Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East

My Facebook friends and I are having a discussion about live albums and which one is better.  Some excellent albums have come into the conversation.  Little Feat’s Waiting for Columbus [a most worthy live document] is part of the discussion.  The Three Pickers [featuring Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, and Ricky Skaggs] has been mentioned.  I haven’t heard it, but I will someday.  Live bluegrass music is always a treat, and I expect nothing less from this release.    Peter Gabriel’s Secret World Live was thrown into the mix, as were the Grateful Dead’s Europe ’72, the Rolling Stones’ Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out and Eric Clapton’s Unplugged.  Right now is that time of year when the Allman Brothers Band are playing their annual March Madness run at the Beacon Theatre in New York.  Many years ago in March 1971, when Duane Allman and Berry Oakley still walked this earth, the original Allman Brothers Band cut what I consider the finest live album ever made - The Allman Brothers Band At Fillmore East.

For the record, the name of the album is The Allman Brothers Band At Fillmore East. There is no “Live” anywhere in the title.  At Fillmore East is my favorite Allman Brothers album, bar none. Gram Parsons often talked about combing different kinds of music into a hybrid, what he called “Cosmic American Music.”  One needs to look no further than At Fillmore East for a prime example of Cosmic American Music.  The Allman Brothers Band combined elements of blues, jazz, soul, country and rock and made something unique.  Producer Tom Dowd describes At Fillmore East as a big-band jazz record, and he’s not very far off the mark. This whole record is an exercise in improvisation that never fails to astound. After the first two studio discs, Duane wanted to cut the third album live. The stage was the Allman Brothers’ natural environment. According to Tom Dowd:

“Most rock bands are formula bands. The Allman Brothers would play an eight-, a twelve-, a twenty- or thirty-bar formula and then it’s like jazz, complete free form and everybody goes for himself. And they have enough empathy and enough musicianship among them that Jaimoe could be playing in 5/4, Butch could be playing in 6/8, and Dickey could be playing 4/4, and they all go in different directions and it would swing. And when they get through this solo and that solo and this section, they’d nod and BOOM they’re back to square one. They’d all go back to their parts right away in line again. It’s magnificent!”

They didn’t like recording studios – these guys were all hardened road cases. They all lived for the stage. Almost all live albums from other acts/bands are recordings of songs that have already been released in studio form. Never ones to do things the conventional way, the Allman Brothers cut five songs that their audience who had never been to their shows had heard before. The set starts out with that most iconic song of the Allman Brothers canon, Statesboro Blues. For Allman Brothers fans everywhere, every note, every nuance of Duane’s slide playing is seared into their memory [and mine]. Dickey’s solo is no slouch either. Next was another “new” song, an old Elmore James song called Done Somebody Wrong. More slide virtuosity from Duane, then the old T-Bone Walker song Stormy Monday. Instead of giving the instrumentalists a chance to show off their chops, this song is Gregg’s to show off why he’s the finest white blues singer in America [perhaps anywhere, but then again I’m biased].

With the blues out of the way on Side 1, the real fun begins. Side 2 has one song – the 19-minute You Don’t Love Me. Everybody gets their licks in here. Side 3 begins with a short, 5-minute instrumental to which all band members contributed – Hot ‘Lanta. Then comes my favorite version of In Memory of Elizabeth Reed. When Rolling Stone reviewed Idlewild South, they said Elizabeth Reed was "the blueprint of a concert warhorse, capturing the Allmans at their most adventurous." As good as the studio version of Elizabeth Reed is, this live version is simply exhilarating.  On At Fillmore East, Elizabeth Reed becomes otherworldly at just over 13 minutes. Noted critic Robert Palmer wrote of the Allman Brothers “that if the musicians hadn't quite scaled Coltrane-like heights, they had come as close as any rock band was likely to get.” Duane was listening to a lot of John Coltrane and Miles Davis at the time. His solo in the second half of the song is incendiary. It is proof that not only was Duane a fine slide guitar player, he was also pretty damn good at playing without a slide as well.

