One Saturday morning during my junior year at Rutgers, I tentatively woke up at the crack of 10:30 or so and sat at the edge of the bed, head a bit cobwebby, mouth a bit on the dry side, bladder’s gauge way to the left of “F.” As I steadied myself and pondered my condition (nothing broken, nothing bleeding, at least externally), I recognized the peculiar sensation in ye olde tum-tum—a combination of light queasiness and ravenous hunger, as if it were telling me at once to steer clear of sustenance, unless I really wanted to fill it with coffee and a cheeseburger, from the grease truck down on College Ave. run by the friendly Greek family.
I got up and turned on my portable radio, which was tuned to one of the New York rock stations, and I recognized the bass and guitar lick that opens the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post.” I paused and listened for a moment, making sure I was balanced, that my feet were indeed still on the floor and attached to my legs, and even in my condition, I noticed a difference in the song from the version I was used to—the one from Side Four of At Fillmore East. There was just a hint of something amiss—a nuance, a note muted too quickly, or a half-beat-quicker tempo than the version on the record. The notion came and went in seconds; by the time Gregg Allman began bemoaning being run down and lied to, I had re-taught myself how to place one foot in front of the other, then bring that other foot to the fore as well, and to repeat the process until I made it to the bathroom across the hall.
Ablutions abluted and face freshly splashed with tepid dorm water, I sloughed back to my room, where “Whipping Post” was still playing, the band settled in and rising to the appropriate atmospheric level. I picked out my uniform for the morning (t-shirt and jeans, probably—my uniform for most mornings—along with bedhead-hiding baseball cap), and fumbled with my shoes. By the time I turned the radio off to leave, I’d say a little less than 20 minutes had elapsed since I’d turned it on.
Walked down to the car, noticing how the morning air made the out-of-doors feel so alive, so unlike how I felt in that moment. Started up the car and the radio sputtered on, same station, still with the Allmans playing “Whipping Post,” late, late, late in the song, where the tempo slows and the guitars take turns spontaneously creating the soundtrack that plays for souls ascending to Heaven’s gates, right before heading back into that quick-paced blues that leads into the final chorus. That’s the part that played as I drove into New Brunswick, lasting about halfway into the short trip. The whole thing folded up as I approached College Ave.; the DJ back-announced the song as being recorded at some point in the Seventies (I can’t remember which date) and confirmed that yes, we’d been listening to “Whipping Post” for the better part of a half-hour.
What is the allure of the jam band? Why do so many concertgoers of all ages, social statuses, and levels of intoxication flock to outdoor venues every summer, like fundies to revival tents, to partake in lengthy and loud swaths of sound, audiolicious licks of the Phishapalooza, the Deadcicle, the Panic-pop? What compels them to engage in their twirlydances, their slow swaying, their overhead taps of giant beach balls (and who sends those giant beach balls out into the seas of humanity, anyhoo? The bands always look so annoyed when the requisite three or four appear in the GA section)? And what of the stuff for at-home consumption? Is anyone truly listening to the spacy interplay of a 19-minute-long “Sugaree” from Hartford in ‘77? To the wacky hijinks of a 25-minute “You Enjoy Myself” from New Year’s Eve 1995? To the lengthy tête-à-tête between Duane Allman and Dickey Betts in the “Whipping Post” I heard back in college?
Why do I like this stuff so much? My attention span is like sand through cosmic fingers—long, thin ones. But when a good jam takes flight—and I don’t mean noodlin’ for the sake of noodlin’; I mean noodlin’ with purpose—I find myself kinda being taken away with it all. The mood has something to do with it—both my own and that of the performers in question. When I am angry or feel the overwhelming urge to put my fist through something vaguely wall-like, I sometimes turn to Miles Davis’ Agharta or Dark Magus—Seventies-era double albums full of pissed-off electric funk improvisations. Listening to them in periods of pent-up frustration provides some manner of catharsis—safe, injury-free catharsis, often personal catharsis (if no one else can hear the music). They contain in their grooves beautifully violent jams that perfectly suit my mood.
