Music News

Allman Joy

Whenever Gregg Allman performs, three plastic cups sit atop his Hammond B-3 organ. For a long time, they contained vodka and cranberry juice; before that, Chivas Regal and Coke. But nowadays, hearing the blond, blue-eyed singer-songwriter rattle off the cups' contents is like getting a lesson in holistic medicine: "One of them is a bowl of lemons," he says, "which is an anti-cobweb thing. One of them is water, and one of them is green tea with honey and ginseng in it. To those who think I am drinkin' tequila and then bitin' the lemon" -- he laughs -- "no, the lemons are for the throat."

Come next month, Allman, age 51, will have gone two years without a sip of alcohol. And 1999 will mark the 30th anniversary of the Allman Brothers Band, which, despite yet another lineup change in 1997, is still alive and kicking out spirited jams. Allman has a solo project, which he calls Gregg Allman & Friends and credits with keeping his work fresh. Speaking from his home in northern California, the living half of Florida's first family of blues-rock seems as focused on sobriety as he is on his music -- and he's enjoying both with youthful enthusiasm. "I got the monkey off my back, that's for sure," he says about his battles with alcohol, "and I feel real good. When I was 30, I felt like I was 50, and now that I'm 50, I feel like I'm 30."

Allman's laugh is warm and raspy. He doesn't display the pretense of a typical rock star. Instead he's fatherly, mellow, and cordial, and he has a self-deprecating sense of humor -- something you'd expect from a guy who's experienced the extreme highs and lows of life. Allman spent his teenage years in Daytona Beach, riding motorcycles and listening to blues and soul records with his brother, Duane. During that time, they formed a band which, over the years, had various names, including the Allman Joys and the Hourglass. In 1969, Duane recruited guitarist Dickey Betts (a West Palm Beach native), drummers Butch Trucks (from Jacksonville) and Jaimoe Johanson, and bassist Berry Oakley. Gregg joined as a singer, and the Allman Brothers Band was formed. Within four years both Duane and Oakley would die in separate motorcycle accidents but not before the band established itself as one of the most powerful, popular, and influential blues/jazz/rock outfits anywhere.

Gregg wrote many of the band's hits, including "Whipping Post," "Midnight Rider," and "Dreams." After the tragedies the Brothers persevered, but not without acrimony, drug-related controversy, and uneven playing throughout the rest of the '70s. The band was dormant for much of the '80s but has come back strong since 1989. That was the year they re-formed with Allen Woody on bass and Warren Haynes on second lead guitar. The addition of Woody's jazz-tilted bass lines and Haynes' slide-guitar virtuosity rejuvenated the Brothers on stage. Word of their seems-like-old-times live performances, along with the release of the retrospective boxed set Dreams in 1989, set the band sailing. Studio efforts were inconsistent at best, but the band's coffers were kept full by live releases and constant touring.

With the amicable departure of Haynes and Woody last year to pursue their side project, Gov't Mule, full-time, yet another new Allman Brothers lineup was formed, this one including long-time band collaborator Jack Pearson on slide guitar and former Aquarium Rescue Unit bassist Oteil Burbridge. No problem. The Brothers' tour last summer was once again one of the top ten highest-grossing acts in the United States. A new studio release, the first in five years, is planned for 1999.

When asked if he finds it difficult to keep the band from becoming a nostalgia act, playing the same "greatest hits" set each night, Allman chuckles. "We've gotten to the point in the road where we don't have to play if we don't want to," he says. "God knows I don't need the headaches or the money. But I love to play."

He doesn't even need to mention the fact that improvisation is an Allman Brothers trademark, that even easy anthems like "Midnight Rider" are played differently from gig to gig. Allman has done a half-century of living, most of it as a warrior both on and off the road, and much of it in the public eye. He married and divorced Cher not once but twice, and he dated the porn star Savannah (Shannon Wilsey) in the mid-'80s. He's even had motorcycle accidents of his own.

While he still loves his bikes, he seems more content today than ever. He knows exactly who he is, what he's doing, and what he wants, which is simple: just more of the same. "I love each minute of life," he says, "especially the music part." And, referring to his sobriety and his loss of 40 pounds since he quit drinking, he adds, "I'm back in the human race now, and it feels good." Then he lets out another satisfied chuckle. Not bad for a man who lives the blues.

In 1997 Allman released Searching For Simplicity, his sixth solo album and first in nearly ten years. "I love to have my own band," he says, "because you've got one bandleader. In the Brothers you've got four. When you have your own band, you can do anything you want to. Having the variety of the two is wonderful, and it keeps you young."

Compared to the work he does with the Allman Brothers Band, Gregg Allman's solo efforts are best summed up by the title of his debut album, Laid Back (1973). Simplicity, like Laid Back, I'm No Angel (1986) and his other records, offers basic R&B with soulful choruses, rather than blues jams. The new album even features an "unplugged" remake of "Whipping Post," which Allman says was done on a dare. (Unfortunately it doesn't match Eric Clapton's remake of "Layla"; the original "Whipping Post" has nothing to fear.) Allman's current supporting band includes the Alameda All Stars: Mark McGee (guitar), Tom Miller (bass, vocals), Tommy Thompson (piano, synthesizer, vocals), and Preston Thrall (drums). Also in the band are .38 Special's Danny Chauncey (guitar), Jimmy Hall (sax, harp, vocals), and Floyd Miles, a childhood friend of Allman who, he says, "pretty much taught me about black music" on percussion and vocals.

In concert the band plays a mix of Allman Brothers gems, Allman solo hits and various R&B originals and covers. Searching For Simplicity is an autobiographical title, both professionally and personally, Allman says. "In the music there were very few overdubs; we plugged in and played, just like my first solo album. And my life has gotten a lot simpler. I've sobered up and all that."

Now, Allman has time to better appreciate his fiancee and his 18-year-old daughter (both of whom he lives with), his dogs, his guitars, and his Harley-Davidsons. "I'm not scared, and I don't have all those phobias and all the stuff that goes with [drinking]," he says, "and I don't spend half my time seeing if I can get myself blotto but still be able to function. And so I have more time to have fun. Plus, I've noticed all this extra money I've got."

He also has more time to appreciate the music he makes. It's been a long road, yet Allman, unlike many aging pop and rock stars, has never swerved from his musical roots -- the blues and soul of his predecessors, who include Elmore James, Robert Johnson, T-Bone Walker, and Willie Dixon. The simple things, indeed.

Gregg Allman & Friends will perform Wednesday, December 30, at the Pompano Beach Amphitheatre, 1801 NE Sixth St., Pompano Beach, starting at 8 p.m. Ticket prices range from $21 to $25. For more information call 954-946-2402.

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Jonathan Lesser