It was about ten years ago when Gregg Allman released his last solo album‚ Searching for Simplicity. Gauging the approach the man and his band took to their performance at Higher Ground‚ he's found it.
There was nothing predictable about the near-two-hour show. It was all pretty much conventional and Greg Allman and Friends didn't attempt anything too ambitious in the hotter-than-hell ballroom (Allman's description early in the set as he toweled off behind the Hammond organ). Yet there wasn't a single note that wasn't perfectly and purely honest.
Allman's on his first extensive solo tour in a couple years‚ and he's taking the opportunity to reach back to the music he was weaned on and the styles that have comprised his best music apart from his Allman Brothers since the early '70s.
You could hear that more in the funk brought to the fore by Jay Collins' sax vamps in "I'm No Angel" than in its self-consciously autobiographical lyrics. The way the famous likes of "Whipping Post" and "Statesboro Blues" were rearranged to accentuate a similar style‚ rather than merely replicating the ABB arrangements‚ spoke volumes about how Allman was distinguishing his music from that of his namesake band. Allman & Friends emphasized the jazzy underpinnings of the former tune. After a jaunty interlude on the latter‚ the sextet slid easily into a solid shuffle‚ as an acknowledgment of their own collective strengths‚ as much as the foundation of the tune's fame. "Don't Keep Me Wonderin'" bounced along in such a way that it was easy to see how The Brothers adapted their arrangement from the original composition. This read on "Midnight Rider" conjured up the ghostly likes of the studio recording on Allman's first solo album‚ Laid Back. And the syncopation at the heart of "Just Before the Bullets Fly‚" shorn of its '80s production patina‚ sounded an authentic tribute to this Dixie rock icon's earliest influences.
Allman & Friends wove a thread of R&B and soul music through their choice of covers as well as the arrangements of originals. "Lovelight" was a romp‚ pure and simple‚ thankfully bereft of the usual contrived audience sing-along. Otis Redding's "Can't Turn You Loose" found Allman snapping off the lyrics as joyfully as he flicked off the rhythm guitar parts. And his mentor Floyd Miles took two spotlights center stage‚ away from his percussion setup: while his voice and phrasing were all too reminiscent of BB King to be distinctive‚ the song choices were of a piece with the rest of the set
The camaraderie evident in Miles' introduction to the audience by the pony-tailed front man lent warmth to those performances. It was similar to the easy interaction of the whole lineup‚ many of whom have collaborated with Allman on and off for years‚ and he seems to be anxious to reconnect not just with musical sources that first moved him to sing and play‚ but also the musicians who've helped him do that. Keyboardist Neil Larsen‚ who first played with Allman back in the mid-'70s‚ proved versatile throughout the evening with his tasty turns on piano and organ.
And it's little surprise that Jack Pearson enters the ranks of Friends for at least the East Coast leg of the tour set to extend into the New Year. The guitarist has teamed (and written songs) with Allman before and was a member of the Allman Brothers Band upon Warren Haynes initial departure from that band (with Allen Woody) to concentrate on Gov't Mule.
Pearson's contributions were some of the most vivid musical moments of the show. His holding a note for near the end of "Melissa" cut like a scythe through the sentimentality surrounding that song. It was the definition of restraint‚ which the guitarist reaffirmed elsewhere during the show‚ as his slide playing retained a deft touch belying the dirty blues-rock electric guitar tone.
Gregg Allman has distinguished himself as one of the finest blues singers of our time by communicating raw emotion that nevertheless reveals the subtleties of feeling. The churchy wave of organ with which he introduced Bob Dylan's "Just Like A Woman" hearkened to his most impassioned renditions of "Stormy Monday" and an almost choked reading of the lyrics-in turn‚ angry‚ resigned and accepting-filled the words with all the feeling the author could have ever hoped to hear invested in them. A lovely acoustic take on "Multi-Colored Lady" was only slightly less moving.
Daniela Cotton opened the evening's festivities appropriately with a salty soulful take on the blues. The eternal appeal of the music‚ not to mention the passage of time‚ was never more evident than when the young singer relinquished the stage to the 59-year-old headliner. In contrast to Gregg Allman's usual stoicism‚ his unusually animated demeanor-arm raised to signal the band‚ shoulders bobbing behind the Hammond organ-belied the understated inspiration at the heart of his performance.