The Allman Brothers Band Hit The Archives With ‘The Final Note: Painters Mill Music Fair, Owings Mills, MD 10-17-71 & Warner Theatre, Erie, PA 7/19/05 (ALBUM REVIEW)

Given the checkered history of The Allman Brothers Band archive releases, the issuing of the latest two is more than a little encouraging. Each in its own way adds significantly to the legacy of the seminal Southern rockers, while the pair taken together clearly illustrates why the influence of the group is rightfully growing with the passage of time.

Bill Levenson’s contributing role in the preparation of both these packages is telling and crucial. The man who oversaw the comprehensive ABB box of 1989, Dreams (as well as comparable sets including Eric Clapton’s 4CD Crossroads and Cream’s Those Were The Days) brings a fan’s passion and a scholar’s attention to detail to this work. His elevated level of professionalism, class, and respect is in direct proportion to his subject’s impact on contemporary blues-rock. 

Witness for instance, the package of The Final Note itself. Unlike the misconceived and arbitrary designation of cover photos for Fillmore West 1971, these black and white shots of the late Duane Allman capture the intensity of his stage presence and thus render the choices wholly appropriate to adorn the outside design (and the sixteen-page booklet) of a recording of his final show ever with The Allman Brothers Band he founded. Trumpeted as ‘The Best Show You Never Heard,’ Warner Theater 7/19/05 has in fact been available before as part of the Instant Live series the band was offering at the time (and in subsequent collections of same), but it reappears here in much more sumptuous sonic and graphic form. 

That is to say, apart from the garish front cover image of a flying peach. The set might better have boasted the image of the venue’s marquee as emblazoned on t-shirts for sale at the ABB merch site, but the two-CD set is markedly improved by superb action photos, within the enclosed twenty-page booklet, taken by long-time Allmans Band photographer/historian Kirk West. In addition, there’s also an unusually enlightening essay from John Lynskey, highlighted by the recollections of the group’s manager Burt Holman. In sum, the Warner Theatre 7-19-05 package, to an even greater extent than its counterpart, proffers a tangible sense of ‘you are there’ on multiple fronts

Fittingly enough, that’s especially true of the music. And it is hardly a trivial matter that Jason Ne Smith performed the mastering: this engineer added his expertise to Trouble No More, the Brothers’ 50th Anniversary box set and the Live 1968 Cream collection. For The Final Note;  he applies his considerable skill as the final step of the sonic upgrade to a recording was originally captured on a cassette machine. Subsequently digitized by the man who was there that night, Sam Idas, it was then further enhanced by the duly credited associate producer Simon Ritt. Notwithstanding the disclaimer on the back of the single CD digi-pak, it’s fair to say all these participants in the process, each in his own way, have made the most of the source content.

In a very real and perhaps wholly surprising way, then, this roughly sixty minutes is actually superior to significant overly-trebly portions of the aforementioned February 1971 shows at the late Bill Graham’s California venue. No question the audio on The Final Note is murky, but at various junctures, the drums, guitars and especially Gregg Allman’s voice cut through the sonic blur. In addition, the muffled voices in the immediate vicinity of the recordist, captured by accident along with audience applause, lend an ambiance to the proceedings that almost compensates for the shortfall in clarity. In much the same (and providential) fashion, the unexpected fade six minutes into “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” dovetails quite stylishly with the comparatively abbreviate “Hot “Lanta,” a smooth segue that might not have otherwise occurred if not for the cut in the tape (a photo of which is pictured inside), 

In the wake of the summer release and subsequent burgeoning success of their seminal concert album, At Fillmore East, the Allman Brothers continued a rigorous touring schedule, the result of which was that the sextet was continually improving collectively and as a unit. Live at A&R Studios previously offered evidence of their increasingly fine-tuned interactions and this show, occurring twelve days prior to Skydog’s tragic death, follows suit: it is an altogether fiery performance. The original Allmans’ dedication to a fairly finite setlist may pose something of a stumbling block to those already familiar with the era (or even just the aforementioned legendary live album), but there’s no mistaking the instinctual mesh on display in their playing.

And the same might be said of the musicianship on Warner Theatre. The final lineup of Allman Brothers as it appears here had jelled in the course of its previous four years together, especially in terms of the chemistry between guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks (note the aforementioned West’s comments comparing that duo to Allman/Betts). A fortuitous confluence of events, described in the accompanying prose of Lynskey’s (again with Holman’s input), almost makes this stellar occasion a fait accompli; the musicians were well-practiced in the latter stages of a summer tour, but had some time off before playing a two-set ‘Evening with…” show to a sold-out crowd inhabiting a comfortable venue with optimum sound.

But even as such favorable conditions can lend themselves to a propitious outcome, there’s no guarantee performers will necessarily tap into the circumstances in question. Yet that’s how the Allmans conduct themselves here, patiently stretching themselves to great lengths and in great detail on a first set that opens and closes with “Mountain Jam” and also includes healthy improvisation on two culls from the 2003 studio LP Hittin’ the Note, “Firing Line” and ‘The High Cost of Low Living.” The septet also applies healthy extemporaneous attention to blues in the form of “Good Morning Little School Girl,” effecting a vivid contrast with the concise discipline in play on Muddy Waters’ “Trouble No More.” For its part, “Statesboro Blues” couldn’t be any more dramatic opening the show than it is exploding from the intricate instrumental embroidery on Donovan’s 1967 hit single “There Is a Mountain.” 

The second set of 7-19-05 is earmarked with the ingenious choice of cover material that this group made a stock in trade of their later years. Haynes’ soulful take on Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” may be the best of the lot as this rendition of The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is a somewhat tentative, while Susan Tedeschi sounds unusually affected in her guest spot as lead singer on Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” It’s a measure of the intuitive savvy of these veteran musicians that these choices, notwithstanding their respective pros and cons, were inserted into the setlist in such a way they maximize the pacing of this portion of the show.

Thus, the understated impact of those entries allows for an even greater drama to arise from the eleven incandescent minutes of “Dreams.” The whirlwind that is “Jessica” soars to great heights too as the band builds upon the shifting rhythmic emphasis within “Jabuma;” its title an acronym for drummers Jaimoe and Butch Trucks plus percussionist Marc Quinones, the sixteen-plus minutes sandwiched within segments of  “Leave My Blues at Home” features shifting emphasis from kits to timpani to congas, timbales, etc., for its duration. “One Way Out,” by then had long been a standard choice for placement as an encore but here, it’s just over six minutes allows for some torrid call and response from the guitarists, not to mention one more of the many instances throughout the evening where Gregg Allman outright wails.

The conception and execution of these vault releases augurs well for future such titles, if only because The Final Note and Warner Theatre effectively bookend the group’s forty-five-year history. To further elevate the distinction of the Peach Records label imprimatur, curators must now confront the challenge of filling in the existing blanks in the ABB timeline, including but not limited to, the 2000 summer tour on which guitarist Jimmy Herring participated and the two-year span in which Jack Pearson shared fretboard duties alongside co-founder Dickey Betts. Since only a smattering of such content has been made officially available to this point, a selective anthology of each might suffice, at least in the short term. But those individual musicians, like the overall legacy of the Allman Brothers Band, deserve full and complete documentation comparable to these two most recent benchmarks in a hallowed career.

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