Seeing Duane Allman play live was a life altering event for me. Just as we’ve come to accept the notion of a soulmate, I personally believe there is a musical equivalent. Locked in our core, each of us has musical soul waiting to be set free, and if we’re fortunate we’ll encounter the key. In my case it happened while I was still a teenager, when I experienced Duane Allman on stage at the Peabody Auditorium in Daytona Beach, Florida – September 16, 1970 to be exact.
It’s not that I didn’t love music prior to this, I did. I had seen musicians like Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, John Mayall, Rory Gallagher, Peter Green, Steven Stills, Neal Young, Jimi Hendrix and many more. I was enthralled with Jimmy Smith’s playing, the music of Brazil, Bach and so much more, but seeing Duane play live was a transforming experience.
Duane seemed at times to be channeling music from a higher plane. I sat transfixed, my sense of awareness and powers of concentration heightened. If you’ve ever experienced how time slows down when you’re in a traffic accident, that’s how I experienced that concert. It was incredibly intense, Duane’s playing and facial expression radiated a palpable sense of ecstasy.
Many people first learned of Duane Allman through the legendary double LP Live At the Fillmore East, ranked the third greatest live rock album of all time. This amazing recording took place six moths after I saw Duane. So I came to the concert unaware of what was about to unfold. I was hoping that the Allman Brothers might be as good as their last (in this case their first) LP – in those days that was about the best you could expect from a group. Clearly with the Allman Brothers Band it was the opposite, there wasn’t a studio on earth that could capture what they were putting down live.
The set list of the show I witnessed was very close to the Fillmore shows that were captured in March the next year. I heard In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, You Don’t Love Love Me, Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’ and the extended versions of other songs for the first time that night– with Gregg and Duane’s mother sitting proudly in the front row of the auditorium.
Duane was totally on top of his game that night, the acoustics were great and the band sounded as good as they do on the Fillmore recordings – except live it is more powerful and intense. Less than a week earlier he had been in Criteria Studios in Miami with Eric Clapton recording the first Derek And The Dominos LP, and he would return a couple of weeks later to finish it up. No doubt, musically those were magical times for him.
In contrast to many bands I saw in that era, the Allman Brothers did not engage in preening or stage antics. They wore street clothes and were almost subdued on stage. It was all about the music and the band seemed to have a collective ego, in contrast to groups like Cream, or for that matter, the Allman Brothers Band post Duane when Dickey became Richard and Gregg became Gregory Lenoir.
The night I saw them Berry Oakley did almost all of the talking, he was very upbeat and animated. Also I should mention that as riveting as Duane was to watch, Berry Oakley was absolutely incredible. Often I was drawn to watching him during the concert even during Duane and Dickey’s solos. He didn’t just play bass lines, he had the ability to follow what Duane, Gregg and Dickey were doing during their solos and basically play a bass solo that accentuated what they were doing (without fighting for the spotlight.) IMHO, Cream would have been a much better jam band if Jack Bruce would have adopted Berry’s approach. In any case, Berry’s energy, stamina, and playing were amazing.
Also I’ll share a thought that ran through my mind at the opening of the show – remember, prior to this show I only knew the Allman Brothers Band from their first studio LP. I’m not completely sure, but I think they were playing Statesboro Blues, Duane of course on slide, and Dickey played the first regular guitar solo of the night. My initial thought was, God this guy is great, why would they have another guitarist? And as long as I’m being completely honest, then after Duane’s first solo, it was clear to me that he was on a totally different level. Still, that being said, the amazing thing is that I didn’t sense any degree of competitiveness between Dickey and Duane that night – again, it came across as though they had a collective ego and simply wanted to make the best music they could.
Thirteen is thought to be an unlucky number, and thirteen months after seeing Duane he was tragically killed on his motorcycle.
It’s difficult to express how my world changed after the world lost Duane Allman. Rather than words I’ve tried to capture it with this short film.
It’s important to be honest when blogging. Duane was in some respects a tortured artist who used music, drugs, and others excesses to deal with the pain in his life. His father, an army sergeant, was murdered the day after Christmas when Duane was three years old. His widowed mother, looking for a way to support her children, put Duane and his brother Gregg into a military academy while she returned to school. Little wonder that Gregg and Duane were drawn to the blues.
Duane was a classic rebel, perhaps projecting the responsibility for his pain onto the authority figures of society. Making music was surely a therapeutic release and the intensity of being in the moment on stage functioned like a drug for him. This was a powerful source of inspiration and drive. Naturally he couldn’t be on stage all the time, and unfortunately drugs became a way to self medicate and escape.
