It’s clear the band is looking to present a streamlined, back-to-basics style NYC run where the emphasis is on digging deep and wringing new truths out of old songs, while slipping in a few new covers and an unexpected treat or two. The intensity is there – let’s face it, the Allmans could coast on their musicianship and towering individual skills alone and still serve up a strong set of shows – and the smiles are still plastered. The price tags are brutal, but most of the time, you don’t feel like you overpaid. That much.
Monday’s show, as opposed to the volcanic eruption that was Thursday, was a fairly vanilla affair – the type of show that left me sated but also ready to “call it.” There were choice moments of brilliance: Rocking Horse, which perhaps more than any other recent Allmans songs has evolved from place filler into a true set showpiece, opened up into the heavens. Kind of Bird – oh, welcome back, Kind of Bird! – was a groovy jazz-rock summit. I enjoyed Jessica a little less than I wanted to: fun solos, the driving rhythm, a tasty Will the Circle Be Unbroken breakdown, a decent drums, but overall a little cold and bereft of triumph. The drama had come earlier: the mesmerizing Derek solo in Black Hearted Woman, full of Hendrixian twists and turns, and the Derek-Warren duel in a slightly modified arrangement of Every Hungry Woman, true to this new Allmans trend of pushing those mid-set types of songs out of their pedestrian run-throughs.
The Monday show — I dug it, you know? No more, no less. It reminded me as much that the Allmans are neglecting some of their greatest material – seriously, what happened to Instrumental Illness – in favor of well, I don’t know what. Only You Know and I Know. It’s fun, really fun. Inspired? Nah. Give me a commanding Stand Back, or a charged High Cost of Low Living, in that mid-set spot. Hell, even the overplayed Woman Across the River always manages to win me back over by the time they’re done dismantling it. Monday’s show reminded me of the band’s current limitations as much as it did re-affirm my excitement in their abilities.
On Thursday, a different vibe. Fairly pedestrian-sounding first set that saw Ain’t Wastin Time No More almost fall apart at one point and overall, didn’t yield much in the way of exploration. Come On In My Kitchen and Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City both sort of drifted on by; Bag End, the new instrumental, has this wonderful air of mystery but no great hook to anchor it and too amorphous a jam segment.
But another slow, pleasantly average night? No. The energy shift happened some time around the relentlessly beautiful Into the Mystic, and then kicked into high gear with Scott Sharrard’s appearance on a crackling You Don’t Love Me. A fan two seats over from me said, “I think they’re ready to start cooking.” Yes indeed.
The second set on Thursday was a monster — the type of long, psychedelic, fiery-peak/depth-charge-valley excursion into which this lineup of the band, when everyone is locked in, really digs deep – and deserves an extended look. It began innocently enough with a deceptively calming Melissa that seemed to promise more of a leisurely pace, and then the full on announcement of Mountain Jam, complete with stately tympani and warm, gooey solos from Derek and Warren, refreshingly unhurried.
It was there things got interesting. Warren and Derek brought the Mountain Jam tempo from chug to crawl, making it appear as though the band was headed for the usual drums showcase, but instead, Warren sounded the pained first few notes of Desdemona and ace saxman Jay Collins slid in next to Oteil. Desdemona is, by now, a warhorse, capable of serious drama and no shortage of bravura improvisation, and Derek, Jay and Warren all took turns in the solo hot seat – Derek as sonic contortionist, Warren as chronicler of pain and Jay with seething anger. From there came another eruption: Black Hearted Woman, furious as always, yielding a bass solo from Oteil that felt, amazingly, both heavy and nimble and a throttling drums showcase with Oteil on Butch’s kit and Butch on tympani.
As the rest of the band returned to the stage, the song’s familiar wrap-up dropped in to the galloping jam that, for Derek’s solo, becomes the familiar Other One churn and then reverts back before the song’s conclusion. Hard to overstate either guitarist’s solo in this portion: Derek as usual brought jaw-dropping sorcery, but so did Warren, busting out of the “standard” Warren progression of heavy riffage followed by high register squealing or speed picking, and forcing himself into deep, nasty, growling runs and screaming resolutions that didn’t seem to come from his usual playbook. (That’s no slight on Warren, by the way, he just still tends to fall back on his most familiar riffs more noticeably often than Derek does.)
The close of Black Heated Woman weaved on back into Mountain Jam with a long, psychedelic climb into Dead territory: the type of group improv where disparate strands sound amorphous and then start tying together and resolve to a familiar place. The crowd, by this time, was ravenously eating it up and the cheer at Mountain Jam’s conclusion was the loudest I’ve yet heard for any song on this year’s residency. It was downright moving.
We had Whipping Post left to go before everyone got all misty-eyed. What a version: brutalizing, to say the least; surprising, with the addition of Jay on sax, who peeled off a scorcher of a solo while fully mindful of Whipping Post traditionally belonging to guitarists; and a knockout that left the United Palace audience in that warm, exhausted, dazed state that lingers after an A-level Allmans set.
Upon further review, maybe it isn’t accurate to say the Allman Brothers Band is no longer interested in growth: the chemistry keeps evolving every year and does takes on new flavors. But it’s been seven years since “Hittin the Note” and it’s pretty obvious by now that any new output of studio material won’t so much be a glut of inspired originals than a few loosely organized themes dressed up as new instrumentals.
I’m cool with it. The Allmans haven’t done enough to convince me that this isn’t the slow fade to black: a new slate of decent to great covers every year and some setlist chicanery can’t mask the feeling that the band doesn’t have all that much new to say anymore. But they have convinced me – as they do, every damn year – to keep coming back until the final curtain. I’ll be there next year, and after. See you there too.