Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Burning Down Fillmore East

If you grew up listening to music in the 1960s, you believed in the magic that could come only from a recording studio. Despite the dominance of 45 rpm singles in the early years of the decade, it was the era of the studio album—40-45 minutes of music sequenced to create an immersive listening experience. Our heroes—Jimi Hendrix, Traffic, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles—worked with producers and engineers to produce sonic effects and blends of sounds that could not be replicated in concert. Guitar amplifiers and PA systems were not powerful, or subtle, enough to allow musicians—even those as skilled as Hendrix or Jeff Beck—to reproduce the kind of effects they could achieve in the studio, and 10,000 fans could easily overcome anemic sound systems if they decided to scream their support rather than sit back and listen.

Slightly younger musicians like Duane and Gregg Allman, Berry Oakley and Dickey Betts came of age on the cusp of change. By the time they had worked their way through the bands of their teens and came together in Jacksonville, Florida in 1969 to form The Allman Brothers Band, they could set their sights on obtaining state-of-the-art equipment like Marshall amplifiers and guitars that had been hot rodded by enthusiasts who understood that pickups, volume pots and internal wiring could be hopped up to take advantage of 50 or 100 watts of tube amplification. (A few years ago, sitting in as a guest on Steve Van Zandt's SiriusXM radio program, Bruce Springsteen laughed himself hoarse remembering the day that he and Van Zandt learned that the guitars they owned could only sound like those their heroes played if they turned them up to 10 and jacked them into high-wattage amplifiers.)

Duane Allman was no stranger to guitar distortion by the time he formed his ultimate band. Early photos show him playing a Fender Telecaster tricked out with an onboard Vox fuzz box, and a set of B.B. King-associated songs recorded by his band Hour Glass in April 1968 illustrate the gritty, fuzz-heavy tone he preferred, and could achieve, at the time. Shortly after, using a Fender Stratocaster and a Fender amplifier, he began putting his signature sound on recordings by Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Clarence Carter, and others.

By the time The Allman Brothers Band coalesced, Duane was under contract to Phil Walden, the Macon, Georgia-based music entrepreneur who had backed the meteoric rise of singer Otis Redding. A few weeks later, when Gregg broke away from his recording contract with Liberty Records in Los Angeles and joined the band, Walden had begun bankrolling the as-yet-unnamed band, setting up an account for them with Lipham Music in Gainesville, Florida. Their first purchases were the kinds of instruments they hadn't been able to afford to that point. Duane switched guitar brands, getting himself a Gibson ES-345 with a fat sound, and then a gold 1957 Gibson Les Paul with PAF pickups, which he soon swapped into a 1959 Les Paul with a cherry sunburst finish. He and Betts began feeding their guitars through Marshalls, giving them a deep, powerful presence onstage. In early 1971, Duane landed the guitar of his dreams: an extraordinary 1958 Les Paul with a highly distinctive "tobacco" sunburst finish. Paired with a 50-watt Marshall and played primarily with bare fingers, the guitar gave him a full, round, lush sound with an unusual amount of edge. It was the ideal match for Betts' 1957 Les Paul—played through a 100-watt Marshall—and Oakley's highly resonant Fender Jazz Bass, which he had customized with Guild pickups and played through a Fender 400 PS amp.

Although all of the band members were in their mid- or early 20s, they each had a wealth of onstage experience, and what had brought them together that spring in Jacksonville was an intense level of inner-band communication. Most ambitious musicians in those years brought a myriad of influences to any situation, but the members of this band were unusually broad in their listening experiences, and it was Duane's particular genius to understand how they all might fit together. He recruited Jai Johanny Johanson (Jaimoe) because of his experience with soul singers, his loose feel for rhythm and his love of post-bop jazz musicians like John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Roland Kirk. Instinctively, he knew Jaimoe would mesh in interesting ways with Butch Trucks, a well-schooled percussionist who (by his own admission, years later) was both withdrawn emotionally and unused to mixing with blacks like Jaimoe. Duane recognized that tension could be a positive thing if it was properly channeled. Dickey Betts grew up loving Southern fiddle music, but he also had developed a strong affinity for guitar-driven rock like The Yardbirds and Jefferson Airplane. He had a gift for creating distinctive, riff-based melodies, and a terrific ear for harmony. Berry Oakley had been a guitarist before he switched to bass, so he offered a strong third lead voice, but most importantly he was one of those rare musicians who played without ego; always looking for opportunities to add to a situation to make it better, and communicate to listeners. The missing piece was Duane's other musical half—the younger brother who could, by turns, infuriate him and enthral him. Where Duane was bold and driven, Gregg was wary and prone to taking the easy route, but he had the ability to open his throat and let out a voice that was as steeped in pain, loneliness and frustration as any of his blues-singing predecessors. And, together, Duane and Gregg Allman were stronger than they were apart; they drove each other with a power that only comes from years of sibling rivalry and love.

