Midnight Riders

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).

And if the ABB's version of events is a bit suspect and a little too pat (particularly given the prodigious amounts of alcohol and narcotics consumed by the group over the years), Allman isn't clarifying a thing. The tour publicist already warned that Allman would have "no comment" on the Betts situation because of "pending legal action," but Allman is equally reticent about whether the band would return for its annual summer tour with Betts, without him or even at all. "I can't tell you, but," he says, his voice trailing off, as if he'd love nothing more than to really spill his guts. "The main thing we're doing next year is going into the studio for a new record, and we'll take it from there."

Further complicating matters, Betts was arrested October 22 after his wife, Donna, 45, told deputies he had attacked her, pushing her to the ground and hitting her at their home. He was released on bail October 24 from a Florida jail where he had been held on a misdemeanor domestic violence charge.

Betts and his guitar will be in evidence, though, in next month's release of Peakin' at the Beacon, a live record from their 1999 tour. Why another concert souvenir when their catalog already has several -- including one considered among the best in rock history (1971's Live at Fillmore East) -- may have more than a little to do with it marking the end of their recording contract, but Allman says he considers the new one the "best" live record since that epochal release.

For the Gregg Allman and Friends tour, though, all the concerns of that 800-pound Other Group will be momentarily cast aside, allowing the audience a closer view of the man whose voice is equally capable of expressing the depths of sadness and the heights of joy, his head cocked back and long gray/blond hair dangling, eyes closed behind the keys of his organ as if lost in his own personal groove. "I brought my very best Hammond with me, and we got it down tight, man. Real tight," he says with a chuckle.

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero