The Allman Brothers' legacy is mighty, but oddly enough, it's also greatly misunderstood by both the group's biggest fans and their most fervent detractors. Let's start with the former: those jam-band freaks. Oh, their hearts are in the right place, definitely. Yet from what I've discerned, they frame their heroes as really nothing more than the South's answer to The Dead: feel-good groovery for mellow mushrooms and sunshine daydreams.
This perspective isn't totally the jam-band crowd's fault; it's conditioned by historical circumstance. After visionary navigator Duane Allman died in a motorcycle crash in October of '71, the band retreated (rightfully so) to safe harbor. The Sunday-afternoon country rock and blues marking Brothers and Sisters, the studio material from Eat a Peach and Win, Lose or Draw made for great radio rock in the mid-'70s. Ultimately, though, that stuff had more in common with the quaintly rural vibes of American Beauty and The Band than it did the five-alarm-fire music captured on the iconic At Fillmore East, which turns 42 years old this month.
Recorded mere months before Duane's premature demise (he was just shy of 25), At Fillmore East is anything but mellow or feel-good. The group's artistic peak, it's an acid-drenched fusion of soul, blues, rock, funk, gospel and jazz, one whose third-eye, overdrive potency was a direct product of Duane and brother Gregg having spent time on the West Coast a few years before while they were still in the blue-eyed soul/pop act The Hour Glass. Out there, exploring the thriving concert scene, the brothers were exposed to Hendrix, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Cream, Big Brother & The Holding Company and The Jeff Beck Group, all of whom were frantically redefining HEAVY within the rock context (i.e. rolling hard rock up a mountain made of heavy metal).
At the very same time, the brothers were also catching performances from the new wave of progressive bluesmen: The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Johnny Winter, Fleetwood Mac, Taj Mahal and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. Though a diverse bunch, these cats were all doing something similar to what the rockers were up to, only within a blues framework. In other words, they were filtering the electric blues of B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Elmore James through high-volume maximalism and (as was the case with Butterfield in particular) John Coltrane's microtonal spiritualism.
So yeah, Duane-era Allmans were just flat-out heavier, meaner, more intense and far more out than the ramblin' men of later years (as well as every jam band ever since). Not only that, they unleashed a brand of psychedelic boogie -- fueled as it was by the psychic twin-guitar brilliance of Duane and the criminally underrated Dickey Betts -- that possessed more bite than The Dead. Which isn't a knock against Jerry and crew, whose freeform cosmic explorations certainly inspired the Allmans a great deal; it's just that in terms of propulsion, they lacked the torque of their Southern compatriots.
As for the group's detractors, these folks are just plain evil, I have to say. There seems to be a segment of the population -- usually from the North (like me, full disclosure) -- who dismiss the Allmans as good ole boys singing about Dixie pride. A profound sense of Southernness certainly coursed through vintage Allmans, but it had nothing at all to do with the stereotypes of the South we Yankees like to perpetuate. As the liner notes to the excellent soul jazz compilation Delta Swamp Rock point out, "At the start of the '70s, a new type of music emerged out of the Southern states of Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi and Florida. Southern rock, the creation of young blue-collar white Americans, blended rock, soul, country and blues music together to present a new vision of the South -- a post-Civil Rights Southern identity complete with a celebration of the region's natural landscape and its way of life."
This new Southern identity (a polite version of which Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, rode to the White House in '76) was deeply influenced by the LSD-fueled consciousness expansion the hippies were investigating out in San Francisco. After all, the newly formed Allman Brothers -- after having been chased out of their hometown of Jacksonville, Fl., in '69 for being too weird -- relocated to Macon, Ga., where they lived in a communal home (known as the "hippie crash pad") and held massive concerts/picnics swimming in psychoactives. Now, how awesome is that? It was one thing to be longhair rebels in Golden Gate Park, but Flag City U.S.A.?!? That takes serious cojones.
But this new identity was also rooted in history unique to the South. The Allmans were the psychedelic-era expression of the mixed-race collectivity that defined Southern soul throughout the '60s. As Peter Guralnick details in Sweet Soul Music, while the Civil Rights movement tore through the South, both Memphis' Stax label and FAME Studios in Alabama played out the very integration said movement prophesized. Of course, these institutions weren't totally free of political/social strife, but in many fundamental respects, the amazing music they produced reflected a collaborative nature between black and white singers, musicians and songwriters that was utterly singular. It's something Duane witnessed firsthand. For most of 1968, after The Hour Glass fell apart, he logged time as a session guitarist at FAME (fellow Hour Glass members Pete Carr, Johnny Sandlin and Paul Hornsby all joined him). It's there (surrounded by such amazing Southern characters as Spooner Oldham and Eddie Hinton) that he and Wilson Pickett recorded a hard-rockin' soul version of "Hey Jude" that more than a few consider the birth of the very sound the Allmans would later unleash on Fillmore East. Here are the albums that directly influenced it.