When I think of the Allman brothers, it isn’t for the music they made together. Rather, two things come to mind: one cultural (Duane’s playing on “Layla”), the other pop cultural (Gregg’s marriage to Cher). The only song of theirs I can say I certainly knew was “Ramblin’ Man”, which never inspired me to dig deeper into their catalogue. I’ve never much liked southern rock. The things I heard on the radio growing up didn’t trigger any sort of sweet spot, and it was too close to country, which, as my parents’ music, I was mostly trying to avoid in my personal listening. Later, I came to love some country, and now I think southern rock has an unearned sentimentality to much of it, a claiming of country-and-western tropes but with a poser’s lack of commitment and honesty. That’s a pretty broad brush stroke, and maybe my attitude will change as I continue along this exploratory path. But I’ll fight to hold this hill right now.
So, this album turned out to be an unexpected pleasure. It hasn’t changed my mind about southern rock because that isn’t what the Allman Brothers were in 1972. There are hints of it coming down the pike – most notably on “Blue Sky” – but this version – half dominated by Duane’s guitar, half finding a new path after his sudden death during the recording process – shows a band in transition, making for a bit of a Frankenstein. They were at heart a blues jam band during Duane’s tenure, more spiritually akin to the Grateful Dead than later notables like Lynyrd Skynyrd. Their blues bonafides show up in the covers of “One Way Out” and “Trouble No More”, and there’s no jam band flex like having some 45 minutes of a record taken up by instrumentals.
Of the originals, “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More” finds Gregg in a contemplative mood after Duane’s passing, and I love the uptempo ballad “Melissa”. But the highlight, unexpectedly, is the 33:41 “Mountain Jam”. I never thought I could ever love listening to a band noodle around for over half an hour, yet with every play of this track I become more entranced. The energy never flags, no one mails it in even once, and there is not a second of this that doesn’t hold your attention. Every time I started to think, “Well, this is going on a bit too long”, they would switch it up, a keen sense of the moment taking control. I can’t ever just skip to the end, because I want to hear what’s coming next. A lot of prog bands could’ve taken a lesson from this had they been paying attention.
I’m not the biggest fan of live albums. Live music is great, and when your favourite band takes a tight 5-minute tune and stretches it to 19:28, you are there for every repetitive second of it. On record, not so much: on your (hopefully) comfortable couch or behind the wheel of your (maybe) comfortable car, you sort of just want them to get on with it.
So, we have another Deep Purple record, with a fair bit of overlap with “Machine Head”: four of that album’s seven tracks get the live treatment. This time around it’s a seven-track double album, so you know there is at least one ridiculously long song that meanders with no apparent purpose. On this record it is “Space Truckin’”, a not very memorable “Machine Head” cut that came in at 4:31, now stretched to an almost unbearable 19:42. I lost interest long before the end, and it seemed the band might have, too, and as I strolled along the boardwalk, I stopped paying attention to the song and started thinking about what I was going to have for breakfast.
Otherwise, I liked the three tracks that were new to me – the Deep Purple canon being a mostly blank spot in my music listening history – and the length didn’t seem overdone even though each tops nine minutes. Blackmore’s playing still shines, and “Smoke on the Water” remains an unassailable classic. I just have a hard time accepting there wasn’t another record more worthy of the slot.
For my money, if you limited yourself to just picking another album that rocks, this spot in the Top 20 would’ve been much better allocated to Black Sabbath’s “Vol. 4”, in which Ozzy Osbourne and company answer the question, “Is there a limit to how much drugs you can take and still make a kick-ass metal record?” with a resounding “No!” Favourite tracks include “Wheels of Confusion/The Straightener” and “Laguna Sunrise”. But the peak for these ears is “Changes”, which I knew from a soul version that serves as the theme song to the hysterical and obscene Netflix animated series “Big Mouth”. If, like me, you are mostly aware of Ozzy as the greatly dissipated force that became a TV star in the early 2000s, the grace with which he sings this gentle tale – written by a band member about the end of his marriage – will knock you off your feet. I doubt I’ll encounter any other Black Sabbath records on the formal portion of this journey, but I’m curious enough that I might check them out anyway.
