It is New Year’s Eve in New Orleans and people are everywhere, roaming the streets in bejeweled tiaras and black sparkly top hats, hanging in packs or holding hands with significant others. And the House Of Blues is packed to the rafters with these celebrators. Above the noise, some slinky guitar riffs are wafting through the closed doors that separate the warming-up band from their upcoming worshipers and it is enough to bring the hairs up on your arms.
The Gregg Allman Band and the Royal Southern Brotherhood have more in common than just having a band member with the last name of Allman. Both share the distinction that if you took out their singers, you would still have one heck of a show. The musicianship is that good and it is what makes these bands stand out among their peers.
Devon Allman is quickly becoming the renaissance man of rock & blues. For the last ten years he has been fronting the fabulous trio, Devon Allman’s Honeytribe, which he only recently put on hiatus to focus on other projects he has percolating in his musical backyard. His solo album Turquoise comes out in February and the band he has been giving his most attention to lately, the Royal Southern Brotherhood, is what brings him to the Big Easy for New Year’s Eve. Jumping in with Neville Brother Cyril, funky bass man Charlie Wooton, guitar player Mike Zito and Derek Trucks’ former drummer Yonrico Scott, the younger Allman felt an immediate kinship and energy with this new entourage. Recording their first self-titled album this year, they have been touring whenever possible and spreading what they call, “amplified soul for a new generation.”
It is Allman’s riffs that have infiltrated the restaurant area of HOB and for the moment has caused chills to run up the spine. He has something magical in his fingers and very rarely has he not been overcome with the music he is playing, sweating with the emotional vibrations that he seduces from his treasured Les Paul. It is a sight to see, as this man succumbs into a universe we are not privy to. With a passion that resembles what ran through the veins of his uncle Duane, he may very well be the future of blues guitar.
Other standout performances included GAB guitar player Scott Sharrard, who has been showcasing his emotional playing better than ever; Yonrico Scott, who practically took the skin off his bare-bones drum set, he was playing with so much force; Bruce Katz, a gem of a keys player who always lets the music move him to Little Richard-style boogieing – all behind his Roland keyboards; and Jay Collins, GAB’s musical director and resident horn man, who is always the spiritual heart of the band.
The Brotherhood played a tight yet electric set, starting with “Fired Up” and ending with an exploding “Moonlight Over Mississippi.” The synergy between guitarists Allman and Mike Zito is fun to watch, especially when they are having a six-string blues conversation, as on the fiery “Gotta Keep Rockin” and “Fire On The Mountain.” Although it does seem that Allman is holding back a fraction in RSB. Having seen him over the years play breathtaking sets with Honeytribe, where his internal fire ignites into solos that you raise your hands and beg for mercy, he has reined in to allow room for Zito to share licks and to shine, often on slide guitar. Bass player Charlie Wooton sits back and hums, creating a solid base that the others can walk upon without fear of falling. Add into the mix Cyril Neville, with his New Orleans chicory-flavored vocals on “Mississippi” and “Mountain,” and this band pops with blues rock soul.
“This is a pretty abridged set,” Allman explained before the show. “It’s a forty to forty-five minute, hit it and quit it. The typical Royal show is two hours and it’s the whole record and some cool covers and some really cool jams. Tonight is kind of the highlights from the record. In and out.”
I asked Devon what he thought was one of his highlights of 2012: “I think taking Royal Southern Brotherhood all around the world and establishing a new band and brand and true brotherhood with all these guys. I think that was the highlight; just making Royal Southern Brotherhood a reality.” But why leave one promising band to start another? “Did it for ten years, wanted to do something else. Simple as that.” And what are his plans for 2013? “Since we put Royal Southern Brotherhood together, we really made it a point to make that our priority. Everyone in the band had been doing their own projects and this one was so special and the recording was special and the response was really good and we love each other (laughs). So this became the priority right away. We’ve got a live record/DVD coming out in the summer. It was recorded in Germany and we’re really excited about it.” Allman also has a solo record coming out on February 12th, which features RSB bandmate Yonrico Scott on drums, an interesting duet with young singer/guitarist Samantha Fish on the Tom Petty/Stevie Nicks classic “Stop Dragging My Heart Around,” and some bluesy guitar licks by Black Crowes/North Mississippi Allstars guitar player Luther Dickinson. “We played a festival with him a while back, a year or two ago, and it’s crazy cause he knew my dad and I knew his dad when he was still with us and we’d never met,” Allman said with surprised laugh. “I shot him a text, ‘I’m going to be making a solo record, would you like to play?’ And he was like, ‘I would love to.’ So that was great and really nice of him and he killed it.”
