By Buddy Blue
I believe quintessential southern rockers the Allman Brothers Band were the greatest group of the entire '70s. Their combustible-yet-cerebral concoction of gutbucket blues, modal jazz, western swing and hard rock improvised into a single, unearthly aural echo remains the standard to which all other musicians should aspire. I'm an unapologetic advocate of their best work.
If the group went on to disappoint in the latter part of the decade and throughout the whole of the '80s, the Allmans rose from the ashes, Phoenix-like, in the '90s; creating music dang near fine as anything from their hypothetical prime; an imperative, virtuoso antidote to the methodically negative, discordant and ultimately inept grunge and gangsta rap then so fashionable.
Further, the group's latest CD, 2003's "Hittin' The Note," is hands-down the best thing the Allman Brother Band have recorded since 1972's "Eat A Peach," back when the late, legendary guitarist Duane Allman still lurked among us. In short, the Brothers have reclaimed their status as perhaps the greatest rock group extant by any gauge other than the vogue.
Call me a stuck-in-past old coot for harboring this opinion; my belief remains that anyone who listens to "Hittin' The Note," without sharing my enthusiasm knows less about quality music than I do about where Jimmy Hoffa is buried.
And so it was quite a shock when I spoke with Gregg Allman recently. While his singing retains all the muscle and soul of peak vintage, his speaking voice sounds...well...I kept getting mental images of some little, worn-out old hillbilly dude, like Pappy Yoakum or Gabby Hayes. Certainly, this has much to do with several decades' worth of infamously unwise choices on Allman's part, including a brief marriage to Cher; something to bring down Samson, Superman and Hercules all at once; or perhaps it was due to 35 years spent on the road, bitterly battling bandmates.
According to Allman, however, the reason for his exhaustion is more mundane: "I just wish I would have said no the first time anyone offered me drugs and alcohol," he says. "Alcohol is the one that almost got me. I can't tour as much anymore because I have...not a cirrhosis, but let's just say my liver is pretty pissed off at me."
For an ill-livered 57-year-old, Allman and his latest crew - founding members Jaimoe and Butch Truck on drums, decade-plus-veterans Warren Haynes on guitar and Marc Quiñones on percussion, and young whippersnappers Derek Truck on guitar and Oteil Burbridge on bass - wallop like a killer tsunami.
Perhaps ungraciously, the sobered-up Allman attributes a measure of the group's renewed munitions to the 2000 sacking of founding guitarist Dickey Betts. Publicly citing drug-and-booze-borne psychosis as the reason for his dismissal -- a charge Betts bitterly denies - Allman professes that the Betts-free line-up has found personal harmony resembling that of the Duane-piloted era.
"The whole band is back like it was when my brother was around," he says. "At least the vibes are back, as far as camaraderie and everyone getting along with each other. We actually do things together outside of playing music, it's amazing. Through the years...well, they say there's one in every crowd. I mean, we all know what went down. But the band just gets along so much better now, there's a lot more mutual input and it's fun for everyone again."
Betts played an undervalued role in the Allmans' success, as both a guitar monster frequently overshadowed by both Duane and later Haynes, and as a songwriter. Yet if the band today sounds a bit different than we're used to, the team of Haynes and 23-year-old phenom Derek Trucks, nephew of drummer Butch, fills the gap splendidly with mind-blowing guitar pyrotechnics of their own. Allman believes that Trucks channels the spirit of brother Duane to a supernatural degree.
"The chemistry is very much alike," he marvels. "It's two guys with two different sets of chops, but as far as the inspiration and the spontaneity, it's the same. My brother died before Butch was born, but he grabbed onto the old records and started listening to them. He was a real whiz in school, too. I don't know much about reincarnation, but sometimes it gets.....Derek stands right next to me every night, and sometimes, every now and then, you get this feeling....whew! It don't last but for a minute but it hits me
like a freight train." So here we are, three generations removed from the genesis of the Allman Brothers, with its current
line-up now representing all three generations. Allman never dreamed the band would endure so long, yet they somehow survived through the eras of disco and punk, new wave and hair metal, hip hop and whatever else was thrown at them.
At the same time and against all odds, the Allmans are somehow viewed as hip again by a young generation of fans weaned on the likes of such Allman-inspired acts as Robert Randolph, White Stripes, Black Keys, String Cheese Incident, North Mississippi Allstars and Medeski, Martin & Wood - not to mention Allman offshoot groups Gov't Mule and the Derek Trucks Band. How's it feel, Gregg?
