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!