Side 4 is also one song – Whipping Post. The original studio version is about 5 1/2 minutes long. This version is 23! Duane introduced the song – “Berry starts her off” – then a fan yells out “Whipping Post.” Duane responds “you guessed it,” and off they go…The verses, choruses, and solos go into 6/4 time, then the interludes after the vocal part go back to 11/4. Dickey Betts in particular gets to shine. Whereas Duane got the more memorable solos on Dreams and Elizabeth Reed, Dickey steps out on this version of Whipping Post. You can even hear the beginnings of Dickey’s instrumental Les Brers in A Minor. After Dickey gets through shredding, the band goes almost dead silent except for Duane’s guitar. After the apocalyptic climax you can hear Butch Trucks play the tympani to introduce the next monolithic jam, Mountain Jam. But that’s all you hear. Then the record fades…

The Allman Brothers recorded more than those 7 songs during their four shows at the Fillmore East. They also recorded One Way Out, Trouble No More [both of which were included on Eat a Peach], Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’ [included on the 1972 Duane Allman Anthology], Mountain Jam [also on Eat a Peach], and Drunken Hearted Boy with Elvin Bishop [which finally surfaced on the 1989 Dreams box set]. A few years ago Polygram released a “deluxe” version of At Fillmore East that includes both the original set and the songs I just listed here. Here’s the running order from the Deluxe Edition:

Statesboro Blues / Trouble No More / Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’ / Done Somebody Wrong / Stormy Monday / One Way Out* / In Memory of Elizabeth Reed / You Don’t Love Me / Midnight Rider*

Hot ‘Lanta / Whipping Post / Mountain Jam / Drunken Hearted Boy

The extra songs Trouble No More, Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’ and One Way Out are master classes from Duane Allman in bottleneck guitar playing.   On Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’ [complete with some on-stage feedback], Duane is just off the scale.  Dickey Betts shows that he is no slouch either, especially on One Way Out. Dickey Betts steps out and plays the lead parts, including the amazing first solo. You can tell the difference between Dickey and Duane – Duane plays the slide. There is a fuck-up on it as well, courtesy of Berry Oakley. He came out of the drum break one beat too early, but Butch Trucks played an extra beat to make up for it and quickly got everyone back on the same page. I love it when mistakes are left in…it makes the musicians seem more human. Whipping Post segues directly into Mountain Jam, so there is no fade at the end of Whipping Post as was on the original release.  On Eat a Peach, Mountain Jam served more as an epitaph for Duane Allman, but restored here in its proper context, one can enjoy the performance more rather than having to think about this being one of the last things we’d ever hear from Duane Allman.  The Deluxe Edition has a running time of 133 min, 59 seconds.  Ticket prices back in 1971 were in the single digits, so those who saw these shows definitely got their money’s worth and a whole lot more.

At this point in the Allman Brothers history, their setlists didn’t vary too much from day to day, so what is presented in the Deluxe Edition is a good representation of an Allman Brothers show.  They front loaded their sets with the blues, then came the fun and games with the long songs and improvisation.  The band played One Way Out during the March 1971 shows, but Tom Dowd thought the version they played on June 27, 1971 was definitive, hence the decision to wait until Eat a Peach to release it.  The version of Midnight Rider presented here was also recorded in June 1971 – I don’t know if they played it in March.

In 1992 Polygram release The Fillmore Concerts.  The band played four sets March 12 and 13, 1971 [The first show – 8pm.  The second show – 11:30pm.  There were no labor union curfews in those days.].  The first set they played on March 12th they included horn players, which drove Tom Dowd nuts because he hadn’t planned to record horns.  Thom Doucette played the harp on some of the songs – that was planned, but the extra horns weren’t.  He thought the tapes from that first show were “unusable,” but one song [Hot ‘Lanta] that included sax player Rudolph “Juicy” Carter found its way onto The Fillmore Concerts.  It sounds pretty good.  Duane’s solo is a bit more manic than what came out on the original release, so I wonder if the remainder of that particular show was really “unusable.”  Anyway, the band ditched the horns for the remaining three shows, and what was released was compiled from those three shows.  Stormy Monday had been edited to a shorter length for the original release.  On The Fillmore Concerts, Thom Doucette’s harmonica solo is restored.

The cover of At Fillmore East has its own story.  The shots were actually taken in Macon, Georgia by Jim Marshall.  The cover used for The Fillmore Concerts shows the band unsmiling, like they’re bored.  Then Duane saw a drug dealer friend of his, ran over to him, bought some cocaine, and rushed back to get into the picture for the next shot.    Duane [complete with shit eating grin] is sitting there with something [his drugs] cupped in his hands in his lap, while the rest of the bands is cracking up laughing.  That was the shot that made the cover.  On the back of the album the roadies are pictured as well.  To the band, the roadies were just as important as the band, hence their presence on the back cover.  Their road manager Twiggs Lyndon has his picture on the wall because he couldn’t be there for the shoot - he was in jail for killing someone who refused to pay the band after a show in Buffalo in 1970.

