Oh, that Butch Trucks: he must be hell on publicists. Sure, he’s on time and available when called for an interview, but he’s happy to delay a pressing phone call, ringing insistently in the background, if he likes the color of your question.
He’s also more than happy to be colorful himself; long-known as one of the most candid and insightful interviews in the jamband world, he’s getting on in years – Butch will be 63 in May — but doesn’t ever seem to lose that gift-o-gab fastball.
The Allman Brothers Band returns to…well, not the Beacon this March for the first time in many a moon, having been forced from their usual haunt by Cirque de Soleil. But there is still a New York residency to be played this spring, and dammit if the Brothers aren’t coming back to take the Big Apple by storm once more.
Thirteen dates are on the books — and according to Butch, selling briskly — at the United Palace, 100 blocks uptown from the Beacon. The return of the residency will also bring the return of Moogis, the live music video streaming service Trucks unveiled for last year’s 40th Anniversary run of Beacon shows.
Glide/ Hidden Track caught up with the drummer earlier this month to talk Moogis, the United Palace, and plenty of other subjects both comfortable and uncomfortable. Say this for the man — and we said it last year, too — he doesn’t hold back.
When did it first become clear that you guys would not be appearing at the Beacon Theater in 2010?
Well, it’s been quite a while now. We knew it six to eight months ago. Bert [Holman, manager] and the guys spent a great deal of time looking at our options. I will tell you that the United Palace has been after us for a long time. For a number of years, and a lot of people don’t know this, we’ve actually taken less money to stay at the Beacon. We’ve been taking less money because we felt strongly that that’s where we built the vibe. It was the Beacon! But after doing that, they pull this stunt. From all I’m hearing the show [Cirque de Soleil] is going to be a total bomb, and I don’t know what the hell they plan on doing after that.
The United Palace shows, well, ticket sales have been excellent. We were really nervous about them dropping off with the economy the way it is and asking people go to that far uptown. We were worried they wouldn’t sell as well, but they have. All the guys at United Palace are treating us like kings. They’re bending over backwards to make everything right. So far, it’s been a very nice experience, and it’s a very nice venue. It has 400 more seats than the Beacon does, so 13 shows are pretty much equivalent to 15 at the Beacon. We put up the first eight shows, and we were nervous, but they went quick. From a sales pace, we’re pretty much on par with last year’s Beacon sales, and that was for the 40th anniversary.
How did you settle on United Palace? Were there any other venues up for serious consideration?
We did talk about other venues, but no, there’s really not another venue in the city that meets all the criteria. There are theaters around Broadway, but most are too small. Then there’s the one everyone plays with the wrap-around balcony…
Right, yes, but that wasn’t quite big enough either. This one without a doubt is much more like the Beacon experience than anything else in the city. This is where we’re going and it’s looking good.
Has Beacon management indicated anything about 2011? Will you go back to the Beacon if you can?
I tell you right now, the way things are looking, they’re going to lose money to get us back next year. After 20 years – 20 years! – of sticking it out with them and taking less money to stay there and everything and being the anchor for their spring lineup? No single band has done for the Beacon what we have, and 188 sellouts in a row – I mean, good god, that’s insane. But rather than tell these guys with Cirque de Soleil, ‘Hey, we have March full already,’ well…we kind of feel like we’ve been betrayed.
If things go well at United Palace, maybe we stay there. We haven’t talked about it or anything, and maybe everyone else is ready to go running back to the Beacon, but that’s how I feel. They’ve been working to get us there for many years, and now that they’ve got us, they’re bending over backwards to make sure it’s as good as it possibly can be.
Let’s talk about Moogis, which you’ve confirmed is returning this year. Does the United Palace, being an older theater, necessitate any changes to your set-up from last year?
Well, we’re not using the same set-up. Technology has evolved drastically since last year, and we’re going to run it all over an Internet connection this year. From what I’ve been told, we will have a better signal just using the Internet connection. With what we had last year, we pretty much had the ability to withstand anything short of a nuclear explosion. We think it’s not worth all that it cost us for that. This year we can do it for much cheaper, and with the new compression techniques – plus more bandwidth available – most people will get a much better signal than last year and it’ll cost us 20 to 25 percent of what it did last year.
I remember when we spoke last year you said you’d have to meet certain financial thresholds to keep Moogis alive. Did you get there?
We lost money last year. But it looks like this year we will not only make money, but also make enough to cover last years losses and maybe turn a small profit. We don’t want to be losing money on this, but it’s not something I’m looking to get wealthy off of. This is something that I want to do as a legacy – it’s going to be much bigger and cover many different genres of music. Since last year, I’ve found some people who think like I do about this sort of thing, and after we finish the Beacon … oops, I did it! After we finish the New York run, we’re going to look at expanding Moogis to cover the whole jamband genre, then start going into other genres: jazz, metal, Christian, country.
