It’s fair to say that every major musical artist has produced its definitive work. For the Allman Brothers Band, that profound milestone is their now half-century-old live album At Fillmore East (released 7/6/71). At the time of its release, it summed up all that was impressive about this seminal Southern rock ensemble, based on its two previous studio outings, and in the lengthy interim since it came out, it has only grown in importance: as the band evolved over the years and transcended changes that might well have rent other groups asunder, this set of concert recordings has come to stand as the benchmark against which all its other releases are measured, both on stage and in the recording studio.
Safe to say, it’s invaluable for that historical reason alone. Yet, in practical terms, it also presents the most cogent existing statement of the ABB’s influences as well as its inherent capabilities as musicians. Early in its existence, the group’s roots in the blues wound their way into the realms of jazz via members’ interests in the likes of genre icons such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Meanwhile, founding member Duane Allman’s preference in maintaining a quite finite repertoire meant that increasingly streamlined song choices allowed him and the rest of the members more latitude to stretch out in more different directions than a wide(r) range of choices might allow.
Rather than master many songs, “Skydog” (a composite of nicknames from Muscle Shoals FAME Studios owner Rick Hall and Wilson Pickett) stipulated his Brothers master a relative few. Based on perception, right or wrong, that ‘The Man with The Horn’ took a similar approach with his last great quintet of Hancock, Carter, Shorter and Williams, the fiery hirsute Floridian’s decision furthered his aim to streamline and ultimately perfect setlists like the one comprising AFE. The potent combination of original material and blues covers were paced in such a way to showcase the Allmans’ ability time to play equally brilliantly within concise, economical arrangements as well as more open-ended avenues for expansive improvisation.
So, their shows invariably began, as this collection does, with one of their most familiar tunes, “Statesboro Blues.” A Blind Willie McTell number the late namesake guitarist learned from a Taj Mahal album, its prominent slide guitar work introduced an essential component of the group’s sound even as it allowed the sextet to warm up, as it continues to do during Elmore James’ “Done Somebody Wrong.” The guitar interplay between Allman and Dickey Betts is growing in intensity with each exchange, while, in the meantime, bassist Berry Oakley firms his limber bond with double drummers Jaimoe and Butch Trucks: their spotlights were inevitably brief in these years to better whet the audience’s appetite for more. Like their peers, they refused to overplay.
As with its predecessor around four minutes in duration, the second of those two aforementioned homages to roots set the stage for the first extended take in this program, an 8:47 rendition of T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday” nearly twice the length of the previous pair combined. It is no accident that sibling Gregg Allman has his first showcase here: his alternately gruff and delicate vocals were well on the way to becoming a hallmark of the Brothers’ sound and this performance illustrates the remarkable depth of feeling he could convey with his voice. Little wonder that, even with all the estimable instrumental fireworks around him, the chief composer in this unit could still stop a show (and did so virtually throughout their forty-five years of existence).
The first truly lengthy cut on At Fillmore East, however, is “You Don’t Love Me.” One of ABB’s standard choices for protracted jamming, this rendition runs some nineteen minutes and features two extensive interludes of Duane playing by himself, just prior to his dual tributes to King Curtis (“Soul Serenade”) and Jimi Hendrix (“Castles Made Of Sand”) at the dramatic closing crescendos. Effectively starting over during this interlude, thanks to edit by producer Tom Dowd near the end –excerpted from a take the evening prior during these two March nights at the late impresario Bill Graham’s mythic venue—this version loses some impact, at least compared to versions slightly more compact, as included on The Complete Fillmore East Recordings. Nevertheless, most all variations include the bluegrass reel segments by which Betts injects the country influence into the Dixie rockers’ sound (a major contribution of his to the group besides composing and positing himself as virtually the imaginative equal of his famed fretboard partner).
The Allman Brothers Band ratchets up momentum again in short order with the instrumental “Hot Lanta.” Never released on a studio recording of the group’s, probably because it too closely echoes more than one of their other originals, this short, sharp five minute functions as an ideal setup to a rousing interpretation of the first signature instrumental of Betts in the ABB canon, “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed;” the three contrasting sections allow for each component of the lineup to shine–Gregg gets a pithy Hammond organ solo instead of singing—while the varying tempos allow a range of intricate interactions that effectively turn into a tour de force by the time of its cold stop.
That said, the scintillating nature of the performance is no real surprise. Per the wishes of the founder member (again), the number had been a prominent staple of the Brothers’ shows for nigh on a year at this point, beginning around the time of shows with the Grateful Dead the previous February at this same New York city spot (captured on Bear’s Sonic Journals: Fillmore East February 1970 – Deluxe Edition). Most groups might well end their night on such a rapturous note, but the Allmans were nothing if not courageous and so closed most of their headlining appearances with “Whipping Post.” A contemporary blues of the most intense sort, it represents the most proper denouement of At Fillmore East, an accurate recapitulation of all that the performers had done so expertly the previous hour or so: improvising fluently together and apart, around singing from the depths of the soul, utilizing their individual and collective imaginations in so complementary fashion, the six musicians created some ferocious dynamics.
It’s fair to contend there was little more ABB could do to astonish as this point, except that, as the volcanic climax peaks on this durable original of Gregg’s, the recording fades out to the sounds of an intro to the Allmans’ majestic improvisation on a song of British folkie Donovan,“Mountain Jam.” Subsequently, to appear in full on the first album issued in the wake of Duane Allman’s death, 1972’s Eat A Peach (as were “One Way Out” and “Trouble No More” from these same appearances), this thirty minutes-plus also showed up on The Fillmore Concerts, an expanded version of AFE (there remixed by Dowd to the displeasure of many).
Other releases of the era, including the aforementioned six-CD set as well as Live at A&R Studios, reveal what these spring of 1971 recordings might suggest: the Allman Brothers Band was still improving during the course of their continuing roadwork in the wake of the July release of this third album of theirs. The progression came to a screeching halt, at least for this original six-man lineup, with the tragic, accidental death of Duane in October of this same year (followed by Oakley’s roughly a year later in eerily similar fashion on a motorcycle).
But At Fillmore East captures a pivotal moment in time for this group and, in fact, for blues-rock in general. Few, if any, releases of its kind have aged so well over time and continue to stand the rigorous test(s) thereof. Little wonder then that, with the hindsight of fifty years, a title originally issued as double vinyl at a reduced price remains the ‘go-to’ title for longstanding fans of the Brothers as well as those dilettantes curious about the ever-increasing influence of this band’s legacy as a contemporary musical institution.