The Allman Brothers Band‘s “March Madness” is something of a tradition for live music fans in New York. For the uninitiated, the Brothers have been doing extended residencies in the city nearly every year since 1989. The band – which includes founding members Gregg Allman (organ, vocals, acoustic guitar), Jaimoe (drums) and Butch Trucks (drums and percussion), along with Marc Quinones (percussion and backing vocals), Derek Trucks (guitar), Oteil Burbridge (bass) and Warren Haynes (guitar and vocals) – have 10 sold out nights at The Beacon Theater this month. Nearly all of the “March Madness” shows over the years have been held at The Beacon.
The group have been doing less touring in recent years, and aren’t the most prolific band in the studio: they’ve only released two studio albums in the past two decades; their most recent, Hittin’ The Note, coming in 2003. Last year, they concentrated on side projects, with Allman and Haynes putting out solo albums, and Derek Trucks dedicating time to his new band with his wife, Susan Tedeschi, The Tedeschi Trucks Band. In fact, all three members were nominated for Best Blues Album at the Grammys (with The Tedeschi Trucks Band winning). The entire band, however, were honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Despite their outside projects, their accolades, and their considerable history (which would be easy to lean on) they play with a fire of a band that still has something to prove. They improvise far more than most of their ’60s and ’70s peers, and don’t rely on hits quite as much. At the same time, their songs pack more punch than those of the jam bands who they influenced.
Right before they hit The Beacon’s stage, the promoter announced that he’d been lucky enough to see them rehearse the day before. They started in the afternoon, and he noted that they didn’t finish until 7 in the morning. That rehearsal resulted in a tightness was evident all night long. Opening with an instrumental take on Rodgers & Hammerstein‘s “My Favorite Things” (a nod to John Coltrane‘s version of the song), they then went to more familiar territory with “Blue Sky,” a song written and originally sung by founding member Dickey Betts (who was dismissed from the band in 2000), with Allman taking the vocals.
The Allmans don’t seem to mind whether they are performing their songs or someone else’s: the important thing is that they perform it well. And some of their covers double as their most well known tunes, case in point is their take on Muddy Waters‘ “Trouble No More,” which has lost none of it’s energy, even though the band has been playing it for nearly their entire career. They followed that with a rendition of Dr. John‘s classic “I Walk On Guilded Splinters” (perhaps a nod to the fact that Dr. John played piano on most of Allman’s recent solo record, Low Country Blues).
After an intermission, the second half started with an acoustic set that kicked with an unexpected cover of Neil Young‘s “The Needle And The Damage Done.” Allman sang it as a survivor who knows both sides of that equation. They stayed “unplugged” for their rendition of Robert Johnson‘s “Come On In My Kitchen,” and “Soulshine,” a song that Haynes wrote for the Allmans, but later re-recorded with his other band, Gov’t Mule. It’s easily Haynes’ most well-known song, and has become one of the Allman’s biggest hits from their last few decades. The acoustic set closed with an Allman/Haynes duo version of Jackson Browne‘s “These Days” (which Gregg covered early in his solo career).
The band re-plugged in for a few more songs including “Rockin’ Horse,” their cover of Willie Dixon‘s “Same Thing” and their classic instrumental “Jessica” (one of the few instrumentals with a melody so distinct that fans actually sing along to it). Throughout the night, you could see the nonverbal communication between the members: they were clearly playing without a net, and enjoying the thrill of it, after more than four decades of live improvisation. While this lineup has only recorded one album, a good argument could be made to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that they should induct the newer members (Quionnes, Haynes, Derek Trucks, Burbridge and late bassist Allen Woody). The members of the original lineup were inducted in 1995.
The Allman Brothers Band have nine nights left of “March Madness.” Next month, they headline their 8th annual Wanee Festival in Live Oak, Florida.