman Brothers Band, he has embarked on a mini-tour of the United States with a loose group of musical acquaintances playing smaller theaters. The deeper soul-and-blues-based set list draws mostly from Allman's six solo records, released sporadically over the past quarter-century. That includes 1987's I'm No Angel, whose autobiographical title track was a surprise radio hit.
This show is essentially the flip side of the Allman experience that usually sees him with the ABB in huge outdoor amphitheaters during their annual summer jaunts. Capacity crowds still wait to hear the group now in its fourth decade tear through old warhorses like "Midnight Rider," "Jessica," "Blue Sky," "One Way Out" and "Statesboro Blues." This show, though, will carry over a few of those.
"We do a slow, funky version of "Whippin' Post' that's really something different," he says, adding that the other seven players on stage are guys that he's known anywhere from ten to 40 years. The most recent addition is guitarist Buzz Feiten, who's played with everyone from Paul Butterfield to Stevie Wonder. "He and my brother were really close," Allman notes. "Real good friends way back in the late '60s and early '70s."
Ah, yes. Even almost 30 years after Duane Allman's short life was criminally cut short in a fatal motorcycle accident, it's hard to think of Gregg without reference to his older brother, whose singular vision formed the band in 1969, saw it through its early successes, and at 24 years of age was nonetheless considered a singular talent equal to or surpassing the era's reigning guitar gods. That includes Eric Clapton, with whom he most memorably dueled on "Layla." So overwhelming was Duane's presence even in death that his group still retains the plural form of its name in tribute.
The Shakespearean tragedy that formed the band's subsequent story -- including heavy drugs, legal troubles, breakups and makeups, and the death of bassist Berry Oakley on a motorcycle a little more than three blocks from the site of Duane's crash -- is best chronicled in Scott Freeman's excellent Midnight Riders: The Story of the Allman Brothers Band. In fact it was Gregg -- not Duane -- who took up both music and the guitar first before switching to keyboards. Gregg invariably kissed off halfhearted thoughts of becoming, of all things, a dental surgeon to gig with his brother in pre-ABB groups like the Allman Joys and Hour Glass.
But with enough material to fill up a week's worth of Behind the Music episodes, what often gets lost is Gregg Allman's and the band's musical impact. They helped create the venerable genre of Southern rock, along with similar-minded acts like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Marshall Tucker Band. At first, Allman despised the term, particularly since his group also had a strong jazz influence with the blistering blues-rock. And even a brief glance at the hometown zip codes of most '50s rock pioneers places them well below the Mason-Dixon Line, making the term redundant.
"It's kind of like saying "rock rock,' isn't it?" Allman laughs throatily. "It's a term some rackjobber probably came up with so, I don't know, we'd have a slot to put our records in at the store. In the beginning, we weren't too happy with the phrase, but it became something else when it turned into a whole genre of music. And now we're pretty proud of it."
But what the band is not is a "jam" band, Allman says -- stretching the oft-used phrase out into about eight syllables, which shows his clear distaste. "We are not anything like the Grateful Dead, nothing against them. We play with a six-and-a-half-foot groove."
What the Allman Brothers Band doesn't play with is the lead guitar of co-founding member Dickey Betts. Betts, who also wrote and sang on the group's biggest hit (1973's "Ramblin' Man"), was abruptly and unceremoniously booted from the band this past spring via a faxed note from the other remaining founding members (Allman and percussionist Butch Trucks and Jaimoe).
Officially the band said the reason for the split was the ever-popular "creative differences" and that they hoped their "good friend and brother would be back on the road with them in the fall." Unofficially the story is that Betts was canned because of a purported substance abuse problem affecting his personality and performances. Betts vehemently denies both charges, and almost immediately hit the road with his own band (which includes Houston guitarist Mark May).
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