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Duane Allman: A Matter of Influence (Relix Revisited)

by John Swenson on January 23, 2014

Over the weekend the Allman Brothers Band added a final round of dates to their 2014 Beacon Theatre run. The shows will include a performance on March 25 that will mark the band's 45th anniversary. Today, we’ve decided to go back where it all begins with this feature on Duane Allman. The piece originally ran in the April/May 2009 issue of Relix celebrating the band's 40th birthday.

Electric guitarists defined the rock era. A handful of players with signatures as recognizable as the great poets of history created a landscape that we still enjoy long after they’re gone. There will never be another Duane Allman, just as there will never be another Jimi Hendrix or Jerry Garcia, but generations of unborn players will continue to explore the new vistas that these visionaries charted.

Like Hendrix, Allman’s impact is particularly remarkable in that his achievements were accomplished in only a few years. Considering that The Allman Brothers Band is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, it’s amazing to think that Duane’s defining contributions to the band’s profile took place over the course of just two studio albums, part of a third and a live recording. Nevertheless the band’s signature, multi-show stand at New York’s Beacon Theater in March is an open tribute to Duane’s influence, not just on the Allman Brothers sound itself, but on American music in general.

“We’re making the whole Beacon run a tribute to Duane,” says Warren Haynes, who took over Duane’s role in the band 20 years ago, “and bringing in as many people who were connected with him as possible. His presence is felt quite a lot in the overall spirit of what we’re doing these days. We’re trying to really honor that and trying to even second-guess what his vision would have been and try to imagine where it would have gone.” How does someone who made such a brief appearance on the public stage manage to have such a lasting impact?

The first time you hear him play, Duane Allman alters your perception of how the electric guitar is capable of sounding. Duane’s sound marries seemingly contradictory elements, at once elegant and raw, balanced perilously on the scales of rhythmic and melodic demand. His single-note guitar lines are magnificently phrased constructions played with an arresting vibrato tone, a delicate floral interlace with the resilience of tree bark. His rhythm work is always perfectly suited to the needs of the composition, played with the precision of blues and R&B masters yet fierce in service of the flow and every bit as aggressive as his lead work. Duane’s playing lends urgency to its context, even at moments of reflection.

But Duane’s signature is his slide guitar playing, a chimerical Excalibur of a sound many would imitate but none could wield as he could. Duane’s slide playing sounds like the cry of a human voice, like the clarion call of church bells, like birdsong on a spring morning. Most importantly, Duane never stopped trying to grow as a musician, exploring a connection between blues, rock, country and jazz that is still being plumbed today.
His spirit guides the Allman Brothers every night.

“It was his band and in a very real way it still is his band,” says Derek Trucks, the gifted young guitarist who is celebrating his tenth year with the ABB. “With the guys that knew him who are still in the band you can see Duane’s presence and shadow moving at times. They’re very conscious of his original intention. It still guides the band in a way. He was such a powerful musical persona, such a powerful personality. Some of the ground rules he laid down 40 years ago are still driving the ship. That’s a serious presence.”

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