Early in January, guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks announced that they would be leaving The Allman Brothers Band at the end of this year. That means the end of a 25-year run for Haynes, who joined the group when he was 28, and a 15-year run for Trucks, who joined when he was 19. A bit later that month, Gregg Allman, the band’s singer, keyboardist and nominal leader, announced that the group as a whole would stop its regular touring after 2014.
And so this year’s run of shows at New York’s Beacon Theater, which started March 7 – a nearly unbroken tradition since 1989, when the band first re-formed – was the beginning of some kind of end. It’s unclear what will happen, but this lineup, at least, won’t come back around again and take root on the Upper West Side every March.
Wall Street hippies yelling “Whipping Post,” $500 tickets on the secondary market, ’60s bands getting back together with new members who weren’t alive in the ’60s, online set-list databases, tie-dyed merchandise, et cetera – ha ha, sure. But let’s think of it locally: New York is losing cultural traditions all around. And let’s think of it musically: Haynes and Trucks, as a unit and more or less the focal point of the group, are something special.
They helped build a new identity for the group on top of an old one. They don’t always fire perfectly together, but that’s in the nature of the operation. Allman Brothers shows have a fair amount of collective improvisation in them, rising or sagging not with Allman’s floury shouts, Hammond-organ pulsations and drowsy soul, but with the energy of all seven players. I have been bored through stretches of these shows during the last 15 years of intermittently reviewing them, and battered by repetitive phrasing in fitful grooves.
But when I haven’t, it has been hard to think of another rock band with two guitarists who can be so attentive to each other, and in service together to the greater good, in such different ways.
The spirit around these shows is informed credulousness: Anything can happen; transcendence is around the corner. If that’s how you feel, you might guess that Haynes and Trucks would be really on, truly at their best, in their final stretch at the Beacon. And what do you know? You’d be right. On March 7, Haynes and Trucks were amazingly good. The first set, especially, was stronger than jam-band first sets almost ever seem to be.
In fast shuffles and slow blues, Bo Diddley and New Orleans grooves and multipartite jams (including “Leave My Blues at Home,” “No One to Run With” and “True Gravity,” which hasn’t shown up in an Allmans set list since 2000), the guitarists resonated with each other in the arranged parts – all that harmonizing in thirds and shifting between fast and slow phrases – but they were far better in what lay outside the arrangements.
Each performed his own kind of heroism: Trucks with his style of quick-hammer picking, runs and flutters, behind the beat; Haynes with his hill-and-dale dynamics, either sensitively quiet or ragingly loud, on the beat. But they were also tuned into each other most of the time, looking for ways to complement and support. They lodged notes in the spaces of each other’s solos; each answered the other’s questions – even when the questions weren’t necessarily demanding answers.
They and the others looked outward, too: Trucks wandering close to Allman and engaging with his phrasing; Haynes doing the same with bassist Oteil Burbridge; the three drummers and percussionists (Jaimoe, Butch Trucks – Derek’s uncle – and Marc Quiñones) entraining rhythmically with one another and with the guitarists.
The first set was the winner. The second set became slightly bogged down around the middle in a version of Elmore James’ 12-bar blues “The Sky Is Crying,” but it roared back with a concert-closing encore of, yes, “Whipping Post.” There’s a prevailing notion around improvised music that the essence of a song is never truly arrived at – that, as the French philosopher and musicologist Peter Szendy has written, it “must remain always yet to come, at the (endless) end.”
But every now and then, especially in “True Gravity” and “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More,” I felt that I was hearing both real-time improvisation – the meaningful, textured, changeable, hypothetical kind – and a version of a song that might as well be definitive, the one on which to end your search.