"I love it, absolutely," he says. "It does my heart so much good that we didn't land on the disco planet and get stuck there."
As for the Allman Brothers Band's ultimate legacy? "We always gave people their money's worth," he crows. "We didn't just get up there and doodle
around for 45 minutes and then split. We absolutely, seriously, loved to play. Somebody asked me the other day if I was ever gonna retire, and I said, 'Retire? Retire from what?'"
BLUE NOTES By Buddy Blue
It flies in the face of a hard-earned rep as a hateful crank, but I seem to be mellowing with age. You see, a handful of artists I once detested with near-spiritual fervor somehow fail to revolt me as profoundly as in days of yore.
I comfort myself with the notion that this is, most likely, a relative phenomenon: after all, how much contempt can one realistically continue to muster for the likes of Huey Lewis, Depeche Mode or Kiss when there's a whole new breed of prefab pop posers so contemptibly affected, gleefully talentless and startlingly vacuous as to make the aforementioned seem artistically heroic by comparison?
The ascent of several turd-worthy musical genres of modern vintage -- teen-pop, punk-pop, emo, sadcore, electronica, ambient, rave, doom metal, etc. etc. ad nauseum - has forced me to re-evaluate the comparative horrors perpetrated by a host of longtime pet bugaboos, and in some cases, to grudgingly fess up to a newfound ability to actually derive at least a modicum of guilty pleasure from some measure of their yield.
Which brings us to Elton John (ba-da-bum!), who performs Friday at Cox Arena. I've never been a fan of that whole super-sensitive, soul-searching, insipid songster thang, which was just the sort of softie John personified with early-'70s hits like "Levon," "Your Song," "Tiny Dancer" and "Daniel." My distaste for the funny-lookin' li'l fella was magnified by his peculiar li'l voice, possessed of a veffer-theen yet still somehow oddly-shrieking timbre, and featuring a nails-on-slate falsetto so excruciating as to induce homicidal ideation. All this well before the hype machine really even kicked into high gear; back when Dear John's image was more of a tortured, highbrow arteest than the outlandish icon so familiar now.
That said, by around '73, this man owned the world, remember? Prima facie evidence: the first edition of "The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock & Roll" awarded more abundant photo coverage to Elton than it did to Elvis.
This is all ancient history now; a scar on the soul which subsequent aural trauma has rendered relatively trivial. And -- back to the initial point -- I've come to grudgingly appreciate the fine craft of once- hated, early Sir Elton efforts like "Tumbleweed Connection," "Madman Across The Water" and "Honky Chateau;" something previously unthinkable. And if I still find "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" to be a prime candidate for most over-rated album of an entire decade, well, I'd vastly prefer further exposure to it than an audience with the latest batch of CDs by Ashlee Simpson, Lamb Of God, EZ-MC-OG-WHATEVA or whomever the latest toothless Clash imitators may be.
But you know what else? Come to think of it, I still bloody damned well hate the Eagles, the Doobie Brothers and Fleetwood Mac as much now as I did back in '78, so maybe there's some hope left for me yet.
Whew! Now I feel better....
On a happier note, a couple DIY discs worth reporting on have come across my desk; yes, such things actually do exist.
Pete C. Wagner is a semi-scary former marine from Maryland who sings in a drawled, croaking baritone as categorically weird as it is sometimes curiously soulful. Wagner's bitter, cynical songs - country and blues ballads a specialty -- often relate a profound distaste for the current political climate in America, the
state of humanity in general and the sadistic little tricks God plays on one and all. Outhouse metaphors and absurdist humor (the title of his CD isn't printable here) frequently punctuate Wagner's populist themes, sort of a Zappa-meets-Ochs-meets-Haggard kinda deal. Apparently further informed -- musically and/or politically -- by the likes of Dave Alvin, John Prine, Tom Waits and Steve Earle, this is Americana sitting on a toilet after a mescal bender. If it's sometimes difficult to tell where Wagner's satire ends and his genuine outrage begins, piecing the puzzle together makes for an interesting evening. Info: http://petecwagner.com
Brian Hogard, meanwhile, is a local singer/songwriter whose debut EP, "Anarene And Other Ridiculous Love Songs," is at once bemused and estranged, ethereal and salt-of-the-earth. Hogard's voice sounds a bit like Gram Parsons with a cold; sleepy and distant and not quite in pitch, but somehow serving the context of his style. The droning, minimalist accompaniment - guitar, bottleneck, banjo - give his oddly melodic, hooky tunes a rootsy feel. If one comes away with the impression Hogard has spent more time with Wilco and Whiskeytown than Waylon and Willie, well, the dusty mood his music conjures up seems somehow more sincere than the former, more in the now than the latter. The vibe is, for better or worse, neophyte: rough-around-the-edges but distinctive; imperfect but intriguing; a subject worthy of further research. Info: http://quasirecordings.com/brianhanarene.htm.