On the other claw, there’s the Dave Matthews Band’s song “Two Step,” which is often the vehicle for lengthy flights of whimsy. Say what you will about Matthews—his vocal tics, his wooden studio arrangements, etc.—his band, when given the space to stretch out, to let some air into their music (preferably the sweet-scented breeze emanating from the crowds at their summer shows), inject a peculiar kind of joy into what they play. On a given night, it can be all joy, all the time, for two and a half or three hours, none of that time more joyful than during the choruses of “Two Step,” which burst open from measured verses, spiked with staccato guitar strumming, and which are followed often by dreamy bits of improv, stretching out into the humid cool of the evening and 20,000 sets of ears ready to receive them, in the moment. On a good night, this might go on for 10 or 12 minutes; on a great night—like the one documented on 2003’s The Central Park Concert—it goes on for double that, and I float right along with it, every time I hear it, whether in my home, in my car, or, when I’m feeling particularly devilish and value-driven, in a bar where I call it up on the satellite jukebox.
The Allman Brothers Band was the first great blues jam band, at least to the hippie faithful (though I would argue that the Paul Butterfield Blues Band had set the template with their 1966 East-West album. That’s fodder for a different column, though). Sure, the Dead could, and did, soundtrack an audience’s evening-long meander through their own cortices and foggy brain chemistry (and occasionally those of the fellow travelers dancing or reclining nearby). Santana were known for long-ass, mescaline-abetted percussion orgies. Hell, even the Byrds could play “Eight Miles High” for 15 or 20 minutes when the spirit moved them. But the Allmans brought something most others could not—a studied, soulful white-boy take on Southern blues. Cream tried to do that, but they were too deliberately virtuosic for their own good, and also too British. Hendrix could stretch out and bring the blues thunder, but the Experience was not a blues band, and Band of Gypsys were not together long enough to gel into the great funky blues band they had every indication of one day being.
No, the Allmans were a different breed of long-form virtuosos—a six-headed hydra with great power and nuance, at equal ease covering the masters of the blues as they were adding new songs to the canon. As was largely the case with the Dead, their studio work was an inaccurate rendering of their strengths, which is one reason they went the double-live-album route on just their third record, 1971’s iconic At Fillmore East.
These days, live records have been more or less supplanted by things like “official bootlegs”—soundboard recordings of single shows, presented in their entirety, no muss, no fuss. Of popular bands, Pearl Jam, the Black Crowes, Widespread Panic, and Phish were early adopters; hell, Springsteen even did it on his last tour. If the recordings catch a given band on a good night, they’re a good value, and serve as a fine replacement for the typical live record, which tended to be culled from multiple shows and, we’ve come to find out in recent years, often featured more than a dollop of sweetening, via studio skullduggery.
The Allmans now do the “official bootleg” thing, too, but in 1971, they were content to cherry-pick from a three-night stand at Bill Graham’s east coast concert outpost, shows that proved their authority as blues performers, as well as their essential elasticity, in the jams that carried them from the street to the sun and back. How many live records can boast an opening as potent as that of “Statesboro Blues,” with Duane’s slide curling into Gregg’s vocal, with the band marching into the evening’s performance like an invading buncha commandos—killing, with precision? Or how about the moment it dawns on you, as your attention is devoted to the slide playing in “Done Somebody Wrong,” that you can actually dance to this shit, that the noddin’ of yer head and the swayin’ of yer hips are quite appropriate responses to the way the band pops in and out in small bursts? Or maybe you think you see a ghost lingering about during “Stormy Monday,” until you realize it’s just Gregg’s organ filling in the divide between Duane’s slide solo and Dickey’s sad four-fingered cry?
And that’s just Side One. Mind you there’s three more sides to go—but only four more songs. And it’s on those tracks where At Fillmore East really earns its marks as a classic record, as the band allows itself to slow down, spread out, and yet maintain a momentum that keeps the listener engaged, hanging on for the next note, and the one after that, and the flurry of notes after that one.