While I consider Duane Allman an extraordinary artist, I can certainly understand why, for example, any number of guitarists, especially jazz guitarists, might wonder what all the fuss is about if they only know him from studio recordings or, God forbid, the very meager video resources available. I suspect that if someone caught Duane on a good night and witnessed Trouble No More, Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’, Leave My Blues At Home, Stormy Monday, You Don’t Love Me, and Whippin’ Post flow into Mountain Jam – they would no longer wonder what all the fuss was about.
His gift, from my perspective, wasn’t his technical proficiency (although there are examples of absolutely remarkable playing – listen to the final Fillmore concert linked at the bottom of this post.) It was his intensity, his fearlessness and risk taking, his emotional expression, his ability to tap into something higher than his own self, his innovative approach, his unique musical voice, and his artistic vision that made him one of the true greats. While there are some examples of his guitar being out of tune, sloppy playing and risk taking gone wrong (perhaps due to drugs or alcohol), thankfully, on the Fillmore recordings his extraordinary genius was captured. Tragically, it was evident that during the final years of his life he seemed to be in a musical growth spurt in terms of his technical proficiency – his fingers were catching up with his mind.
“I guess the thing I really wasn’t aware of was how incredibly hard he worked at his craft. He had some natural talent, but he wasn’t like, say, Derek Trucks. Derek was a child prodigy. Duane worked literally around the clock to become the great guitarist he became. Many of the people I interviewed told me that Duane ALWAYS had his guitar strapped around his neck. He would fall asleep wearing his guitar, go to the bathroom wearing his guitar, make his morning coffee with his guitar on, etc. Until source after source repeated that same info to me, I had thought that much of what he did came naturally to him. But clearly, that wasn’t the case.”
I think Poe is onto something with his remark about Derek being a child prodigy. I suspect that as with learning a language, there is a tremendous advantage to beginning with a musical instrument prior to reaching puberty. Also I wonder if being left-handed and playing right-handed impeded Duane’s technical progress – that we’ll never know. In any case, the story goes that Gregg and Duane were in Nashville in 1959 visiting family and went to a rock and roll / blues show and saw B.B. King. This was Duane’s key moment, taking it all in he exclaimed to Gregg, “We’ve gotta get into this!”
Unfortunately Duane’s best playing was never captured on film. I had an internal debate about using some clips from a Fillmore show filmed by a crew obviously unfamiliar with the Allman Brothers Band. Also, Duane clearly wasn’t having a great night on stage, was he uptight about being filmed? Did he do or take something to deal with the anxiety? In any case, he wasn’t at his best, although for Dickey Betts fans, he was having a good night. In any case, here are a couple of clips:
In the years after Duane’s death I discovered lots of great music and saw many wonderful musicians live, but there was no other musician who moved me like Duane did.
Then unexpectedly that changed. Eighteen years had passed since I had seen Duane and I had recently moved to Germany. In those days television was state run and culture was promoted, so it wasn’t unusual to have classical, jazz, rock and blues concerts on television in the evening without commercial interruptions. One night I noticed that the great Hammond B3 star Jimmy Smith, one of my musical heroes, was on TV. When it started I was a bit annoyed because a young German woman, an unknown to me, was going to open the concert.
When Barbara Dennerlein played I had the same intense experience that I had with Duane Allman. And it’s happened to me one other time, sixteen years after seeing Barbara, when I saw an Allman Brothers Band DVD with Derek Trucks. Stay with me, there’s a reason I mention this. Here’s a clip of Barbara from 1989, a not too long after I first saw her on television.
But for me there was an even greater gift in store, I had the chance to speak with Barbara about Duane and Derek and share their music with her, and I had the chance to speak to Derek about Duane and Barbara and share her music with him. For a music lover, what could be more wonderful? Not only speaking with, for lack of a better word, one’s musical heroes, but speaking with them about another musical hero and making them aware of each other. Later, in the summer of 2007, I interviewed Barbara for All About Jazz and she shared this about Duane and Derek:
AAJ: You know I love the slide guitar…
BD: [Laughs] Yes I know.
AAJ: … because it doesn’t have distinct notes, it has this fluid sound…
BD: Exactly, and it’s a different kind of playing. You can stretch the tone and you can get a special sound and an intense feeling. I like that very much and it’s a special kind of blues playing, you know what Duane Allman did was so innovative and special. And I’m really fascinated by the recordings I’ve heard by Derek Trucks, who in a way followed his [Duane’s] position in the Allman Brothers Band. He has so much energy in his playing, and he has so much feeling, and blues feeling. I saw this video clip of him playing as a young boy, and it knocked me off my chair what he was playing at such a young age, simply incredible, he already had that feeling for music and the blues, and he already had his sound—at age twelve!