By Buddy Blue Remember Dan Aykroyd, the brilliant humorist whose twisted vision was central to the initial, runaway
success of "Saturday Night Live?" The popular comedic actor behind hit movies like "Trading Places," "Ghostbusters" and "Grosse Point Blank?" The Oscar-nominated thespian of such acclaimed films as "Driving Miss Daisy" and "Chaplin?"
He's so past all that yesterday jive.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Dan Aykroyd - businessman and entrepreneur; self-described "co-founding investor, company director and chief public relations spokesman" for the House Of Blues chain; a guy who tosses off corporate terminology in same familiar, rat-a-tat tones he once employed in character as "Wild and Crazy Guy" Yortuk Festrunk, bad culture aficionado Leonard Pinth-Garnell and truss-sportin' Fred Garvin: Male Prostitute, among others.
"I had a great run in the motion picture field, but basically, everything has to take a backseat to House Of Blues now," says Aykroyd. "It's taking up a lot of my time as we push to open new venues and properly manage the ones we've already got open. I'm extensively involved in the day-to-day oversight of the operation. This is really a vital time. While the economy improves, we have to ride the crest of the wave of this momentum and get the company to where it can really start to perform and be something that may be palatable to earner-investors on one level or another; either privately or in another fashion."
Say whaat, Conehead??
Well, lest one surmise that Aykroyd has completely lost his celebrated sense of humor or flair for showbiz, he'll appear with the Blues Brothers at HOB's new San Diego venue on May 21st -- a show that sold out several weeks in advance.
The Blues Brothers, Elwood and Jake, originated as an Aykroyd/John Belushi musical/comedy skit on SNL back in the '70s. The characters evolved into something of an American institution, releasing hit movies and records along the way of introducing two generations of young people to such great performers as Cab Calloway, John Lee Hooker, Wilson Pickett and Junior Wells, who'd fallen off the mainstream radar screen or never occupied it in the first place.
Belushi passed away in 1982, of course, but his Blues Brothers mantle was picked up by real-life brother Jim, and later John Goodman, before Belushi The Younger eventually resumed his role as Zee Blues alongside Elwood. According to Aykroyd, the tradition of silliness and often surprisingly good music established 30 years ago by the Blues Brothers still endures.
"Basically, when you have a Belushi and an Aykroyd up there playing characters who are recidivist, three-strike felons from Chicago running from the law, doing nasty little things to have fun and tweak authority, obviously there's going to be some antics there," he says. "Dancing, as one would think the Blues Brothers show would have it, is there, and we have probably one of the best and tightest touring sections in the world today. You'd have to rank us up there with James Brown, Van Morrison, Tom Jones -- we're right up there with the great touring R&B, soul and blues sections."
All well and good, Elwood, but is it really the same without the comic and vocal talents of Jake?
"Well, we dedicate the show to Jake and the music that he tried to keep alive," says Aykroyd. "Obviously, no one can ever replace Jake in any way -- physically, spiritually or vocally -- but Jimmy's an excellent vocalist, too. These Albanian guys from Illinois somehow really have a feeling for this music. John had it and Jimmy has it, and people who come to the show will not be disappointed."
Pleasing concert-goers from behind the scenes is Aykroyd's primary focus now. Since its inception in 1992, HOB has grown into a sprawling, name-brain chain, with 16 venues operating in the U.S., one in Canada, and plans for more in the works. Aykroyd takes obvious pride in watching the operation thrive, even as he dances the Jake Blues boogaloo all the way to the bank.
