RE­MEM­BER­ING GREGG ALL­MAN

The Hamilton Spectator - - GO - ROBERT JAGODZINSKI Robert Jagodzinski works as an edi­tor at Associated Press head­quar­ters in New York.

NEW YORK — The stage re­mains dark in the mo­ments be­fore the fi­nal show. It’s the All­man Broth­ers’ an­nual New York City Bea­con Theater run, in March 2011.

Across the twi­light, the first clear notes of “Hot ‘Lanta” rise from Gregg All­man’s Ham­mond B3 key­board. Stage lights come up as the or­gan’s tremolo fills the hall. Drums, per­cus­sion and bass join in, twin lead guitars launch over the top and an enor­mous driv­ing rhythm floods the room, pen­e­trat­ing me to the bone.

For my­self and so many oth­ers who fol­lowed the band over the years, go­ing to an All­man Broth­ers con­cert was a full-throt­tle, life-af­firm­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. The mus­cu­lar, bluesy jam-an­thems — “Mid­night Rider,” “States­boro Blues,” “Stormy Mon­day” — lit up packed houses in tor­ren­tial, soul­ful sound.

The death of found­ing member Gregg All­man on Satur­day at 69 brought back to me count­less memories of dozens of their shows I at­tended over 25 years.

It’s a Sun­day morn­ing in late April, at the 1994 Jazz Fest in New Or­leans. My Louisiana friends in­vited me down and skipped Mass so we could ar­rive early for the set.

We’re close enough to the stage to see that Gregg All­man and gui­tarist Dickey Betts are show­ing the wear of years of rock and roll — “The High Cost of Low Liv­ing,” as one of their songs is ti­tled.

None­the­less, the band loves The Big Easy, and when they launch into “Blue Sky,” they are as tight and hard-driv­ing as ever and the big sound trans­ports the crowd. I shout to my buddy over the mu­si­cal on­slaught, “you’re not miss­ing any­thing — this is just like go­ing to church!”

Gregg All­man, the band’s chief singer, song­writer and key­board player, belted out sta­ples like “Whip­pin’ Post” with his trade­mark growl. But his wide vo­cal range also gave a subtle, blues-flecked glow to his bal­lads like “Melissa” and “Please Call Home.” His key­boards helped an­chor it all. “Just kinda puttin’ the gravy on the meat,” he would say.

But there was more to his play­ing than that: his Ham­mond or­gan would rise up in soar­ing cathe­dral runs through­out their songs, match­ing the gui­tar at­tacks of brother Duane All­man and Dickey Betts in the early years, then War­ren Haynes and Derek Trucks in the band’s later in­car­na­tions. “I make my liv­ing/ Pour­ing out my pain.” Those lines from an All­man song en­ti­tled “Des­de­mona” might sound corny if they did not ring true in Gregg’s life. His fa­ther was mur­dered by a hitch­hiker when Gregg was a tod­dler. His men­tor and gui­tar-wiz­ard brother Duane died in a mo­tor­cy­cle wreck at age 24, just when the band was hit­ting star­dom in 1971. Bassist Berry Oak­ley died a year later. There were bat­tles with drug and drink, tu­mult in the band, a rocky mar­riage with Cher, health is­sues.

The soap opera sideshows did not di­min­ish the mu­sic, though. The band had bro­ken ground com­ing out of Ma­con, Ge­or­gia, in 1969: twin lead guitars, twin drum kits, bass, key­boards, harp and vo­cals com­bin­ing in waves of com­plex melodies that mixed blues, jazz, coun­try and rock into some­thing new, elec­tric and deeply felt that be­came known as South­ern Rock. When they all found the same wave­length dur­ing a jam — Duane All­man called it “hit­tin’ the note” — their mu­sic took fans to places they’d never been. The All­mans roared out of the Deep South in a kind of cav­alry charge, but with­out wrath or score-set­tling in mind. The in­te­grated band — the African-Amer­i­can drum­mer, Jaimoe, was there from the start — em­bod­ied a mes­sage of ac­cep­tance, of kin­ship, of a gath­er­ing of tribes — a counter to the so­cial in­jus­tices of their day. De­spite changes dur­ing 45 years of play­ing, the band worked to keep that sense of in­clu­sion alive.

It’s a late Au­gust evening in 2009 at Bethel Woods — the con­cert venue built on the site of the 1969 Wood­stock mu­sic fes­ti­val in up­state New York. The All­mans missed out on that orig­i­nal fes­ti­val, but of­ten played sum­mer gigs here in later years.

Af­ter a rain­storm, the air has cleared and the set­ting sun bathes the sur­round­ing Catskill hills. The All­mans play a wide-rang­ing set, in­clud­ing Dy­lan’s “High­way 61 Re­vis­ited” and The Grate­ful Dead’s “Franklin’s Tower.” As night falls and the mu­sic plays, I look up at a bright canopy of stars and imag­ine their notes ris­ing, trav­el­ling across the uni­verse.

All­man in Stam­ford, Conn., Jan. 2, 2011. A found­ing member of the in­cen­di­ary group that in­spired and gave shape to both the South­ern rock and jam-band move­ments, he died on May 27 at his home in Savannah, Ga. He was 69.

All­man, left, per­forms at the Bea­con Theater in New York, Oct. 28, 2014. He stirred all of the mythic South into his mu­sic, which be­came a foun­da­tion for the sturdy struc­tures of south­ern rock along with the far-flung ex­trap­o­la­tions of jam bands.

In this un­dated photo, mem­bers of the All­man Broth­ers Band, from left, Dickey Betts, Duane All­man, Berry Oak­ley, Butch Trucks, Gregg All­man and Jai Jo­hanny “Jaimoe” Jo­hanso eat at the H&H Res­tau­rant in down­town Ma­con.

In this Aug. 24, 1978 file photo, Gregg All­man plays the or­gan at a con­cert in Ma­con, Ga.

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