And that's the mix that The Allman Brothers Band took on the road. They piled into the back of a Ford Econoline van, crammed head to foot across the width of the vehicle, and drove. They played as often as they could. When they didn't have a paying gig, Oakley would encourage them to set up in a park and play for free. By the time the band had graduated to a Winnebago motor home—a step up from the Econoline, but hardly luxurious—they were maintaining a ridiculous touring scheduling, criss-crossing the U.S. to stay in front of audiences, trying to build their reputation. While their first two albums—The Allman Brothers Band and Idlewild South—received only scant notice, their live shows won them fans wherever they set down.

Duane Allman quickly recognized this, and as early as 1970 began telling whoever would listen that the band's third album would be two LPs recorded live. It was an unprecedented move; one that showed both his arrogance and his vision.

Promoter Bill Graham's Fillmore East on New York City's Lower East Side had been one of the band's favourite places to play since they had first performed there—opening for Blood, Sweat & Tears—in December 1969. There was something in the work ethic and attitude of the young band that won the notoriously tough Graham over, and when Graham was in your corner, you would get opportunities to get noticed. He was enthusiastic about booking them both in New York and at the original Fillmore in San Francisco, and those venues provided bi-coastal stopping points for the band's tours throughout 1970 and early '71. When Duane Allman finally convinced Walden and Walden's Atlantic Records overseer, legendary R&B producer Jerry Wexler, to agree with his idea for a live album, the Fillmore East was an obvious choice. Wexler booked a mobile recording truck to capture the band's six sets on March 11-13, 1971.

The resulting double album, At Fillmore East, has lodged itself at, or near, the top of many boomers' list of live recordings. Released quickly in July '71, it grabbed people's ears immediately—combining terse, tightly focused blues numbers like Blind Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues" and Elmore James' "Done Somebody Wrong" with loping instrumental originals—"Hot 'Lanta" and "In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed"—and two epic improvisatory pieces, "Whipping Post" and "You Don't Love Me." The band's sound, captured by veteran, simpatico producer Tom Dowd, was exceptional—the sonic personalities of Duane and Betts contrasted extremely well, Oakley's bass clean and clear, the drummers well separated and distinct in the sound mix.

In my group of friends, At Fillmore East rapidly became a staple at parties—something that experience has informed me was repeated around North America.

I think there are several factors—aside from the music itself—that account for At Fillmore East finding its way to as many ears as it did in '71.

First, was Jim Marshall's iconic black-and-white cover photograph of the band, and the decision to run the photo as a "full bleed" to take up the entire album cover. The photograph, with its brick wall and stacked road cases—which many incorrectly assumed was taken outside the Fillmore East—held some mystery and seemed to tell a story. Something is clearly going on: Gregg Allman has his head thrown back in laughter; Oakley is grinning and gesturing with his right hand; Betts has slouched to his left to look at Duane; and Duane is wearing a cheshire grin, his hands folded in his lap.

"Did Duane just fart?" asked one my buddies, assuming the Allmans were a jovial bunch of frat-boyish jokers.

The truth is darker and more complex: It was a grey, cold morning in Macon when Marshall got the Allmans' road crew, which is pictured on the back of the album, to stack the band's gear in a downtown alley. The band, which was never enthusiastic about posing for photographs, had been partying the previous night and arrived for the photo shoot surly and hungover. Alternative shots from the day show the band staring glumly at Marshall's lens. Everyone was growing tense. Suddenly, Duane spotted one of his drug connections across the street, and he infuriated Marshall by jumping up and trotting over to score. Just what he was scoring remains conjecture, but the sorry fact is that, by this point, Duane was in the grips of both heroin and cocaine addiction, and both he and some of his bandmates were beginning to realize the drug abuse was taking the brilliance away from his playing and from the band's communication.

Regardless, the drug score lightened the mood, and when Duane popped back into his position atop an upturned bass drum box (and one can imagine him drawling to Marshall something like, "Okay, man, you can continue now.") the band broke up with laughter.

A second factor in getting the album noticed was a deal between Atlantic Records and Rolling Stone magazine to make At Fillmore East a subscription bonus throughout the summer months. I got my first of many copies of the album—complete with the rare pink Capricorn Records label—by signing up for a magazine subscription.

