Originally released in 1996 as something of a corollary title to the Grateful Dead’s Dick’s Picks archival series (it originally had much the same generic artwork) and long out-of-print, The Allman Brothers Band’s Fillmore East February 1970 consists of recordings captured by the San Francisco band’s late mentor and sound specialist, Owsley “Bear” Stanley, from a three-night run at the late Bill Graham’s vaunted New York venue. The CD and the more expansive digital files that correspond to it represents the second release in the award-winning “Bear’s Sonic Journals,” a collaboration between the Owsley Stanley Foundation and the ABB organization.
Almost a year after a formation of the seminal Southern rock band and just about two months before the comparably rough concert takes comprising Live at Ludlow Garage (issued in expanded form as part of the 2014 Deluxe Edition of ABB’s Idlewild South, their second studio album), the original sextet was homing in on the sound that would lend itself to At Fillmore East, the epic recordings done thirteen months later at the same venue. Yet even as the group founded by guitarist Duane “Skydog” Allman was honing the influential style that would make them famous, they were stretching themselves as well, shuffling novel and well-established material in and out of their repertoire.
As appropriately noted by essayist John Lynskey, each night’s setlist was similar and the Allmans opened with guitarist Dickey Betts’ (at the time new) instrumental “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” There is nothing tentative in the least in this nine-minute rendition (one of its first-known concert performances) and the resplendent sound quality of this release matches the richly interwoven musicianship. Meanwhile, the slow blues “Outskirts of Town,” which would become shortly become redundant for the Brothers, anchors a clutch of covers in the same genre; bassist Berry Oakley sings Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man” with no little gusto, Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues” would eventually become the ABB’s signature opener and McKinley Morganfield aka Muddy Waters’ “Trouble No More,” became immortalized upon its release within 1972’s Eat A Peach. Models of economy and discipline on the part of the Allmans, these comparatively truncated performances, book-ended as they are with brilliant instrumentals, formulate a dynamic sequencing that would convince even someone who’d never heard the Allman Brothers Band why it’s so deserving of its esteemed position in the pantheon of contemporary rock.
Equally rowdy and polished at this point in their career, the group was as unself-conscious in the embrace of their roots as it was hearty in the invention of their self-composed material. As a result, this version of Gregg Allman’s “Whipping Post,” extremely potent in its somewhat abbreviated, roughly eight minute duration leaves the Allman Brothers plenty of time to stretch out, for slightly over a half-hour, on “Mountain Jam”: in an initially insistent and eventually furious extended improvisation on Donovan’s song, the band thus completes an approximately seventy-two minute performance that supplies a missing link in the evolutionary path of the group to that aforementioned 1971 pinnacle (and serves as a fine companion piece to the splendid Live from A&R Studios issued in 2016).
A twelve-page CD booklet adorned with the same striking graphic art as the front cover of Fillmore East February 1970 contains four pieces of fairly illuminating writing, including Owsley’s original liner notes, as well as a technically-oriented production memo. The latter, even in its ever-so-brief form, serves to point out this is the first Allmans’ vault title to receive such extensive audio enhancement (comparable, it should be noted, to recent-day Grateful Dead archive releases) and also suggests the other pieces of prose might well have been condensed to allow for the inclusion of more action shots of the Brothers on stage (nevertheless, the mushroom image emblazoned on the disc is a nice touch).
But nitpicking here is pointless, even concerning reservations arising from the absence of exact details regarding which cuts here derive from which nights, etc. But then such minutiae weren’t revealed about AFE upon its release either, so there’s no obscuring the fact this release adds as much honor as credence to the growing legacy of the Allman Brothers Band.
Just in case anyone is reading this article down the road, the Owsley Stanley Foundation did release a followup to this CD, the Deluxe Set, which includes all the source reels on 2 discs as well as the compilation CD. So you can hear all 3 nights, as much as Owsley managed to record (having never seen the band live before, he wasn’t able to anticipate when to swap reels, resulting in the heartbreak of tape running out mid-song….)