Although Gregg’s band was plagued with some sound problems that they tried desperately to fix without interrupting the flow of the concert, it was otherwise another sparking performance from the Gregg Allman Band. Sharrard played slide on such songs as “Midnight Rider” and “Can’t Be Satisfied,” while Gregg strapped on the acoustic for fan favorite “Melissa.” Katz, coming alive with the tempo of the songs, proved keyboard players are never boring. Witness “One Way Out” and “Just Before The Bullets Fly.” The man in the audience next to me had it right when he yelled out, “Bruce, you’re bad ass, Brother” after one very hot solo. And when Devon joined the band for “Dreams,” it was nice to see the interaction between father and son, smiling at each other, sharing a private moment side-by-side, as the band soared through this always amazing song. “I love playing with my Pops,” said Devon with a smile. “We don’t get to do it very often and when we do it’s like family business, you know. It’s a good thing.”
With Collins blowing some wonderful sax and leading the band into the stroke of midnight, everyone hugged and kissed and made new friends. It was a great way to end one year and begin a new one.
Before the show, I sat down with Gregg’s guitar player Scott Sharrard. It turns out he had one heck of a year also and has plans for 2013 to be better than ever.
What does the Gregg Allman Band have planned for 2013?
Well, as usual, for Gregg Allman there is going to be a mix of his solo band and the Allman Brothers. I know for a fact that the Allman Brothers are, of course, doing the Beacon run, and there will be other dates. We did have a writing session with Gregg and I and also an old friend of Gregg’s named Tony Colton, who is a great songwriter. We were all showing Gregg some songs and he’s been singing one of Tony’s songs and one of my songs in rehearsals. And the song of mine that he picked up on, “Endless Road,” he actually rewrote the lyrics to sort of tailor to his own story and I’m hoping we get it in the live show or get it on to the album if the album happens next year. It was a fun time showing him stuff and he seemed to be in to some of my music and in to collaborating. And he’s also writing on his own, of course. Hopefully next year we’ll be able to make it come together and make a record; this band could make a great record.
That’s right because Low Country Blues was really just Gregg and T-Bone.
Yeah, well, that was T-Bone Burnett’s calling and T-Bone used his people, which of course you know he has his own sort of hit factory out there and his way of doing things. So that was the most expedient way for him to get the record done. But as you know, you’ve seen the band many times and it does kind of have it’s own sound and that’s a direct influence of Gregg’s leadership. So I’m hoping that Gregg’s vision and some of his material, the new original material, and maybe material within the band or from other songwriters, can make a new full album for him. It would be great.
I tell you, man, he’s had a lot of health battles and they’ve been one after another in the last few years but he’s soldiered through them really great. I have really never heard him sing as good as he’s singing recently, in the last couple of months.
Gregg has a huge catalog but the set list doesn’t vary a whole lot. How much has it changed recently?
We’ve been fooling around with, like I said, those couple of original songs as well as bringing back a lot of stuff from the old catalog. I’ve been with the band for almost five years. Everyone else has been here between six and ten years. So it’s a pretty solid unit in terms that we have a huge repertoire. We’ve actually added to it, so now on this tour you’re going to hear us do “Queen Of Hearts” again and “Brightest Smile In Town,” which he has never performed live as far as I know. He recorded it in 1976 with Dr John doing the arrangement and we’re doing that arrangement of the song. It’s an old standard. A lot of great R&B singers and jazz singers cut it. We did it last night and we will be doing it on the tour. I know “Brightest Smile” last night got a huge response when we just announced it because no one had ever heard him do it live. In fact, the reason for that is because Dr John did the keyboards on Gregg’s record and Gregg had only sang it. So Gregg had never learned the keyboard part so he just learned the keyboard part for the first time. So it’s pretty special to be able to play that. And of course he sings an amazing rendition of it. Kind of sounds like a Ray Charles song or something.
So what will be going on in your world in 2013? You have two bands of your own.
Well, with the Brickyard Band, we’ve got a lot of really exciting shows coming up on the northeast coast. We’re looking at doing jaunts here and there, weekends out and back, nothing major at this point in terms of touring but hopefully by the fall we can start going farther afield. We’re continuing to promote the record and I’ve been doing a lot of interviews with publications and radio shows trying to get the word out that it exists. In New York City we’re really starting to create a buzz now and we actually have a CD release party in New York City on February 12 at a club called Rockwood Music Hall, the really big industry club right now.