Third, is the phenomenon that occurs every time a notable musician dies. When the news broke that Duane Allman had died in a motorcycle accident in Macon on October 29, 1971, interest in At Fillmore East spiked. Sometimes, these posthumous sales spurts can be morbid curiosity, sometimes a tribute to the dead musician. In this case, I think it was more a realization that this band, which had reached its zenith with this live recording, would never be the same. The lightning had escaped the bottle. The Allman Brothers Band would go on to much bigger fame—becoming the most-popular band in the U.S. between 1973-76—but, deep down, those of us who knew the band's music understood that the peaks of At Fillmore East would not be reached again.

So, the album has become a talisman, a lesson in the ephemeral nature of art, and an enduring artifact from a very engaging time in rock music. Rolling Stone placed it at #49 on its list of 500 best recordings. In 2004, the Library of Congress named At Fillmore East to its National Recording Registry of important recordings.

But, everyone knew there was more; after all, the band had played three nights. Where was the rest of what Dowd recorded that week?

With some bands, that question might not matter. Some artists hit the stage and churn out basically the same show every time. Even legendary live performers like Springsteen don't often stray far from the tried-and-true. But The Allman Brothers Band was closer to a jazz ensemble than a standard rock band. Every show was different, and the premature deaths of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley meant that there are only so many opportunities to hear them interact in well-recorded settings.

Finally, 43 years after the fact, The 1971 Fillmore East Recordings delivers the goods: five CDs from the band's mid-March stand and a sixth from the last show at Fillmore East on June 27, which was previously released on a deluxe version of Eat A Peach. (It must be noted that this is not the June '71 show that everyone pines for; the night that Duane Allman dragged his Les Paul off the stage as sunlight streamed through an open door and he remarked to Graham, "It's just like church, Bill." That show appears lost to the ages; even inveterate Allman collectors I've encountered claim that it was either not recorded or has been erased.)

Even now, though, a few of the goods from March are missing. Like many open-minded and eternally searching musicians, Duane Allman was not satisfied with the six-member Allman Brothers Band, as difficult as that is to fathom. Like Hendrix before him, he had visions of a large ensemble that could play the band's catalogue with greater texture and volume than the six-man band could muster. In a radio interview, he alluded to his desire to scoop an unnamed musician from another band. One suspects now that the musician in question was percussionist Bobby Caldwell, then a member of guitarist Johnny Winter's band. Whenever possible, Duane would invite his fishing buddy Thom Doucette to sit in on harmonica, and when Doucette—who preferred fishing to committing to a band full time and riding in a Winnebago—was not available Duane would sometimes switch to music journalist Tony Glover, who had played harp in an influential blues band in the mid-'60s. Duane heard horns, too, and for reasons that went to the grave with him, he decided to introduce them to fans on his band's third album.

As Jaimoe told writer Alan Paul for his thorough oral history, One Way Out: An Inside History Of The Allman Brothers Band, the two horn players—Rudolph "Juicy" Carter and "Tic" from Charlotte, North Carolina—had played with him in Percy Sledge's band. In the spirit that pervaded the band's early days living in Jacksonville and Macon, and jamming for free in the parks, Duane would sometimes invite them to sit in unrehearsed. Former road manager Willie Perkins told Paul that Duane was also open to their presence because they supplied him with heroin.

Whatever the arrangement, the horns were onstage on March 11, opening night of the three-date stand at the Fillmore. Dowd, who had flown in from Europe the previous day and had no idea the horns would be included, was livid. As the band came offstage, he demanded: What was Duane thinking? Perhaps he was thinking about nothing more than getting high and giving Jaimoe's friends a chance to fit themselves in, but Dowd was having none of it. He nixed the idea, and presumably, since not a note remains of the experiment, erased the tape from the opening night. Although Duane agreed with the producer about not making a horn section a permanent addition, he prevailed upon him to allow Carter to take another shot at a couple of songs the next night.

So we jump in as the band opens up on March 12, with Duane telling the crowd that the band was recording a live album. Having heard a half-dozen or more recordings of the band prior to and after the March Fillmore dates, I know that dissecting various takes of the band's blues standards is kind of a mug's game. Each version has strengths and weaknesses, and while hearing four versions of "Statesboro Blues" or Muddy Waters' "Trouble No More" back to back might leave you with a preference for one or another, you might just as easily want to turn into producer Teo Macero and start producing a Frankenstein version of all four. Although my ears are attuned to the versions on At Fillmore East (probably the album that I've heard more than any other, with the possible exception of Hendrix's Electric Ladyland, Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited or Miles Davis' Jack Johnson) I think Gregg's voice sounds better on the opening show; at least, his articulation is better.