"Our company is based on the concept that there haven't been showrooms built in America specifically for the audience and the musicians to have a great communal experience since the great ballrooms of the
1930s and '40s, and some of the palladiums that were built in the 1950s," he notes. "This company is building houses that were engineered sightline-wise, sound-wise and stage-wise for a peak musical experience. Along with that, we are a leading purveyor of fine dining, perhaps one of the Top Five in the United States, we also have a retail arm and a radio show that's in 200 markets."
Not everyone agrees that HOB is a wholly positive entity, however. Independent clubs don't have the means, financial or otherwise, to contend with the monster looming at the door; some critics liken HOB to a musical Wal-Mart, entering communities with an aggressively competitive agenda and driving small- time operations out of business. At the very least, hiring away key employees and leaving their rivals lacking the experienced personnel needed to compete in the marketplace is a known HOB stock-in-trade. Is locking horns with established San Diego clubs like the Belly Up, 4th & B, Canes and the many countywide Performing Arts Centers and casinos part of the plan? According to Aykroyd, there's room enough for everyone to survive.
"The independently-owned club is not gonna put a Santana or a higher-end show in there, because they don't have a capacity or the capital to do it," he says. "They aren't going to be effected by what we do. Of course there's always some fear there, but the other clubs remain intact because they're booking the same bands they always have, and perhaps others that can show up at their club on one night and at House Of Blues on a different night. There's spillover business too; we recommend other clubs in town [to customers] when our shows sell out. Putting other people out of business isn't a valid fear; we actually stimulate business wherever we go."
What does all this mean for San Diego's homegrown talent? Local musicians have expressed positions ranging from quivering optimism to something resembling paranoia over what will happen to their traditional stomping grounds and what role, if any, they might play with the company as HOB enters the picture.
While Aykroyd acknowledges that national acts will be the focus of the club's bookings - naturally so, as few locals could hope to fill a 1000-plus capacity room - one has to be heartened by his stated goal of including San Diego musicians on HOB bills, and something close to astonished when the name of one local legend passes his lips; the guy has done his homework.
"We're looking to book Tomcat Courtney down there," says Aykroyd of San Diego's blues patriarch, a revered figure within the county line but relatively unknown outside the region. "I wanna book Tomcat, I wanna pay him, and I wanna pay him well. We want to contribute to the cultural scene. I want to know about San Diego bands, whether they be surf bands or punk bands or what have you, and do all we can to support them and give them exposure. We have local bands play mostly in the restaurant level, sometimes for noon shows, and we have also local bands open for national acts. It's just a matter of finding them."
The final rub on HOB has been that its very title is a misnomer; that the blues actually plays only a minor role in the chain's talent buying policy. While that is an undeniable fact, the sad truth is that it would be impossible to support a venture of this magnitude based solely or even largely on a music genre with so minute a fan base.
"The blues never plays enough of a role for my taste," sighs Aykroyd. "I would love to see a blues artist in our clubs every night of the week, but that's not going to sustain us. For instance, the world doesn't know who Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers are, and these are master blues performers. I'd have to put them on a bill with perhaps two or three other artists to fill our L.A. club, and to me, that's just tragic.
"House Of Blues has, by necessity and to some extent by design, become a house of all music. We have artists of all different types -- hip hop and rap shows, Latin nights, gay disco nights, whatever we can do to keep our showrooms full. This is a necessity; we're running a business with 2,300 employees."
Suddenly, in midst of all this unpleasant capitalist-speak, Aykroyd's Jake Blues persona rears his fedora-topped head, delivering an impromptu oratory of blues appreciation. Say what you will of corporate fears, pose your Wal-Mart analogies, bemoan the very concept of gay disco night at a blues club, but the man's knowledge and love of the music is unimpeachable.
"Part of our mission remains to recognize veterans who've played music for their entire lives," says Aykroyd. "I'm a huge Otis Rush, Bobby Rush and Buddy Guy fan. We just had Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown in Cleveland. I love Larry McCray, Robert Cray and Alvin 'Youngblood' Hart, but if you go out into the pop and hip hop world, the world of radio and the world of youth today, these master players are unknown.
"Hopefully now with Johnny Clyde Copeland's daughter, Shemekia, and Muddy Waters' son, Big Bill Morganfield, and Luther Allison's son, Bernard...this is the next generation. Hopefully, they can take their parents' music and really connect with the 20-to-30-year-olds, because if they don't get hooked on the blues, it's gonna vanish. I want to see Buddy Guy sell a million records; that's my mission with the club and the radio show, to support these incredible artists in any way we can."