“At Fillmore East” by the Allman Brothers Band (1971)
The first two albums by the Allman Brothers Band drew plenty of critical acclaim, and the latter, “Idlewild South,” rose to No. 38 on Billboard. But the main knock on those efforts was that, as good as they were, they hardly captured the concert experience.
Perhaps taking a cue from other bands in similar situations – the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service come to mind – the Allmans opted to record live for their third album. On March 12 and 13, 1971, the tape rolled at New York’s Fillmore East, capturing a couple of performances. The reels went to producer Tom Dowd, who did some tweaking to come up with two LPs’ worth of material.
The results were better than anyone could have anticipated, given the Allmans’ propensity to stretch out songs and the relatively primitive recording technology available. “At Fillmore East” captures what may have been the most dynamic rock band of the time, and that certainly was when giants roamed the earth.
The Allmans and Dowd divided the LPs thematically: The first consisted of blues covers, the second of originals. In this band’s case, the term “cover” is used loosely; each of the first four tracks is given a treatment that defines it as an Allman Brothers standard.
The album kicks off with its most radio-friendly song to this day, Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues.” Willie never would have envisioned the power of Duane Allman’s opening slide guitar licks, punctuated by the rest of the band playing the main riff, launching into an eminently memorable blues-rock groove. Gregg Allman, though just 23 at the time, nails the half-boasting, half-pleading attitude of the tune’s narrator.
“Done Somebody Wrong” – credited to Elmore James, Clarence Lewis and Bobby Robinson – follows in a similar vein, with the Allmans giving the song a much grittier reading than the version did as “I Ain’t Done Wrong” several years earlier. Guest Thom Doucette complements the performance on some well-played harmonica.
Duane introduces “Stormy Monday” as a Bobby “Blue” Bland song before correcting himself to credit composer T-Bone walker, who called it “Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just As Bad).” Some notable rock versions included those by early hard-rockers Cream and Mountain, but the Allmans ended up with the definitive version, a slow blues that allows Duane and fellow guitarist Dickey Betts to show off their chops. Dowd cut about three minutes off the song for the LP; the full version later was released on the compilation called “The Fillmore Concerts.”
“You Don’t Love Me” is another popular blues-rock numbers of the ’60s, recorded by the likes of Kaleidoscope, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and the Al Kooper-Stephen Stills “Super Session” project. Those versions of the Willie Cobbs song are minor efforts compared with the Allmans’ behemoth: 19 minutes of guitar virtuosity, the likes of which hadn’t been heard on vinyl to that point, especially Duane’s lengthy unaccompanied turn. No wonder he was one of the most-demanded session guitarists of the era, in addition to his regular gig.
A relatively compact instrumental, “Hot ‘Lanta,” follows, a group composition that shows the Allmans’ collective knack for adapting melodic hooks to more complex arrangements, this time by way of bass player Berry Oakley. The outro seems to go on just a bit long, but it does give percussionist Butch Trucks an opportunity to display his skills on timpani.
Betts’ “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” which appears on “Idlewild South” as the band’s first original instrumental, doubles its length for the live version. The song demonstrates the band’s ability to seamlessly incorporate jazz elements into its repertoire, to a point that the musicians have drawn favorable comparisons to the work of John Coltrane and Miles Davis, which in as of itself is quite a feat. Trucks and fellow drummer Jai Johanny Johanson team up for an extended percussion duet, one that would grow in length in concerts over the decades.
The LP’s four side starts with one of rock’s classic artist-audience discourses.
Duane: “Berry starts her off.”
Fan: “‘Whipping Post’!”
Duane: “You guessed it.”
Oakley’s thundering bass in 11/4 time opens the epic, with the other instruments reaching a crescendo before Gregg begins wailing his tale of woe: “I’ve been run down, I’ve been lied to, and I don’t know why I let that girl make me out a fool/Took all my money, wrecked my new car, now she’s with one of my good-time buddies, they’re drinking in some cross-town bar.”
After the chorus, Duane takes an extended solo prior to the second verse: “My friends tell me I’ve been such a fool, and I had to stand back and take it, baby, all for loving you/I drown myself in sorrow as I look at what you’ve done/Nothing seems to change, the bad times stay the same, and I can’t run.”
Betts then solos before he and Duane take the song up the scale to its climax, where listeners to the debut album, “The Allman Brothers Band,” would expect the song’s finale. Instead, the band immerses itself into improvisational mode, seemingly drawing from the New Thing school of jazz before Betts comes up with a tidy guitar lead against well-assembled backing. Finally, Gregg’s vocal closes the proceedings …
… but not so fast. The group experiments again, with Duane throwing in a bit of the familiar “Frere Jacque,” for several more minutes before Gregg groans the actual finale, “Lord don’t you know, that I feel, like I’m dying.” The band wraps it up before Trucks starts rolling on the tympani to signal the start to another song.
Those present at the concert, itself, knew what followed. But it wasn’t until the release of “Eat a Peach” the following year that album listeners learned that the 22-plus minutes of “Whipping Post” segued into 33-plus minutes of “Mountain Jam.” The two later were linked in that manner on “The Fillmore Concerts,” after CD technology made such a pairing possible.
“At Fillmore East” spreads nearly 80 minutes of music over only seven tracks, but even critics who usually complain about extended compositions seem to agree that the Allmans provide one of the few examples in which more actually is more.
The record-buying public agreed, sending the album to No. 13 and establishing the Allman Brothers Band as one of the hottest acts going.
On Oct. 29, 1971, Duane Allman was riding his motorcycle in his hometown of Macon, Ga., when he struck the back of a flatbed truck that had stopped suddenly in the middle of an intersection. He died a few hours later, just 24 years old.
The Allman Brothers Band not only managed to soldier on but still is a top concert draw more than 40 years later, with Gregg, Butch and Jaimoe around from the Fillmore East days. The group has continued to produce quality music, but its third album always will stand as its high-water mark.