There are prettier voices and far more virtuosic ivory ticklers, and his style is so consistent as to seem mannered and worthy of parody all these years later. So it is easy to forget what a great songwriter he is. It’s no surprise he ended up writing for the movies, given his pedigree (two of his uncles are legendary Hollywood composers) and penchant for storytelling. A lot of his songs take the perspective of someone other than himself, so you can see how not-very-bright people could get upset with a song like “Yellow Man” if you think too hard on what he’s saying and not the way he’s saying it. It would get him in trouble in 1978 with his one hit, “Short People” (one of three great humourous hits from that weird year, the others being, of course, Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” and Steve Martin’s “King Tut”).
That reliable style can be a bit much over a full record, so it helps that this checks in at a brisk 32 minutes over 14 tracks. All the fat has been trimmed off this album. “Tickle Me” is a delight, probably my favourite song here, and a sharp comment on a dying relationship (“You won’t have to talk to me and I won’t have to talk to you”), as is “Lonely at the Top”, which would make more sense coming from Frank Sinatra, who rejected it (Frank was not known for having a sense of humour about himself), although it would then seem pompous rather than funny. “I’ll Be Home” is beautiful, revelling in it’s simplicity (and check out Barbra Streisand’s version to get around the baggage of Newman’s voice), there is a powerful pathos to “Cowboy”, and “I Think Its Going to Rain Today” is another favourite. Newman might best be appreciated in small doses, and this is about as small as something can get and still be called an LP with any degree of honesty.
I have aggressively resisted the Grateful Dead for pretty much as long as I’ve been aware of their existence, for two reasons. First, the passion of their fan base is anathema to my broader tastes when it comes to art. Second, I mostly just shrugged at what I did hear through passive exposure (though I owned a 45 of their 1987 hit “Touch of Grey”, I was buying just about everything that made the charts back then, and rarely played it). (Also, 45s were the worst – I don’t need (well, I do, but that’s a different conversation) to be doing interval training while listening to music.) I can’t say there’s much chance of me seeking out other of their records, but after more shrugging initially, I ended up enjoying this album. It’s odd for a live record in that you are barely aware of the presence of an audience. I couldn’t find the answer (Google, you failed me!) but it would have been on brand to ask for quiet to enhance the quality of much-encouraged bootleg recordings.
As for the songs themselves, the five-minute eight-second long drum solo at the beginning of “The Other One” was more interesting than any five-minute eight-second long drum solo deserves to be. This turns out to be noteworthy, because the Dead had two drummers until two months before the first of these tracks was recorded, so it seems someone took the opportunity to show off. Their poppy cover of “Me and Bobby McGee” is a delight (Kristofferson was EVERYWHERE in 1971), as is their faithful rendering of “Johnny B. Goode”, and I enjoyed the original “Wharf Rat”. You definitely come away understanding how much fun it might have been to see them live – there’s no better way to listen to an 18-minute song than stoned and in the company of fellow travellers. The Dead were as much a religion as a rock band, and this seems like a pretty decent introduction to their creed.
Another one that isn’t on Spotify, but someone has been courteous enough to put the entire thing on YouTube. This record is a lot more interesting as a cultural artifact than as a collection of music. I’m not generally a fan of live albums – I have this issue of wanting familiar songs to sound, you know, familiar (contradicted by my love of covers as reinvention, like M. Ward’s “Let’s Dance”, Scott Bradlee taking on Radiohead, or Richard Thompson and Fountains of Wayne giving Britney Spears a go) – but this outing is an exception. It is, of course, an epic accomplishment, the “We Are the World” or “Live Aid” of its day, without the, respectively, treacle or pomposity. The almost 17-minute long Ravi Shankar-led jam “Bangla Dhun” is bracing, and smartly opened the show before the audience was sated by the star power that would follow. Then you mostly get great artists singing already popular tunes. The other highlight for me was Leon Russell and Don Preston’s medley cover “Jumpin’ Jack Flash/Youngblood”, which has the energy and sense of the unexpected that only a live performance can deliver, but Bob Dylan messing with his own “Just Like A Woman” also makes an impression. Sometimes, a cultural artifact can still surprise you.
The playlist below is an excellent effort that gets as close as one can manage on Spotify to recreating this album.