With CKS, we have a lot of material and we’re going to make a record, absolutely, and hopefully have it done by the spring. I think we’re going to record it when we get back from this tour. It’s pretty much half ready to go. We’ve been fielding some different names for producers who are in New York and then we’re also going to be touring with that band. We’re going to be playing, fingers crossed, a lot of festivals next summer, international and national. But yeah, both the projects are humming along. CKS we really need to make a record cause it’s a really special band and something that is completely different from the Brickyard Band in so many ways. So it’s really exciting to be involved with the two.
What would you say was the highlight of your year in 2012?
Obviously, having my son is number one. That continues to be a daily highlight. Beyond that, it was just a year of a lot of culmination. I feel like my role in Gregg’s band is really solidifying now. I feel like that group is at a crossroads. I feel like the Brickyard Band is at a crossroads and I feel like CKS is at a crossroads – all at once. That’s really how it feels. So there is kind of a culmination of all these seeds that I’ve planted over the last couple of years and it’s at this point where now I’m trying to bring it out and show it to everybody, and in my different roles, cause obviously in each group I have a completely different role of how it works. But it seems to be working. I’m blue collar, you know, I just keep working. I just make sure the music is good and try to stay true to my vision and keep the music alive. That’s a number one priority these days.
You went to see the Rolling Stones play recently. That must have been exciting.
That was awesome. That was a gift. When I’m in New York City and not working, I teach a lot and a couple of my students gave me a very, very, very generous year-end gift, taking me out and taking me to see the Stones at the Prudential Center. It was one of the most inspiring musical experiences of my life.
Was Mick Taylor playing that night?
He played “Midnight Rambler” but he should have played more. And I think they should have given Ronnie Wood a break for a few tunes and really let him dig in and then done some three guitar stuff, cause they did sound great with three guitars. But I got to tell you, 71 year old Charlie Watts was just, as a musician, the most inspiring thing I have ever seen on stage. That guy was rocking the stadium for two and a half hours. It was just so incredible. And Mick too, man, Mick is singing better now. Keith’s guitar playing is amazing and Ronnie’s guitar playing is the best I’ve ever heard. They are literally the best they’ve ever been in their career.
I hope they play some more dates
They have to because they are so hot. They are really hot right now. I was very young, probably twelve or thirteen, when I saw the Steel Wheels tour, and my dad took me to see that. And, I mean, Keith Richards and Chuck Berry were the reason I played electric guitar. My dad had a bunch of acoustic guitars at home when I was a little kid but when I saw the Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock N Roll, which was when I was like eight or nine, I was already listening to those guys but that kind of solidified what I wanted to be as a musician and I obsessed over those two and the Stones records and the Chuck Berry records; that’s what really inspired me to pick up a guitar. So I have a lifelong love of the Stones music and I’ve seen countless clips of them in the sixties and seventies and I swear, they’re playing better now; they’re playing more accurate, playing funkier, playing together better, they’re listening better, it’s almost more musical now which is kind of the opposite of what you would expect. You would expect they were just cashing in but literally if you walked into a bar and you closed your eyes and you heard that band in a little bar, you’d be like, holy shit, who is this band? Forget the stadium and the big screens and all that, they are a great band.
And Mick Taylor still has his chops
He sounded very good. I used to see him around Woodstock when I lived up there. He was walking around town a lot. I think he lives there part time or maybe has friends there, I don’t know, but I saw him walking around town a couple of times. Do you have his records he did with John Mayall when he was in the Bluesbreakers? That’s the best he ever played besides the Stones stuff.
You’re here in New Orleans tonight for New Year’s Eve. What do you like about New Orleans?
Everything. New Orleans is my spiritual home. It is my number one favorite city in the United States.
And you’re not just saying that because you’re here?
Never. This is it, this is the place. To me, New Orleans is all about music and food, which is what my whole life is about pretty much (laughs). I feel like in America if I had to pick one place where I would say, this is unlike anywhere else in the world, I would say New Orleans is it. New Orleans has it’s own food, has it’s own music, has it’s own culture, it’s own kind of people, it’s own art; it’s a living, breathing culture institution and it has preserved it’s arts in a way that you can’t find anywhere else in the world. The closest you can find are in other European cities like London and Paris and places like that where they’ve preserved their architecture, they’ve preserved their institutions, they revere their classic artists and I feel that New Orleans has that. Where I live in New York, where I’ve lived for fifteen years, and in most of the rest of the United States, it’s always about tearing it down, let’s get something new, what’s hot, what’s new right now, what’s happening now. And New Orleans just lives in the sweet spot. They just know they got it right and they just keep it there. I love every single thing.