Rite of Spring, Upper West Side Version: Allmans Are Back
The Allman Brothers Band started their annual spring ritual on Thursday night, with the first of 14 concerts at the Beacon Theater. That many shows, spread out over three weeks in a midsize theater, means that the audience is spared the indignity of piling inside an arena in New Jersey. It also means that the stage can become a lab, with different guests and different approaches to second-set jams.
Pop music is now a giant database of electronic transactions. Three weeks, at this point, is an epoch: long enough that one can become gradually aware that the Allmans are in town. It's like the old model of cultural diffusion. You read about it or hear it on the radio. You see it on the theater marquee when you go by in a bus. It becomes one of the things that people talk about when they don't have much to say. It just seeps into consciousness. Thanks to the centralization of the concert business, long bookings like this are rare in live pop. Even in jazz, for that matter, which is the music that the blues-rock Allmans, in a generalized way, take some of their cues from.
Yeah, but how was the concert?
Staid. There was no horn section, as there has been on occasion in recent years. The set list had a preponderance of warhorses, played as single entities without morphing into other tunes. (There is pressure on the band to do this. Ask the guy in the orchestra seats who repeatedly implored them: "Play some old stuff! 'Whipping Post!' 'Whipping Post!' ") The drums, percussion and bass solos were respectable if unclimactic. Gregg Allman, singing and playing keyboards and electric piano, seemed abstracted, masked; he sang his hoarse Southern soul, but there wasn't much behind it. Much of the weight was redistributed to the band's two guitarists, Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks.
So much has been said before about the differences in their performance styles since Mr. Trucks joined the band in 1999, and it hasn't changed much. Here's the short version: Mr. Haynes — who also sings — plays guitar as guitar, paving down single-note leads, high on the neck, with a pick; he gets a meaty, heavy sound. Mr. Trucks plays the guitar as a voice. He claws the strings with his fingers and uses a slide, moving his hand position on the neck in fast, concentrated movements, letting you hear the raw noise of his open tuning in between phrases, like a preacher punctuating a sermon with guttural noises. Even he was having an average night.
The band played a lot of old songs on Thursday — "Hot 'Lanta," "Revival," a short "Midnight Rider," "Statesboro Blues," "One Way Out." ("Egypt," an instrumental that the band introduced during last year's Beacon shows, got Mr. Haynes's evening off the ground.) But the guest musician in the second half was Hubert Sumlin, the guitarist who used to play with Howlin' Wolf, and this was where the Allman Brothers' machine functioned most beautifully.
Mr. Sumlin, who has been a guest on the band's stage before, also played without a pick. Like Mr. Trucks, he likes the sound of unfretted strings in a chord, and this made his soloing open and ringing. He put a little harmonic chaos into the band, and it was beautifully absorbed. When all three guitarists improvised together on "Smokestack Lightning," "Shake for Me," and "Sittin' on Top of the World," the mass of sound was spacious; all the rhythmic phrasing, from guitars to keyboards to bass and drums, was light, liquid, babbling.
The Allman Brothers Band continues tonight and on selected dates through March 26 at the Beacon Theater, 2124 Broadway, at 74th Street; (212) 307-7171.