Ramblin’ men

Four friends got together for an impromptu jam session in Jacksonville, Fla. on March 26, 1969, launching a legendary band that’s stayed true to its raw, bluesy, brilliant original vision, to this day– despite the death of two of its founding members (in chillingly similar motorcycle crashes) bouts with ravaging alcoholism and drug addiction, numerous personnel changes, at least three official breakups, and one member’s two failed marriages to Cher.

Starting on March 26, 1999, the Allman Brothers Band played an an 18-night extravaganza of sold-out shows at New York City’s Beacon Theater, in celebration of the Brothers’ 30th anniversary.

The long road began not long after that original jam session, with the release of their self-titled debut album in 1969. The disc featured guitarists Duane Allman (fresh from a stint as a much-in-demand session player in Muscle Shoals, Ala.) and Dickey Betts, bass player Berry Oakley, and drummers Jaimoe and Butch Trucks — plus Duane’s brother, Gregg (a.k.a. the Allman who married Cher twice), on vocals and Hammond organ.

Rock ‘n’ roll has never been the same since.

Actually, “Southern rock” — which is what legions have called the Allman Brothers’ sound — is way too limiting (and sterile) a label. Swaggering through blues, jazz, soul, country and plain old hard rock, the band’s signature, sizzling dual-guitar leads originally came courtesy of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts — who based those parallel flights partly on the gorgeously liquid explorations of jazz horn players.

Despite Duane’s indelible mark on the band, the man himself was erased a scant two years after the group was born. On Oct. 29, 1971, the slide-guitar genius was killed in a motorcycle wreck in Macon, Ga. (where most of the band members then lived), just as the group had taken a rare break from the heady touring and recording schedule that had fueled them since the release of their first record. And — in a turn of events so eerie that it might be reckless to call it coincidence — bassist Berry Oakley was also killed in a motorcycle crash, also in Macon, Ga. — almost exactly a year after Allman’s fatal wreck (Nov. 11, 1972, to be precise). The two are buried in matching marble tombs in Macon’s Rose Hills Cemetery.

While soul-drenched-with-blues vocalist Gregg Allman and country-laced guitar lacerator Dickey Betts are still (as they were from the beginning) the band’s principal songwriters, the four Polygram albums recorded while Duane and Berry were alive — The Allman Brothers Band (1969), Idlewild South (1970), the double Live at Fillmore East (1971), and Eat a Peach (1972, released after Duane’s death) — most perfectly captured the quintessential Allman sound.

The long, tortured blues-on-fire riffs of “Whipping Post” (performed as a dazzling 22-minute tour de force on Fillmore East) and “Dreams,” the outlaw strains of “Midnight Rider,” the jazzy improvisation of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” the down-and-dirty ache of “Statesboro Blues,” “One Way Out” and “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More,” the gospel-by-way-of-rock tones of “Revival,” the gorgeous balladry of “Melissa,” the feel-good country-folk of “Blue Sky” … these classics still carry the soul-memory of Duane’s unearthly slide breaks, of Oakley’s dead-on bass magic. In fact, the band’s best-selling record to date — the 1991 anthology, A Decade of Hits — features the original, Duane-and-Berry-infused versions of those tunes (and many more).

Through the years, a host of guitarists and bass players has come and gone through the Allmans ranks — including Asheville’s own Warren Haynes on lead guitar, for a lengty stint beginning in 1989. Astoundingly, however, the core of the Allmans — Betts, Jaimoe and Trucks — still remains, after more than three decades. And these days, another Trucks — Butch’s nephew, Derek — has stepped into the now-mythic shoes Duane once filled. The 20-year-old, blond-maned, slide-guitar virtuoso (does that description conjure up the ghost of Duane for anyone?) has been a touring musician since the age of 11 — performing and recording with such legends as Bob Dylan, Buddy Guy, “Gatemouth” Brown, Junior Wells and R.L. Burnside, as well as fronting his own Derek Trucks Band. Completing the year-2000 lineup are well-known percussionist Marc Quinones and stellar bass player Oteil Burbridge, formerly of Col. Bruce Hampton and the Fiji Mariners, and Aquarium Rescue Unit.

So what’s it like to suddenly become one unit of a legend, with only about two weeks’ practice time?

According to Burbridge, who spoke with Xpress by telephone recently from his home in Birmingham, Ala., it’s a hell of a thrill — if a little daunting.

Burbridge knew Haynes because Aquarium Rescue Unit had toured with Haynes’ current band, Gov’t Mule. Haynes had hooked up Burbridge with Butch Trucks, who was looking to form a side project called Frogwings. “Then one day, about three years ago, I got a kind of frantic call from Butch and [Allman Brothers’ manager] Bert [Hollman], and I thought, ‘Man, I don’t think this is about Frogwings,'” remembers Burbridge. “I kind of figured something’s up with the Allmans. So I figured they were calling me to get [Burbridge’s friend, acclaimed guitarist] Jimmy Herring’s number. So it was a real shocker when they wanted me.”

He grew up in Washington, D.C., the son of two New Yorkers who listened to jazz, blues, gospel, classical — but no sizzling, so-called Southern rock — so Burbridge was largely unfamiliar with the Allmans, during his formative years. But it’s funny, he says, how downright intimate you can get with a set of tunes when you have only a scant few weeks to learn them before hitting the road as an official Brother.

“I certainly had a lot of worries, because I know that songs they’ve played so many times over the years have kept changing,” he points out, noting that the songs “become sort of like a Rubick’s cube, over 30 years.” He did the best he could, Burbridge reports. “I had a lot of help from not only the guys in the band, but from Joe Don Petty, their guitar tech — who’s a phenomenal bass player himself, and knew all the exact fingering techniques of all the former bass players. He’d tell me, ‘Hey, if you do this, they’ll like it,’ or, ‘If you do this, they’ll really hate it.'”