The real fun comes when the band begins to stretch out, and as I've done in published reviews of Coltrane's box sets of live recordings, I like to note the interesting points of different versions rather than go through a note-by-note dissection of the various versions.

As soon as Carter steps to the microphone with his soprano saxophone on Betts' "In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed" you can tell what Duane had in mind for him. He must have envisioned that Carter could wrap his horn around Betts' guitar the way that Coltrane and Davis could intertwine (or, indeed, the way he and Betts could harmonize). But Carter is not that player, and Betts does not sound all that interested in making space for him. Carter tries to blend, but he's off key, and he winds up obscuring Duane's beautiful harmonic smears behind Betts' modulated introductory solo. Carter is late coming in for his solo (so odd to hear him there when you are expecting Duane!) and frankly, he just does not have much to say. He has obviously listened to Coltrane (anyone who played soprano in those years had) but his contributions sound disjointed, and his sound is so muted that the rest of the band powers right over him. That his solo wins applause before he gives way to Duane may only confirm what we have long believed about the state of audiences at the Fillmore East in 1971. I cannot be as charitable as them. (By the way, to hear what could be done with "In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed" using saxophone, I recommend listening to David "Fathead" Newman's take on it when he was in flutist Herbie Mann's band. The studio version is a bit anemic-sounding, but I heard them play it live one night in the late '70s and it raised hairs.)

To my mind, the band members never topped the version of "You Don't Love Me" they performed at A&R Studios for radio broadcast in the days following saxophonist King Curtis' murder, but there is much to chew on with the two unheard versions included here (three were actually played, but At Fillmore East contained a version that Dowd had stitched together from the version from March 12th's late show and March 13th's early show. The reason for that piece of post-production surgery becomes evident early in the March 12th version, when Gregg blows his entry on organ. That is compounded by a somewhat muddled solo by Betts. The piece just isn't gelling. And then Duane steps in. What follows is one of the best exchanges to be heard between him and Betts. In his opening statement, Duane's sound is incredibly hot and burnished—his volume up so loud you can hear every movement his fingers make on the strings. Betts moves back in with tremendous urgency, and both drummers are kicking hard, propelling him forward, and his ability to create melodic runs on the fly is really showcased. If you ever wonder why Duane Allman wanted Betts in his band, this is the solo to listen to; he never sounded better. Naturally, that only prompted Duane to weigh back in with something even tastier: an incredibly raw-sounding romp that begins with train horn blasts and continues in and out of tempo until some Fillmore wag yells a perfectly timed comment for the ages—"Play all night!" Indeed.

By contrast, the back end of "You Don't Love Me" from March 13, which Dowd discarded, sounds absolutely fine, just not transcendent. Betts does not lock in with the drummers as well, following a somewhat unfocused intro by Duane, and then Duane's main solo lacks the drama and timing of the previous night. What it does have is some astounding back-and-forth between the guitarists, which illustrates just how well they could feed each other ideas.

Which brings us to "Whipping Post," one of the handful of songs that Gregg is credited with composing for the band's first recording. He has, and rightfully so, given credit to Oakley for taking the song to a different level, by giving it its near-demonic drive and somewhat off-kilter feel. To me, the song—and the way the band extrapolated from its core when they performed it live—has always epitomized them: Gregg's hard-done-by lyrics, the Southern gothic imagery of a public flogging, the manic charge of the tempo, the opening for guitar improvisation. It has it all, and it lives so fully in the March 13th show, by which time it was about 5 a.m., that you can barely imagine what two other versions might hold in store.

The performance of it from the second set on March 12 is notable for some interesting volume dynamics Betts creates, sounding almost like an electric cello at one point, but those who love the released version will likely feel that Duane cues Gregg's closing vocals a bit too soon, robbing the ending of some of its power. The opening set's version on March 13 has a particularly strong opening section, with Duane playing with more ferocity than on the released version. Betts' solo is slower to take off, however, and there is less suspense to its construction, making the final release a bit less dramatic. Still, a fine version, and one that shows that the band had a variety of ways of getting to the same conclusion.

In the end, given this much extraordinary, and highly varied material to work with, one gains a much better appreciation for how Dowd showcased the best of this band—both in the sound he captured from the stage of the Fillmore and in the decisions he made in post-production. The pacing and song choices on At Fillmore East helped make it the cherished recording it is, putting it on par with any studio recording of its era because of the same level of skill—both onstage and off—that was applied to it.

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