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Second Gen Allman Bros Tour Brings The “Family” To The Ryman

I am a son of 1970s North Carolina, land of stock cars, sweet tea, Marshall amp stacks, solid-body electric guitars, and long-form bluesy rock made by long-haired, mustachioed men. And while I was more of a Lynyrd Skynyrd kid, I became aware with time that some even more intense musical action was going on over there in Macon, GA with the Allman Brothers. With their expertly composed guitar duos between Duane Allman and Dickey Betts, the Allmans showed me a bridge to jazz and jam music as the South’s only plausible counterpart to the Grateful Dead, at least until Col. Bruce Hampton’s Aquarium Rescue Unit came along.

Alas, I never saw the Allman Brothers, though their 1971 live recording At Fillmore East has given me a taste of their legendary power when played at high volume. But Friday night offered a full slate of Allmans music at the Ryman Auditorium, led by guys with the ultimate pedigree, Devon Allman (Gregg Allman’s 51-year-old guitar playing son) and Duane Betts (45-year-old son of Dickey). This experiment began as a one-off show to commemorate what would have been Gregg’s 70th birthday in 2017 and expanded into seven years of touring as, eventually, the Allman Betts Family Revival.

While I’m generally wary of tribute bands and musical nostalgia, this was an elevated, authentic experience. There was no doubt we were hearing guys who were born and raised in this soulful sound and who had the chops and motivation to deliver it with a measure of reverence but even more deep feeling for the value of grooving in the moment. That’s why it’s jam music and why that’s a good thing, even if sometimes solos go on a bit long.

The ABFR tour has something of a Mad Dogs And Englishman vibe - a large cast of guests and friends and virtual family members rolling across the country as one big road show circus. And one fellow I was extremely pleased to see in the troupe was masterful blues singer and harp player Jimmy Hall, most famous as the vocalist for Wet Willie. After the core band got the night started with the Allman song “Sailin’ Cross The Devil’s Sea,” Hall strutted around the stage singing the blues standard and Allman favorite “Statesboro Blues.”

Luther Dickinson, of North Mississippi All-Stars fame, was on stage by now for one of his many fervent guitar solos. There were two full drum kits on the back line, plus a percussionist, so there was never anything less than ferocious syncopated rhythm. Sometimes it was Luther’s brother Cody in the center seat, and since he’s one of my favorite roots music drummers, I thought the music had the most juice when he was doing his thing.

Buzzed-about 24-year-old Texas guitar slinger Aly Venable took over for Gregg Allman’s later career hit “I’m No Angel.” Jackie Greene, veteran of Govt. Mule, the Black Crowes and other good-time bands, offered a strong “Sweet Melissa.” Ghalia Volt, a Belgian woman who sang and played her way to prominence in the Clarksdale, MS scene, set her dirty-toned, electric guitar half on fire on “No One To Run With.”

Nathan Leslie @nslmedia
Tal Wilkenfeld

But as the first set rocked along, I thought tour bass player Tal Wilkenfeld was subtly stealing the show. The famous Australian prodigy, who’s toured the world with Jeff Beck and other stars, probably did more for the groove than all three drummers combined. She leaned into every musical situation, her attention fixed on her fellow players. She sang a passionate lead on “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More” in the first half and there was more to come from her.

When Jason Isbell walked out, unannounced(!), I assumed it would be to sing lead, but in fact he only played guitar as Allman led a long, delightful “Dreams,” one of rock’s sweetest two-chord jams. And then it seemed Isbell was only playing rhythm until, after long solos by Betts and Allman, he stepped up and delivered a thought-out, well-paced and fiery solo on slide guitar. And by his grin, I felt a guy living a dream he likely imagined in his room as a kid in Alabama.

The second set got cooking with “Pony Boy” with Cody Dickinson on drums bringing the hottest Hill Country juke joint stomp of the evening, the ideal backing for Ms. Volt and Mr. Hall to trade fours on guitar and harmonica. Another highlight was Michigan veteran Larry McCray, who brought out his flying V Gibson and a stout set of pipes to lead a chorus of singers in “Soulshine.” The Brotherhood of Light, a 50-plus-year operation that served the Grateful Dead and the Allmans with analog liquid goo psychedelic light shows, was on hand, mixing live video and dazzling effects on the screen behind the stage, and nobody wore the glowing orbs of plasma and radiating lighting bolts better than Mr. McCray.

Our coily-haired bass playing heroine Tal had another star turn later in the set when the band left and let her go on her bass by herself for about five minutes. It was subsonic and gut-shaking, intricate and edgy and clearly improvised in the moment, which was super exciting. Then her deep riffage evolved into the familiar opening of “Whipping Post,” and the band roared, and Isbell and Hall and Dickinson returned to bring the set to a climax that segued into “Ramblin’ Man,” when Isbell sang at last.

I’ll come clean that after more than two hours of bluesy pentatonic scales and a great finale, your aging correspondent skipped out before the encore, a little deflated that my bluegrass friend Sierra Hull, a prominent member on this tour, hadn’t made an appearance. But I guess she’s such a star that they saved her for the triple-play closer of “Magnolia Road,” “End of the Line,” and “Midnight Rider” (according to setlist.fm) They also brought out a surprise Sierra - Sierra Ferrell - to sing on the last song with the entire cast. It reminds me of a time I left a Washington vs. Dallas football game when it looked hopeless and had to hear the Redskins’ miracle comeback on the radio. But you know what? I got my 1970s appetites satisfied, and so it seems did all my aging southern hippie homies in the place.

Nathan Leslie @nslmedia

Special thanks to Big Hassle Media for access to the Nathan Leslie photo gallery.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org