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The Allman Brothers Band: New York Stories

by Dean Budnick on January 26, 2017
Following the tragic news of Butch Trucks' passing , today we reprint our 2003 Allman Brothers Band cover story.

The chatter picks up as the car slows down.

When the vehicle lurches to a stop in front of the loose police barricades, three dozen animated stalwarts milling by the stage door on this bracing mid-March evening, turn their heads towards the two figured who emerge. The pop of flashbulbs and spontaneous light applause greet Butch Trucks and his wife Melinda. Casually dressed and carrying a gym bag by his side, Trucks could be any man in his mid-fifties heading to a workout, which frankly, is just about right.

He pauses on his way in to exchange pleasantries with crew members and a few faces he recognizes amidst the crowd. Some compliment him on the previous night, others hold up memorabilia for an autograph, as Trucks lingers and obliges. The vibe is that of a Broadway show on performance night, which again, is just about right. However, the Beacon is twenty blocks above the theater district and tonight’s intensity level will swiftly surpass that of Thoroughly Modern Millie. Trucks, of course, is a founding member of the Allman Brothers Band and while many of the group’s formative moments occurred in the south, its thirty-four year run is also a New York story.

****

The Beacon Theater opened in 1928 and one suspects that the current backstage elevator toted those Vaudevillians who premiered there seventy-five years earlier. It “comfortably” holds about seven people including its operator whose job it is to deliver his charges to and from several floors of dressing rooms that sit atop one another. Elevator usage is often limited to the band, family and insiders yet immediately following a first set or the end of a show, there can be congestion, compounded by the close quarters in the hallway and the ranks of concertgoers festooned with passes, often necessitating the crew to form a phalanx to guarantee clear passage for the musicians. On this Saturday night at around 7:15, the area remains quiescent as the grill closes behind Butch and Melinda.

Upon entering his designated sanctum the drummer drops his leather jacket onto a chair and reaches for tonight’s setlist which rests on a counter in the crumbling, cozy chamber (the room is about the size of walk-in closet- which may be one of the reasons that the band members breeze in so close to showtime, particularly halfway into a thirteen night stand with no need for a soundcheck).

“Looks good, but you should have been here last night,” Butch states with uncharacteristic understatement. The second set in particular roared to a close with impeccable pacing and a representative range of material from the group’s three decades. “Rocking Horse” drove into “No One To Run With,” followed by “Dreams,” “Into The Mystic” “Southbound” and the newly-named “Instrumental Illness” which appears on Hittin’ The Note, the group’s first studio disc in nearly a decade, released earlier in the week. Then, as the band re-merged for its encore, Trucks himself strolled to the front of the stage, announcing, “In case you don’t know, I am the guy who’s been hiding behind that crap there for thirty-four years…” He then dedicated the band’s debut take on “Layla” to the memories of Duane Allman and Tom Dowd, with the results meriting frenetic response.

Setlist duties currently fall to Warren Haynes, who first took on the task, when he returned to the fold during a trial run at the Beacon two years earlier (billed as “The Allman Brothers Band with Special Guest Warren Haynes”). This was one of the responsibilities that followed from a phone call with Gregg Allman and later a lunch with Trucks in the months after Allen Woody died. These communications took place at a time when the ABB was at a crossroads after its founders asked Dickey Betts to leave the group. The initial phone call to Haynes was something a soft sell although it came from a resonant voice.

Allman remembers, “It had a been a while since Woody had passed away. I didn’t know what he was doing so I invited him to come down, play a little bit and see how it turns out. If you don’t like it, no problem…” While he is relatively low key about it, Gregg also admits that if it hadn’t worked out “we might have just said to hell with it.” However, Haynes did return to revitalize both Allman and the band by introducing new material and mixing up the setlists, completing a progression that began with one stock list on the 1989 reunion tour, moved to a three list rotation a few years later and finally arrived at the full-on daily shuffle of the present(some of the impetus had originated with Trucks, an internet maven, and a steady presence on the band’s web site, who had discovered that younger fans in particular were attending multiple shows and craved such variance).

As eight o’clock nears, now clad in the Lycra shorts he wears on stage, Butch begins a brief exercise regimen, prescribed by his trainer anddesigned to build the lateral strength in his legs which is comparatively weak due to years of playing high hat and bass drum. These stretches expose the mushroom tattoo on his right calf which has become part of ABB lore.

“There was a guy in San Francisco by the name of Lyle Tuttle and Dickey had really started in on tattoos. So he would go over and drop acid and Lyle would just freeform on Dickey. A couple of the other guys were into it on a lesser scale and one of them, I’m not sure who, came up with the idea and said, ‘Man, we should all get a band tattoo.’ I said, ‘Nooo…’ I just couldn’t think of anything I would still want on my body at age sixty but they kept it up. So I agreed I’d get a tattoo as long it was really small and out of the way. We came up with the idea of this little mushroom on our right calf. When we started the band we did a lot of psilocybin and it had become a symbol of the Allman Brothers. So we all got into this hotel room in San Francisco and Lyle started tattooing everybody. I had a full bottle of Jack Daniels in me and that sucker still hurt—how Dickey sat around free-forming full of acid I’ll never figure out. I’ll tell you how much it hurt—Jaimoe that big old tough guy got the outline done and then made Lyle stop. Everybody else has all these colors in their mushrooms but Jaimoe has the outline and that’s it.”

In some respects it is quite fitting that Jaimoe received only the outline. Guitarist Derek Trucks emphasizes that the drummer perpetuates the essence of the band yet he remains enigmatic, his contributions fluid. “He’s definitely coming from a real pure place. I think Jaimoe out of all of them has stayed true to what the band is about, at least to me.He’s in a real unique position of being able to play whatever he wants at any time. But man, when he settles into his thing whether it be that Jabo Starks early 70’s funk groove or straight ahead, it’s a really unique way of playing.” Starks of course is an apt comparison, not only because his work with Clyde Stubblefield in James Brown’s classic collective proved essential yet at times unheralded but also because it was this very tandem that led Duane Allman to enlist two drummers when he assembled the Allman Brothers Band in 1969. The duo’s connection was immediate as Derek’s Uncle Butch defined the grooves and Jaimoe (born Johnny Lee Johnson) colored them. Derek adds, “He’s been able to keep his musical personality, adding his distinctive fills because he’s been in the shadows.” As if to emphasize this last point Jaimoe materializes from the back wall of the venue excusing himself from a conversation and easing behind his drums as sounds start to rumble from the stage.

The last one in place is Allman, guided by manager Bert Holman’s flashlight. Holman, who first served in a managerial capacity while working for John Scher in the 1970’s and later returned in 1990 (initially as tour manager) continues to take an active role on the night of a show, including the band introduction (listen for him at the outset of Peakin at the Beacon). This responsibility fell to Holman after too many incidents in which other individuals had announced the group before it was ready. This timing is significant to Allman who suffers from pre-show anxiety (as does bassist Oteil Burbridge). Gregg notes, “Starting around 4:30 I’m afraid that I’m not going to be good enough.People call it stage fright but that’s basically what it is, you feel like you’re inadequate. But when everything’s ready and the energy from the people hits you and the downbeat hits then those symptoms you had are so far away.”
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