All of those are genres that would work with the Moogis model. In those genres, you have fans who tend to stick with an artist for a very long time, and won’t come and go every few years like artists do in the pop scene. The pop scene, they can stick with Facebook, fine. We want to create these communities starting with jambands, and the Allman Brothers is the obvious way to beta test this thing. It’s working much better this year. I hope to come out of this in March and head straight into April and May to start building out Moogis 2.0.
Just to circle back, can you explain the technical differences between this year’s set-up and last year’s?
For one thing we had a T1 that went directly to Fibre. It’s just overkill. To be sending a 1x signal, you just don’t need that much anymore. There’s actually technology now – and if I felt more comfortable I would – where you could just run the whole thing off a laptop. You get 3-, 4-, 5-meg uplinks, probably 750k and 1 meg signal streams, and you tap into whichever once looks best on your system. Most people nowadays won’t have any problem running 1 meg. Bandwidth is getting better and there’s a great deal more of it. We can compress the signal so much better on the front end, too, so it’s going to come to everyone so much easier.
You know, to me, something like this is a slam dunk. If this thing goes where my ambitions want to take it, it’s going to be a new paradigm. The one thing I know about the Internet is that it’s where the communities of today are. When I was growing up, we used to come home from school and go down the street and play baseball with whoever was in the neighborhood. Now, kids go online and hang with people who think the way they do. They seek them out. They may not be getting the fresh air and exercise, but that’s the nature of the beast. Creating a community music site, where maybe we go around and wire-up five or six clubs around the country with five or six hi-def cameras, is what happens next. You log onto Moogis and see a live jamband around the country, somewhere. You’ve got all these young bands, and who the hell is going to give them the exposure they need? The radio’s not playing new music anymore, that’s for sure. Why not give all the young bands with something to say people to say it to, instead of the hundred people they play to in bars every night and lose money playing to?
That’s the legacy I want to leave behind. I don’t want them to get ripped off by the major labels. Trust me, if anyone knows about that, it’s us. We’re suing Sony and UMG right now, you know.
What we’re hoping to get is for them to realize that a download from the Internet is not an album, a CD, or a traditional sale – it’s a license. The majority of music these days is being sold over iTunes. Most contracts, especially older contracts like ours, allow for them [labels] to pay us a small percentage on every regular sale. But for a license – like a commercial license or a movie license, or a download – they’re supposed to pay us 50 percent of whatever they make.
Obviously, they don’t want to do that, and they’re not doing that, and they’re denying the fact that a download on iTunes comes under the context of a license. It’s a classic definition of a license! It’s a third party: iTunes sells it and UMG is not involved in the transaction and they spend no money promoting it at all. They’re trying to deny it is a license. Our thought is: if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it’s a license! [laughs] They don’t want this to go to court, believe me, because if they take it to court, we’re going to win.
They’ve made some ridiculous offers to settle, and they’ve been insulting. We’re spending a fortune on lawyers to do this, but we’ve been at this too long and been screwed for too long, and if we have to play a few extra shows to pay for the lawyers, so be it. Everybody’s going to be coming in right behind us, too, once we set the precedent. They still refuse to deal with us on a rational basis. It’s coming to a hilt. Stay tuned.
I know I have to let you go, but can we cycle back to the 2009 Beacon shows? So many great nights. Do you have favorite memories?
There are just so many. I mean, Clapton there, and playing “Layla” with him, you can’t beat that. Bonnie Bramlett being there, and when we had Bonnie, and Bekka [Bramlett] and Susan [Tedeschi] all singing up there with us. And hey, playing with Lenny White is always so amazing. And Bernard Purdie. There’s just too many to mention. Asking which was my favorite is asking who’s your favorite kid.
How close was Dickey Betts to appearing with the band at the Beacon last year?
Eh. It wasn’t going to happen.
But you did ask him and he turned you down?
We asked him to. As a tribute to Duane we asked him to. Despite our differences – and as you know, our differences are very deep – we asked him to be part of it. There’s been a lot of name calling over the years, and to be honest with you, getting him out of the band was like getting an 800-pound gorilla off my back. The man has very serious issues and at times he has dealt with them. Other times he’d scream at us, as if in life he was supposed to get drunk and snort coke. We finally all said enough, and the last few years, without that dark cloud on stage night after night…well, we’ve got seven guys that respect each other. Every night is different and every night is fun.
How did he respond to your invitation?
We asked him to come, because he was part of the band. We sent them an invitation, and at one point we actually heard from his manager there was a 50-50 chance of him joining us. But when push came to shove, he just decided not to. I can’t ever see a situation where we would even feel obligated to invite him again. It’s enough. That’s run its course. That’s not going to happen again.