The Allman Brothers Band’s Cream of the Crop 2003 is hopefully just the first in a series of archival releases under the Peach Picks banner. Comprised of concert recordings taken from six stops on their summer tour that year, all the selections were initially available on the Instant Live CD’s the group offered for sale at those shows on the inaugural run of the enterprise; for the purposes of this title and the digital debut of the material, the remastering by Tom Lewis markedly improves the audio clarity.
2003 was a watershed year for this final lineup of the Allman Brothers Band. The personnel lineup had coalesced since Warren Haynes’ return to the fold in 2001 and the viable songwriting partnership he established with the late Gregg Allman, in turn, led to the recording and release of Hittin’ The Note, the first ABB studio album in nearly a decade. The subsequent incorporation of material from that record, such as these extended renditions of “Desdemona” and “High Cost of Low Living,” supplied both contrast with, and inspiration for, improvisations upon standards from the Brothers’ repertoire: this septet’s appetite for adventure—resulting in more than just a tease of Coltrane and Hendrix– may never be more clear than on this forty-minutes plus version of “Mountain Jam,” but not so far behind lies saxophonist Branford Marsalis’ freewheeling participation on these extended takes of the best-known compositions by the namesake of the band, “Dreams” and “Whipping Post.”
And while it may be true no lineup of Allman Brothers ever offered a less-than-excellent performance of Dickey Betts’ “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” double drummers Jaimoe and the now-deceased Butch Trucks, took special pleasure in their interpretations of the great instrumental; this thirty-three minutes from Pittsburgh (the source of all the tracks on disc two of the four here) features not only a marvelous ebb and flow in the break incorporating percussionist Marc Quinones, but reveals the nuance bassist Oteil Burbridge brought to the tune (and not just in his ever-so-finely filigreed solo!).
In the same smart sequencing on CD the Allmans used on stage at this juncture of their career, this tour-de-force precedes a comparatively pithy take on “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More.” The melancholy but resolute song from Eat A Peach may well have been closest to the heart of its keyboardist/vocalist/author, if it were not for “Old Before My Time;” yet another selection from that final ABB studio effort, this patently autobiographical number deserved as much audience acclamation as the de rigeur crowd-pleaser “Melissa,” at least in such a gentle take as this one from Darien. Notwithstanding the overall strength in Gregg’s voice on display elsewhere, during “Trouble No More” and “Wasted Words” (from the ABB commercial breakthrough Brothers and Sisters), such delicacy there stands out in stark relief to the explosive likes of that which immediately precedes it: “Rocking Horse,” invariably laid the groundwork for the more exploratory jamming led by Haynes and his fiery guitar partner Derek Trucks later in the Brothers’ shows of the period: the interpolation of the Grateful Dead’s “The Other One” into the rideout of “Blackhearted Woman” is just such an interval and also hints at the even greater expansion of the Allmans’ setlists during this phase, inclusions of cover material rooted as deeply in the band’s history as its rock and blues roots, like Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla” and “Good Morning Little School Girl.”
This unpredictable approach brought further novelty to the band’s performances at this time, thus solidifying the practicality of the aforementioned concert recording campaign inaugurated in conjunction with Don Law, long-time Allmans advocate, Boston concert promoter and entrepreneur.
Associate producer (with esteemed archivist Bill Levenson) John Lynskey’s essay delineates the timeline of that initiative as well as the evolution of the band that rendered it a viable enterprise, so his prose complements the pertinent details of show dates and locations. Likewise, while photographer Kirk West’s portrait of the band is certainly suitable for the front cover, its prominence inadvertently points up the absence of any live action images of the band within this package: even a small array of stage shots would be preferable to these hackneyed graphics inside this ultra-slender digi-pak.
That said, the Allman Brothers Band was never much for cosmetic appearances, so what’s at the heart of Cream of the Crop 2003, certifiably brilliant musicianship, ends up making a very convincing argument this ABB unit was comparable to, though not quite the equal of, that original ensemble that recorded At Fillmore East.