At Fillmore East certified gold on October 15, 1971.  It was the Allman Brothers’ first gold record.  Duane Allman was dead two weeks later.  It was like Moses went to the mountain top to see the Promised Land, but he couldn’t go there.  After thousands of miles of roadwork, and after playing an almost non-stop grind of 200+ shows a year for three years, Duane Allman at last got a small taste of the fruits of his labors.  Duane saw the success, but he didn’t live to enjoy it.

If you are going to own one and only one Allman Brothers Band album, the deluxe version of At Fillmore East is the one to have.  A Desert Island disc for me!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Trouble With the Curve

Meet Gus Lobel.  He’s old, he’s crotchety, he’s a widower, and he has failing eyesight. That last part is a big problem for him because he’s a scout for the Atlanta Braves.    He’s old-fashioned – he doesn’t use a computer [he refers to the Internet as the “Interweb”], he prefers to read reports about prospects in newspapers that he has scattered all over his house.  He also prefers to see prospects in person to judge for himself whether a player is worth signing and developing.  He’s the kind of baseball guy that the stat-obsessed number crunchers in Moneyball would deride as being “archaic.” 

Gus has a thirtysomething daughter named Mickey [named after Gus’ favorite player, Mickey Mantle].  She’s a workaholic lawyer who is in line to become a full partner at the firm where she works.  Gus [Clint Eastwood] and Mickey [Amy Adams] don’t get along too well.  Her mom [his wife] died when she was six.  He sent her off to live with relatives while he got on with his life discovering future major league baseball players, and she hates him for it.  She has abandonment issues, and she has commitment issues.  Whenever they get together, their meetings usually end in an argument with him telling her

Pete Klein [John Goodman] is Gus’ friend and his boss.  He knows that Gus is so “old school” that he probably couldn’t use a typewriter, let alone a computer.  He knows that despite Gus’s protests to the contrary, Gus’ eyesight isn’t what it used to be.  He’s seen Gus stumble around his house.  He knows Gus could forget more about baseball in ten minutes than most people could learn in a lifetime.  One of those people who couldn’t learn anything about baseball is a guy named Phillip Sanderson [Matthew Lillard], who is gunning for Gus’ job.  Phillip is the kind of guy you’d like to beat to death with a baseball bat.  He only wants Gus’ job as a stepping stone to become the Braves’ general manager.  He wants to do things the “Moneyball” way.  But Pete wants Gus to go to Asheville, NC to scout the latest high school baseball phenom, a kid name Bo Gentry.  Bo hits home runs with regularity, but he’s really just an asshole who thinks everything is about him.  He’s the kind of self-centered high school jock you’d love to hate.  He doesn’t want any of his teammates to mess up his chances of getting to the big leagues.  He mistreats a food vendor – calls him “Peanut Boy.”  Once he yelled at “Peanut Boy” to toss him some peanuts, but then didn’t pay him.  But this isn’t the last we see of “Peanut Boy.”  Phillip doesn’t need to actually see Bo Gentry – he’s in love with Bo’s stats.  Stats are good enough for Phillip. 

After Gus heads to North Carolina, Pete begs, pleads and grovels with Mickey to go there and help her dad.  The firm assigned her an important case.  Her impending partnership depends on how well she does.  Another guy in her office is also gunning for a partnership.  It’s a classic scenario – two people competing for one job.  One works her ass off, the other is a buttsnorkeler.  But for some unexplained reason she puts her important case on hold to go help her dad scout the kid.  She tries to work on her case while she’s not watching baseball games, but other things get in the way, like Justin Timberlake’s character, Johnny Flannigan.  His character is a guy who is scouting for the Boston Red Sox.  He hopes to parlay the scouting job into the Red Sox broadcast booth.  He knows Gus – Gus scouted him when he was younger and got him signed to the big leagues.  But he ended up with the Red Sox, who used him up too fast – he blew his arm out [rotator cuff] and his career was finished.  Mickey and Johnny slowly, surely and predictably get closer.    Also predictably, the law firm gets nervous about the case and assigns the buttsnorkeler to take over from Mickey.

