50 Years Later: Revisiting The Allman Brothers Refined & Graceful ‘Idlewild South’

Prior to the breakthrough that occurred following the release of the Allman Brothers Band’s At Fillmore East, the seminal Southern sextet relied on word-of-mouth from their relentless touring schedule to spread the word about its music. Its first two studio recordings were admirable pieces of work to be sure, but neither achieved any commercial significance to speak of, even the second, Idlewild South (released 9/23/70), which clearly documented the growing sophistication of the group’s work, 

The double-CD Deluxe Edition of this sophomore outing—its title is taken from the band’s nickname for a rustic cabin they used for rehearsals, as well as group getaways—achieves what so very few such archive titles accomplish: placing the original work in a context that illuminates the artist’s evolution. Arguably the finest studio recordings these iconic Southern rockers ever completed are further refined in this package by remastering that especially benefits the concert content that’s appended to them, Live at Ludlow Garage.

Presented in its entirety for the first time, with the inclusion of a fifteen-minute plus version of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, the performance recording documents a phase of the Brothers’ career similar to the raw sound of their debut album, one from which they were beginning to emerge as they worked in the studio under the wizened tutelage of Tom Dowd. This very esteemed of producers, who was originally supposed to oversee their debut (and would retain the role on the landmark live record, as well as others later in their forty-five-year career), captured much of the spontaneity of the group’s well-honed musicianship even as he added both polish and depth through the collaboration at both Capricorn and Criteria studios. 

Having previously worked with a veritable “who’s who” of artists including Ray Charles, John Coltrane and Aretha Franklin, Dowd’s collaboration with the Allmans was a blessing in more ways than on. Even so, during the protracted course of the sessions, the man who’s credited with innovating the multi-track recording did defer to jazz producer Joel Dorn to apply just the proper touch of restraint to Gregg Allman’s exquisite soul/r&b balladry on “Please Call Home.” Still, the savvy necessary to sequence the quasi-funk workout “Leave My Blues At Home” as the very next number and thus close the record only comes from the varied experience of an individual who grew up playing piano, tuba, violin, and string bass (and, in a perhaps unrelated enterprise, worked on The Manhattan Project.

But the famed record maker’s input is even more evident in his nurturing of increasingly more prominent songwriting contributions from Dickey Betts. Besides authoring the aforementioned instrumental restored to Ludlow Garage and the literal centerpiece of these seven studio tracks, the latter chipped in with “Revival” which rightfully commences the record in a sharp, multi-layered arrangement. The significant emergence of Duane Allman’s guitar partner as a composer aided in no small part to turn Idlewild South into such a significant artistic progression  for the ABB, but with the hindsight of fifty years, it’s also clear how his gradual rise to a higher profile within the group laid the groundwork for his indispensable leadership even outside the creative realm in the wake of the Brothers’ founder and titular leader’s tragic death in late October of 1971. 

Such numbers as that opening cut brought in country elements to complement the rough and tumble blues-rock style on the Allmans’ eponymous debut, and such contributions (foreshadowing the widely-popular “Ramblin’ Man” off 1973’s Brothers And Sisters) also had an influence on Gregg Allman, who had been to that point the main writer in the group: the vividly descriptive images of “Midnight Rider” find reflection in another stratified arrangement where acoustic rhythm guitars render more compelling the electric break that morphs into what’s now the archetypal ABB tandem work, a stylistic turn used equally effectively, if not more so, on “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’.”

Although the two outtakes set from these sessions have also been released on the massive Dreams box of 1989, both benefit from placement in context here. It’s difficult to discern the shortfalls of this version of what was becoming the Allmans’ signature song, “Statesboro Blues;” perhaps the group and Dowd felt a second cover selection was too much, in addition to the rousing rendition of Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man” as sung by bassist Berry Oakley. On the other hand, a one-of-a-kind Gregg/Dickey collaboration, “One More Ride,” is obviously redundant as an instrumental, but sounds like perfect fodder for more refinement. Meanwhile, this alternate mix of “Midnight Rider” doesn’t quite capture the haunting quality of the chosen take simply because, with percussion and dobro, it’s too busy.

The Allman Brothers Band never traded much in cosmetic appearances, but carefully-posed photo/drawing of the group on Idlewild South’s cover mirror the refinement of the music inside. Unfortunately, wider recognition still eluded the group in the wake of its release a half-century ago. From a certain retrospective vantage point, it was almost as if the record was deliberately planned to set up the future success of their iconic live release the very next summer. Of course, that perspective turns bitterly-ironic given the tragic accident that occurred just weeks after AFE broke, taking the life of ‘Skydog’  and thereby altering, in the most fundamental fashion, the career path of what turned out to be one of the most legendary ensembles in contemporary rock history.


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