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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Return to Fillmore East

On Friday, November 25, the Allman Brothers Band took the stage of the Philadelphia’s Tower Theater as they have done a number of times before. But this night would be different, as the second set was dedicated to performing the seven songs that made up the band’s breakthrough album, 1971’s The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East.

The Fillmore East album cover is on the screen while its songs emerge revitalized by the musicians below. November 25, Tower Theater, Philadelphia.

The concept of a legacy band recreating an album from its storied past is certainly nothing new. Just two weeks ago tickets went on sale for Roger Water’s The Wall tour, now super-sized from indoor arenas to a stadium spectacle.

But there is a key difference: the Pink Floyd fans who will patronize Waters’ shows will not stand for the slightest deviation from the original album. Indeed, Waters has gone to great lengths to ensure The Wall in 2012 will sound exactly like The Wall of 1979.

The Allman Brothers Band, in contrast, are a band built on a heritage of musical improvisation. As the band worked the endless string of college gyms and dank clubs leading up to the recording of the Fillmore East album, they built a reputation: the songs might remain the same, but their performance from night to night could go in any direction. The idea was one of jazz-influenced musical freedom, which combined with the band’s deep blues and r&b flavors to create some of the most potent music of the era.

The live Fillmore East album was a showcase for the talents of guitarists Duane Allman and Dickey Betts, who unleashed virtuoso solos that twisted through songs that unfolded with a musically organic feel.

Fortunately, in 2011, the Allman Brothers Band is still based on the ideals of its founding fathers: the musicians may have changed, but the creative approach remains.

Derek Trucks (left) and Warren Haynes reinterpreting the storied Fillmore East album, November 25.

At the Tower, guitarists Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes borrowed only the spirit of Allman and Betts, the song structures of the iconic LP simply providing a pallet which Trucks and Haynes used to create their own works of art.

Now more than ever, with attention spans shrinking to microsecond durations, the idea of a musician being expected to stand on stage and captivate an audience with a long solo seems almost quaint. But both guitarists were able to do just that at the Tower show. Truck’s unorthodox slide guitar approach is his calling card, but his fretted playing revealed a lyrical aggression that took the music in unexpected directions. And Haynes – equally inspired as a young guitarist by power trios as well as bands like the Allmans – brings a muscular, tough stance to the songs, building his solos to crescendos of howling double-stop bends.

The long set only faltered toward the very end, with an extended, unstructured percussion workout in Betts’ “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” as original drummers Jaimoe and Butch Trucks (Derek’s uncle) joined forces with percussionist Marc Quinones on a journey that really went nowhere. Jaimoe and Trucks were strong the rest of the set, the driving percussive snap that characterized their early careers having evolved into a warm, jazzy swing.

The few lackluster moments did little to dim the energy and creativity on display, and as “Whipping Post” thundered into gear with a low register shove from the outstanding bassist Oteil Burbridge, the Allman Brothers Band of 2011 was flying the same musical skies the original lineup frequented four decades earlier.

If Friday’s show deftly walked the line between respecting tradition and creative reinterpretation, Saturday’s performance was all white hot musical interplay, full of towering crescendos and unexpected twists and turns – including a nod to Jimi on the eve of his 69th birthday with a quote from “Third Stone from the Sun.”

Trucks and Haynes push "Mountain Jam" to the dark side, November 26.

Mountain Jam” began with airy passages down familiar paths, but soon the skies grew threatening as the music darkened, Trucks and Haynes shifting the song’s comfort level from passive to aggressive territory. Finally the song heaved into a dark-matter-heavy cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused,” a crushing climax to music that had begun with one feeling and ended with another that was diametrically opposed to its origins. The final song of two brilliant sets, it punctuated a night that simply overflowed with highlights.

Carrying on the tradition, November 25.

Over the course of these two outstanding performances, the Allman Brothers Band made it clear that the group that exists here in 2011 is every bit the equal of the original lineup from 1969. It can’t last forever, and it’s likely that we are reaching the closing chapters of this legacy, so listeners who think that musical substance matters more than image or marketing should appreciate this while they can.

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