Mickey and Gus go to a few games and scout Gentry.  At the last game, Gentry gets a curveball and hits to the outfield, where the ball is caught. Gus realizes that Gentry’s hands drift and he can’t hit a curve. He asks Mickey to make sure of this the next time Gentry is up to bat. The pitcher throws another curve, and Gentry hits it out of the park. Mickey sees that Bo’s hands indeed drift when he hits. She tells Gus what she saw and asks Gus how he knew. He tells her that he can hear the sounds of a pure clean pitch and hit. He says she’ll know what it is when she hears it.  Gus tells the Braves to not take Gentry.   He also tells Johnny the Braves are passing on Gentry, but [unbeknownst to Gus] Sanderson had his own guy scouting Gentry and is convinced Gentry is worth the pick.  He’s so sure about Gentry he offers to the GM to fire him if Gentry turns out to be a bad pick [Foreshadowing!].  So the GM listened to Sanderson and took Gentry in the draft.  Johnny thought Mickey and Gus played him for a sucker, got pissed, and left.

Afterwards while Gus and Mickey are having dinner, Mickey wants to talk about why Gus “abandoned” her when she was a child.  He doesn’t.  Earlier in the movie while at a bar Johnny asked Gus how he dealt with being a single father after his wife’s death, to which Gus answered “I didn’t.”  Mickey and Gus argue, and she storms out of the restaurant.  He checks out of the hotel and takes the bus home.  Mickey is all alone at the hotel when she hears two kids playing catch.  She heard “the sound” that Gus told her about.  Who was one of the kids?  You guessed it – it was “Peanut Boy.”  It turns out Peanut Boy [whose real name is Rigo] has an awesome fastball and an even better curveball.  When asked why he didn’t play, his mom [who is a housekeeper at Mickey’s hotel] said his mom wouldn’t let him because he got a “B” in Chemistry [way to go Mom! J].  Mickey thinks she’s found the “real deal” and offered to take him to Atlanta for a tryout.

After the obligatory scene where the GM tells Gus to enjoy his retirement, Pete gets a call from Mickey about who she’s bringing to the ballpark.  Next we see Gentry taking batting practice.  He still effortlessly hits balls out of the park.  Mickey and Peanut Boy show up.  Gentry scoffs at Peanut Boy, but Peanut Boy gets his chance.  He starts pitching batting practice – nothing but fastballs at first.  Gentry can’t touch him – Rigo has some nasty stuff.  Then Mickey tells Rigo to start pitching nothing but curve balls.  Even though Gentry knows they are coming, he can’t touch Rigo’s filthy stuff.  The GM notes as much.  The uppity jock Gentry got his comeuppance.  The old fashioned way was better than the Moneyball way in this case.  Score one for the Luddites!

As Gus and Mickey walk off the field they have the discussion Mickey wanted to have in the restaurant.  Gus tells Mickey about an incident in her childhood when she wandered off and ended up in a barn with a strange man who is touching her.  Gus beat the hell out of the guy, and he realized Mickey was better off living with other relatives who could take better care of her.  Mickey starts crying, saying that spending days with her dad at baseball parks all over the country was the best time of her life.  One gets the feeling throughout the movie that she was born to the baseball life, that it was her true calling. She even admits to Gus that she didn’t want to become a hot-shot lawyer in the first place. Meanwhile, she got a phone call from the law firm.  Apparently the buttsnorkeler didn’t do so well.  Her reaction to the call – she threw the phone in a dumpster.  Both Mickey and Gus have a laugh and reconcile.

After all the parties gather in the GM’s office, the GM asks Gus if he would consider another contract.  Gus says he’ll think about it.  The GM also says he’s going to offer Rigo a contract.  Gus says his hot-shot lawyer daughter will be his agent.  Sanderson scoffs at the whole idea and the GM fires him on the spot [and there was much rejoicing].  When Gus and Mickey leave the park, Johnny is waiting in a car outside.  Mickey gets in and they ride off together, leaving Gus to get dinner alone [happily].

Trouble With the Curve is a lightweight movie by Clint Eastwood’s standards, but this is not a bad thing.  He’s playing the same old grumpy guy he’s been playing for the last 20 years, only he’s not yelling at guys to get off his lawn while pointing a loaded shotgun at them.  Amy Adams is simply wonderful in her role.  I like her – a lot.  She has good on-screen chemistry with both Clint Eastwood and Justin Timberlake.  I must say that I enjoy Justin Timberlake’s acting a whole lot more than his singing.  He should stick with this acting thing.  John Goodman is good as always.  He’s a much underappreciated actor – always has been.   If you ever get a chance to see Trouble With the Curve, do it – you won’t be disappointed.