Burbridge says he wasn’t quite prepared for the quick acclaim that suddenly morphing into an Allman can bring. “It’s so funny how I get treated now in Atlanta and Birmingham, which have been my stomping grounds for a long time,” he says with a laugh. “I mean, I’ve lived in Birmingham for 13 years and now all of a sudden people freak out over me.”

He claims to take all that in stride, though, focusing instead on the sheer, sometimes downright supernatural power of the music. “With this kind of music, it’s like with jazz — certain nights it’s just amazing,” he explains. “I mean, every night is good, but with improvisational music, it’s just all what’s happening at the moment. There are times when it just locks in and jells, and that’s the most exciting thing to me: when it really gets going, to the point where the music takes on a life of its own. It becomes one thing, instead of seven guys. And when that happens, it’s like, you can take your hands off the wheel and still win the race.”

Call the Allman Brothers Band the original jam band, if you will.

But don’t call the group anything less than resolutely honest and true to its original musical vision.

“There are so many great bands out there that could never last three decades,” he avows. “I really don’t believe in luck; I think it’s grace. … And even though Berry and Duane died early on, the band has stayed true to the vision they had from the beginning. And they’ve really done that at the expense of … commercial success and ambition [the band won its first Grammy, for Best Rock Instrumental Performance, in 1996 — for the 16-minute-long improvisational version of “Jessica” that appeared on that year’s live 2nd Set disc]. They’ve said: ‘This is what we do, and this is who we are. Here it is. Here we are.’

“It’s not like they’re do-wop one year and disco the next year and heavy metal the next year, just because that’s what’s working,” he continues passionately. “What the Allman Brothers do transcends time. They’re not — or, I guess, we’re not, I can say now — trying to fit into anybody’s mold.”

@circle text:The Allman Brothers Band will rock Asheville’s Thomas Wolfe Auditorium on Wednesday, May 3. Young blues sensation Susan Tedeschi (see sidebar) will open the show, which begins at 7 p.m. Tickets ($27.50 and $30) are on sale at the Civic Center box office, all TicketMaster locations, or charge by phone at 251-5505.

Blues breaker

If the Allman Brothers Band represents the history of blues-soaked rock, then the Boston-based Susan Tedeschi heralds its future.

“You say you haven’t been rocked in a long, long time/And good hard-rockin’ is hard to find,” Tedeschi wails (accompanying herself on ripping Telecaster) in the first lines off her second CD, Just Won’t Burn (Tone-Cool Records, 1998) — in a red-hot-mama voice that’s part Janis Joplin, part Bonnie Raitt, part something wholly original.

Tedeschi was nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy this year, alongside such white-bread nymphettes as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera (who took home the prize). “I was surprised to be nominated, definitely, especially since hardly any blues is ever nominated,” Tedeschi said in a recent phone interview. (Surprisingly, considering the gut-wrenching pyrotechnics of her singing voice, Tedeschi’s speaking voice is schoolgirlish and giggly — particularly when she’s talking about her current boyfriend, the Allmans’ Derek Trucks.) She’s been glowingly written up by Rolling Stone, Billboard, the Los Angeles Times — all the biggies. And in the past couple of years, the 29-year-old has toured with B.B. King, Buddy Guy and, of course, the Allman Brothers. She’s recorded a version of “Crazy” with Willie Nelson, and sung “Highway 61 Revisited” on stage with Bob Dylan (who hand-picked her to open some shows for him).

How did this white girl from Boston get so turned on to deep Southern blues? Her dad’s record collection, primarily. “He turned me on to Lightnin’ Hopkins, people like that,” she remembers, “but it wasn’t really until after college [at the Berklee College of Music] that I started getting more into actual blues.” Even today, however, Tedeschi stops short of calling herself a blues artist, per se — despite what seemingly every music writer has to say about her.

“To be honest, I don’t look at it like I’m just a blues artist,” she explains. “It’s a gospel style you hear in my voice more than anything else, really. I mean, John Prine isn’t blues. I do his songs. [She recorded a memorable version of “Angel From Montgomery” for Just Won’t Burn.] And a lot of my stuff that I’ve written is really not blues; it’s more original poppy, rocky stuff.” She names “Indian classical” as her favorite type of music to listen to. “Derek turned me onto it, and it’s really relaxing,” she notes. “You should check it out.”

Tedeschi has been singing publicly since the age of 4, and formed her first band at age 18 (name: Smokin’ Section). She credits her beloved Aunt Jo (“she was really my grandfather’s cousin,” Tedeschi explains), in part, with inspiring her to steadfastly pursue her musical dreams. “She was a famous opera singer in the ’30s and ’40s,” says Tedeschi, with a note of awe. “She had a really great career in Italy when she was young; she was conducted by Toscanini and all that. She had an amazing voice. Her voice was so incredible; it makes my voice look like crap. I’m serious. And I don’t even like opera, but I heard some records of hers, and they just make you cry, they’re so beautiful.”

Aunt Jo taught the young Susan “how to breathe right for singing.” Unfortunately, due to what Tedeschi calls “a lot of small tragedies,” the woman was forced to give up her stage career. But before she passed away two years ago, she did get the chance to see her protege on-stage, in all her glory. “She would come to see me sing, and she would cry with joy,” remembers Tedeschi. “It was just so sweet. She always told me, ‘You follow your dream.'”

That dream has already surpassed Tedeschi’s wildest expectations. As for the future — despite one music reviewer’s gushing proclamation, “She’s simply the future of American blues music” –Tedeschi intends to just keep on keepin’ on. “You can’t take all the stuff they say about you too seriously,” she allows. “Sure, I’ve had some huge compliments. But, hopefully, I’ll just keep learning and growing as a musician.”

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