My absolute favourite thing about Allman Brothers At Fillmore East album is the introduction by the MC, Michael Ahern, he sounds like he can barely be arsed as he says, ‘Okay, the Allman Brothers Band’ in the same tone you’d ask for your car to be filled up, or for another carrier bag at the supermarket. None of this whooping and shouting stuff that live LPs sometimes kick off with, nobody screams ‘You wanted the best? You got the best!’, or explodes a 50′ animatronic train through a screen. No. The Allman Brothers Band just didn’t need all that fuss.
Struggling to make ends meet, not assisted by some rather rapacious chemical dependencies, the Allman Brothers Band played over 300 shows in 1970, so when March 1971 rolled around and they found themselves supporting Johnny Winter at the Fillmore they grabbed at the chance to lay down some of their onstage fire and chemistry on wax, ably assisted by Tom Dowd. The production by the way, unlike so many ‘live’ LPs just involved toning down the horn section and the harp player a bit and splicing one track out of two takes – other than that, it’s just as the good lord intended. For the obsessive weirdoes amongst you there are now a plethora of recordings of every night so that you can play hunt the take, I’m not judging you, but you can’t go wrong just sticking with the original At Fillmore East in my view.
Funnily enough I don’t really rate the first three tracks on At Fillmore East very highly, to my jaded old ears they’re pleasant enough but a bit light and inconsequential. The playing is never less than stellar but I don’t hear anything to get excited about on them, give me Taj Mahal’s mighty version of ‘Statesboro Blues’ any day. This is possibly an effect of hearing so many of these tones and licks stolen and refracted through various burned out 80’s dudes that even the likes of ‘Stormy Monday’ just hit a samey groove for me – some bespectacled players out there stole a whole lot from Duane and co.
So bearing in mind that I’ve just airily dismissed three tracks from a seven track LP out of hand, what’s so special about the rest?
Well, At Fillmore East really takes to the skies from its’ second side onwards and ‘You Don’t Love Me’ a 19-minute jam around the old Willie Cobbs number. The band immediately sound energised barreling into a great little shuffling groove and when Duane, after volleying off a whole barrage of scorching licks, starts to solo the whole band just drop away – possibly lost in the same feeling of awe as the rest of us. This is just greatness on wax. What impresses me so much is that Duane and the band never lose sight of the song throughout all this extended virtuosity, they keep cutting back to certain notes and phrases that make it all seem part of an organic whole. The extended quoting from the melody of ‘An Ode To Joy’ at the end of the track just raises it all up a notch on the Sublime-o-meter.
The instrumental ‘Hot ‘Lanta’ is a whole different kettle of fish. The feel is immediately jazzier and progressive, showing off the joint drumming of Jai Johanny Johanson and, the frigging wonderfully named, Butch Trucks at their absolute best. I hear some Santana in there too. What impresses me throughout is the incredible turn-on-a-dime dexterity of the Allman Brothers Band, they always sound really light on their feet to me, like they could, if called upon, flip Zappa-like into a totally different genre at the snap of the fingers.
Best of all for me is the utterly transcendent ‘In Memory of Elizabeth Reed’, named after a tombstone in the same cemetery in Macon, Georgia that both Duane Allman and Berry Oakley would grace only 20 months after this track was recorded. This is such a brilliant track too, the band just glide – Dickie Betts’ guitaring is quite incredible on this one and the Latin rhythms are deployed to true maximum effect, creating a fabulously inspired gumbo of jazz, blues, Latin and rock. The beauty of it all is that it all sounds so natural and unstudied, the band are just flying.
I said ‘best of all’ then but what does that then make ‘Whipping Post’? joint best of all maybe? Duane’s vocals are excellent here too. Do you really need to make me trot out everything I’ve just written over the last three paragraphs again? Good. Given the subject matter* this is a more emotional, heavier blues-based number with some truly elegiac passages, where those guitar strings really get tested.
So, that’s what’s so special about At Fillmore East and why it is such a worthwhile LP. This isn’t just about musical virtuosity, there are plenty of albums out there that plough that furrow, the album really captures a group of exceptional musicians at the pinnacle of their game, letting us marvel at the way they mesh and laying out all their interplay for our delectation. It takes an exceptional bunch of hardened time-served vets to sound simultaneously this together and this free and I really like the way that the band, unlike so many of their peers** don’t just reach for the distortion and heavy volume to punch their way across, this is way subtler.
But, in-depth musical analysis isn’t why you’re here you want to know about the superficialities. I love the cover unreservedly, although I was shattered to learn it wasn’t actually taken out back of the Fillmore East but back in Macon, Georgia. The front cover is so great because of the fact that all the band are genuinely amused that Duane was hiding a stash of bad things in his lap that he’d got from a dealer friend of his during the photo shoot – it was one of those heaven sent moments because it shows the band looking as free and natural as the grooves within. The back cover is also just perfect, showing the roadies drinking their payment for moving all the gear outside – you wouldn’t want to mess with those gentleman is all I’m saying. The dude in the inset picture? tour manager Twiggs Lyndon Jr. The reason he wasn’t sat on the cases? he was awaiting trial for stabbing an unarmed club owner who owed the band money. He walked. You wouldn’t want to mess with these gentlemen, indeed.
‘Okay, the Allman Brothers Band’ .
*one of them mean mistreating woman types. You know the sort, the type that’ll do you wrong twice before breakfast and once after lunch on an average day.
**most of whom I love for the fact.