That the band somehow hold that momentum together even during the breakdown midway through “You Don’t Love Me” is amazing. If you’ve never heard it, you need to. Six minutes or so into the song, the band backs away and lets Duane testify on the slide guitar, all by his lonesome. Something’s bothering him—I suppose his woman left him, if we’re going along with the song’s synopsis—and he needs to get it off his chest, all of it. When he’s said his piece, Dickey walks the drummers back in, wicked pickin’ in full effect, like he’s trying to lighten the mood a bit after Duane done cried all his tears. He and the two drummers hold court, getting rowdy, and apparently cheering up Duane, cuz big brother tries to lead in Berry Oakley’s bass, almost asking to join along. Dickey says “No” at first; he’s got some more talking to do with the drummers, a couple more eighth-note runs high on his ax’s neck to spark off before yielding the floor. Eventually, after his monologue and some excited gesticulations, Duane and Berry come back in for real, trailing Gregg’s organ, and the only slide guitar superhero that Macon ever made gets in his retort, first with all present, then all by his lonesome. He then offers a benediction—“Joy to the World,” of all things—and the band files in behind him, like a good choir should.
It’s extraordinary, and it takes up the entirety of Side Two, which is perfect—put the record on, drop the needle, and let yourself get carried off for 20 minutes. And that’s before we get to the oft-heralded glory of “Whipping Post,” the other side-long blues seminar. It’s a bit of a punchline now (how many times have you heard someone yell for “Whipping Post” at, like, a Steve Earle show, just to be funny? Well, I have. In fact, I once shouted it out myself, at a Steve Earle show. And I’d like to apologize to Steve Earle right now), but who else could pull off a 23-minute blues jam, alternating in 11/4 and 6/4 time, peaking and troughing, switching from gut-bucket blues wailing to beautiful, sun-kissed passages of such majesty as to bring a tear to the eye of the most hardened cynic, as well as the most ardent hippie?
I can’t get enough of it—never have been able to, and very likely never will. And, really, I never have to, do I? There’s a new box set just available—cleverly named The 1971 Fillmore East Recordings—that compiles four complete shows from the Allmans’ March 1971 Fillmore run, as well as its set from June of that year, the weekend the Fillmore closed down. There’s a lot of great music on it—much of it mirroring the live album’s track listing—most importantly, from my perspective, there are three additional versions of “Whipping Post,” enabling the listener to revel in the nuances of each performance, getting the essence of the thing, as well as marveling at how the band approached the song and jams with fresh perspective, each time through.
The “Whipping Post” recorded at the second, late, March 13 show (Disc 4 of the box set) is the one that ended up on At Fillmore East, and it’s the one you know and either love or just like a lot. My favorite is the version on Disc 3—from the early show on that date. At 17 minutes, it’s the shortest “Post” from the run, but it’s angrier than the others, with Gregg’s usual air of desperation and confusion replaced with something a little more pissed off. For pure resplendence, though, check out the interplay between Duane and Dickey on the Disc 6 version—taken from the June 27 show that closed the Fillmore. Hearing the two of them soar reminds me of the first time I heard Hendrix’s “Angel,” when my head and heart wondered if I’d ever hear anything so beautiful again.
That last Fillmore show is a real gem; it could’ve been released on its own and received praise as a document of the band in their natural live setting. The version of Elmore James’ “One Way Out” from this performance was later released on Eat a Peach, and is fierce stuff. The “Statesboro Blues” here is more relaxed, and there’s a take on “Midnight Rider” that seems a bit tentative—perhaps due to the elegiac nature of the event, or to the fact that it’s a simpler song, and not a vehicle for anything too fancy or jammy. Nothing tentative about the set-closing “You Don’t Love Me,” though—Duane and Dickey play out their conversation again, only the percussion adds an edginess more pronounced than earlier Fillmore versions. Maybe it was more of a debate that night in June. Whatever; it closes out the evening—and the iconic venue in which it was played—in perfect fashion.
I suppose a six-disc box is the perfect tribute to the Allmans as a band, and At Fillmore East as a classic record. So much great music, played in such extended settings, could not—perhaps should not—have been contained in the grooves of a mere double album. Having all these wonderful sounds in one place—at the Fillmore, on your turntable, or now in your CD player or iPod—is an embarrassment of riches, and richly deserving of such deluxe presentation and preservation.