You’re never really sure if Dickey Betts is in a comfort zone when you see him in concert these days: sometimes he’s the inventive, firebrand guitarist of yore, sometimes he’s frustratingly stagnant, and the nightly versions of his most beloved songs a little sluggish or undernourished, and sometimes he looks a little too detached to be up there at all. But for his first-ever solo band DVD, Betts is in brilliant, loveably raffish form, commanding the latest incarnation of his group, Great Southern, with the panache of a skilled bandleader and heavy-wattage country rock star.
He still has the histrionic, roadhouse-ready stage presence he perfected during all those years in the Allman Brothers, and that comforting, familiar visual–combined with some pretty spectacular takes on his best material and some well-thought-out bonus goodies–make this Sept. 29, 2004, Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame concert a necessary grab. Maybe it was the hallowed venue–you’d think playing in a temple to your profession would inspire you to bring your game. Either way, Betts brings his, and it’s hot and narsty.
“Statesboro Blues” gets things off and running, and then Betts tips his hat in a moment of musical genuflection, saying “Jerry Garcia” aloud and proffering the snatch of the Dead’s “Franklin’s Tower,” that, in recent years, has served to intro his own “Blue Sky.” If there’s a problem with the DVD’s 12 cuts, it’s obviousness–Betts has some great, great deep catalog obscurities both from his own work and his days with the Allmans–but “Ramblin’ Man,” “Back Where It All Begins,” “Seven Turns” and a hopped-up “Jessica” all deliver, and Hammond B3 playuer Michael Kach, drummer Frankie Lombardi and bassist Pedro Aravelo surround Betts and give him plenty of heft and options, even though it’s the bulkier, freight-train rhythm section attack from the Allmans that we’re used to hearing on these songs.
Second guitarist Dan Toler (another Allmans alumnus, from the late 70s) is still a spotty improvisationalist, but in tandem with Betts plays up a chemistry rendered from years on the road together, and the two soar on “Jessica” and the Bo Diddley-beat blues rocker “No One to Run With” that precedes it. Since this concert, Toler has left Great Southern–a loss to be sure, for Betts played with him longer and in more incarnations than any of his former Allmans foils. Perhaps Betts will one day find a replacement in his son, Duane, an accomplished axeman in his own right who turns up as a guest on the obligatory “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” Duane is limited as a flamethrower–his “Liz Reed” solo is tentative and anticlimatic and you can see dad trying to egg him on a little–but he’s come a long way in the years since he started performing.
A bonus CD in the package offers soundcheck versions of “Blue Sky,” “Liz Reed” and a propulsive “Southbound,” as well as the “Jessica” from the concert and a pair of cuts that didn’t make the DVD, Betts’ “Dona Maria” and the rarity “Cleveland Blues.” There’s also some extra rehearsal footage of both “Southbound” and “Blue Sky,” and two Betts interviews, one for WPCN radio. Both here and in performance does Betts seem comfortable–he talks primarily about the need to keep old songs fresh and exciting in order to sustain them–and it’s an encouraging sight from a performer dismissed as washed up more than once in his career.