AAJ: I know you’ve seen the DVD of the new Allman Brothers Band with Derek, and as a jazz musician I’m curious what you think of them?
BD: I like them very much, and I like the interaction they have, and of course I love their Hammond sound.
AAJ: I think Gregg Allman is a very tasteful player.
BD: He is very tasteful and I think he really loves the Hammond sound, I think they all communicate very well with each other, and they play together in an interesting way. I like that the music is quite open, the flow of time, the variety, and I think Derek gives the band a different sound again. You know, it’s not just following up Duane Allman, Derek has his own personality, energy and his own style of playing, and a strong blues feeling that I love, and I think you can hear that he’s also into jazz music. I heard him play some jazz compositions with his own band and I liked the way he did it, and I think this is something too, when he plays blues you can feel that he’s not only into blues, he’s extending his abilities so he can do different things.
And he’s a very modest person on stage, I like that, because mostly the people who are that way are great players. No big show, you know what I mean.
AAJ: How about Eric Clapton?
BD: He’s a god of blues guitar anyway, when I think about it there’s almost no blues guitarist he hasn’t played with. It’s incredible. I mean, he’s played with everyone. He’s a fantastic player and I’m so—there was a night when I was invited to the Clapton concert in Munich by Derek’s manager, and I wanted to see Derek Trucks with Eric Clapton and all the band, and I had just came back from a tour, and so I was able to go, but my car broke down on the way to the concert! I did everything I could to make it to the concert, but I had to be towed from the Autobahn. In the end I couldn’t make it, and I was so sad, it was my chance to finally meet Derek personally and talk, and of course to hear them play live, and live is always a special experience, much more impressive than seeing someone play on a DVD or such.
And I think it is great that Derek got to play with the god of the blues guitar.
AAJ: I think too, that in a way that shows what kind of a musician Eric Clapton is, that he sees someone so talented and he’s prepared to stand next to him.
BD: Exactly, back to before, that’s how I wish it had been with Jimmy Smith. Derek is a fantastic player and it’s wonderful that Eric Clapton accepts another great guitar player next to him on stage—and not only accepts, in a way he featured him. I think Eric is fantastic for doing that.
AAJ: It was a great show.
BD: Absolutely, I could really—when I think about it—it really makes me sad.
AAJ: You had the blues.
BD: [Laughs] Exactly, I had the blues, that’s funny! And I really hope God gives me a second chance someday! [laughs]
But I also want to say that I really do hope that one day I’ll have a chance to play with one of the real blues guys, I love that guitar sound, that feeling, and I mean the blues, not the jazzy kind of blues, but the more traditional kind of blues.
AAJ: I think of jazz and blues as brothers. Blues is the younger, wilder brother, who’s out lookin’ for a good time on Friday night—he’s rougher around the edges. Jazz is also a fun guy, but he’s gone off to college, he’s more mature and sophisticated…
BD: Yeah that’s right. You know that I sometimes play with a couple of guys who have a blues duo, and they play traditional blues and boogie woogie. And for me it’s always different because I come from jazz. I love the blues, you know that, but the harmonies are much more complex in jazz, so when I play with them and come back to the roots, I really have to let go of things and not play the extensions and harmonic stuff I play in jazz music, or even when I play a jazzy blues, it’s all too much. You have to really concentrate on the simple things, and this is also a kind of challenge.
When I spoke to Derek I shared many of the impressions I had of seeing Duane on stage, and I told him that Duane was like a painter who used his guitar as a brush, and the hall was like a giant canvas that he filled with swirling colors as he pulled us into his musical world. It was clear to me that Derek shared my connection to Duane.
Well a lot has happened since I spoke with Derek in 2005, things have come full circle. I flew to France to be there for Derek’s first show with Eric Clapton as they played many of the same songs Duane and Eric had recorded 35 years earlier – the same time I experienced Duane live.
I feel very blessed.
Here’s a very interesting clip for Duane Allman and Eric Clapton fans.
I leave you with a few final impressions of Duane playing. This is from a free concert in New York’s Central Park, the visual quality is extremely bad, but you can at least catch a bit of the magic of Duane.
Here’s another very short clip from 1969.
Here’s a clip from a concert in Love Valley, North Carolina. It’s not a clip of anything special, just a chance to see Duane on stage.
And for the true Duane Allman fans, here’s a radio interview (very poor audio quality)
Finally, a great tip, you can listen to a couple of ABB concerts with Duane here