“I’ve got so much left to give, but I’m running out of time, my friend” – Gregg Allman, “My Only True Friend”
I saw on-line the other day that it was the anniversary of Jimi Hendrix’s tragic death in September of 1970. Maybe it’s me, but it seems like in the old days rock stars more often than not met early, tragic deaths. Sometimes it was too much booze or drugs. Sometimes it was something darker and more tragic like Kurt Cobain taking his own life. All these young artists, taken too soon… It’s that whole morbid “27-Club” thing. Gregg and the Allman Brothers weren’t immune to tragic loss, early on, as both guitarist extraordinaire Duane Allman and bassist Barry Oakley were taken in their prime, both victims of motor cycle crashes, Duane after the Allman’s third album, ‘Live At the Fillmore East,’ and Oakley after ‘Eat A Peach.’
These days I’m seeing a recurring phenomenon that rock stars are thankfully living to ripe, old ages while continuing to be vibrant creative artists. However, as we all know, the road comes to and end. There’s only so much sand in the hour glass. Since I started this blog, we’ve seen the loss of David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and now Gregg Allman all marked by the release of an album they were working on at the end. The first time I remember hearing anything like these releases was Warren Zevon’s extraordinary album, ‘The Wind,’ recorded while he was battling lung cancer. Bowie’s final album, ‘Black Star’ was the boldly experimental exclamation point on a boldy experimental career. Leonard Cohen’s ‘You Want It Darker’ was a continuation of many of the themes he’d been exploring throughout his career, only…well, darker. These guys saw the end coming and used it for their art. (Both these LPs have been reviewed here on B&V.) And now, we have Gregg Allman’s last LP, the soulful ‘Southern Blood,’ which is nothing short of a beautiful farewell.
Don’t think for an instant this is a downer album about death. Yes, there are recurring themes: the road, time running out, and yes, mortality. But this is a vibrant, strong album with different moods. There is a presence on this record that hovers over Gregg, that of his long-departed brother Duane. The album was recorded with the talented producer Don Was at the helm, at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, AL where Duane was a session guitarist and where Gregg & Duane’s band Hour Glass recorded their first album. The chills-up-the-spine inducing first single, “My Only Friend, (reviewed on B&V Gregg Allman: “My Only True Friend,” The First Song From The Upcoming ‘Southern Blood’) was written by Gregg with Scott Sharrad as a conversation between Gregg and Duane. Gregg chose the song “Blind Bats and Swamp Rats,” a Johnny Jenkins cover, because Duane once played with him (who didn’t Duane play with?). Equally important, Gregg turned to his old, old friend Jackson Browne’s catalog to cover “Song For Adam,” a track Jackson wrote about his friend Adam Saylor who had died young, like Duane did… Gregg gets so emotional you can hear him break down toward the end of the song. It seems that as he neared the end, Gregg looked backward toward the beginning, toward Duane.
The Allman Brothers Band were so huge, especially in the 70s, they sort of overshadowed Gregg’s solo career. When you release one of the greatest live albums ever, ‘Live At Fillmore East’ and get credited with “creating southern rock” like the Allman Brothers did, you’re kind of a big deal. The Allmans were always considered a jam band, but I always considered them more of a blues band with a jazz sensibility. The virtuoso guitar playing over Gregg’s bedrock hammond B-3 was more powerful than most jam bands. However, starting with 1973’s ‘Laid Back’ Gregg began an up-and-down but quite often strong solo career. I have always loved his soulful 1977 record, ‘Playing Up A Storm’ as well. ‘Southern Blood’ certainly reminds me of ‘Laid Back’ in terms of the sound of the record. Gregg’s solo albums, especially the early ones, had a little more of the R of R&B than the Allman Brothers albums did.
Gregg’s voice, in spite of the illness, is very strong and expressive on this record. He was simply one of the most distinct, bluesy singers ever. I will say, the one thing about this record that surprised me a bit was there are few tracks that have a bit of a country feeling. For the most part, any time the Allman Brothers sounded a bit country, like “Ramblin’ Man,” it was typically the result of something Dickey Betts had written. Maybe that slight country vibe was Gregg reaching out to his old, estranged band mate. I heard they reconciled before Gregg’s death…I hope that’s true.
Originally this album was going to be a record of all original compositions, since Gregg’s previous album, the T Bone Burnett produced ‘Low Country Blues’ was mostly all blues covers. ‘Low Country’ is an exceptional record and a real return to form… Gregg’s plans to write new material for ‘Southern Blood’ were dashed by his health issues, but he and his manager and guitarist/musical director Scott Sharrard made some exceptional choices in cover material.
The album opens with one of Gregg’s best tracks ever, the haunting, previously reviewed “My Only Friend.” Written by Sharrard and Gregg, Sharrard conceived the song as a conversation between Duane Allman and Gregg. He said it was almost eerie how Gregg responded to the verses he supplied him… It’s the high point here. Hell, it’s a high point of Gregg’s career. All of the songs from this album, again mostly covers specifically chosen, tell the holistic story of Gregg’s life. The man didn’t just sing the blues, folks, he lived them – whiskey, women, drugs, lawyers, legal issues, and in the darkest chapter of his life, Cher… These songs tell that story. Well, not the Cher part.
From the cover songs, there’s so much to love here. Allman dusts off the old Dylan chestnut, “Going, Going, Gone” which Dylan did on ‘Planet Waves’ with the Band. Gregg’s version here may just be definitive. Apparently when his manager suggested it, Gregg said, “wow, that’s kind of dark, man.” Indeed it is. Of the more surprising selections, they do the Grateful Dead’s “Black Muddy River,” one of the tracks I mention as having a real country flavor. I’m not a huge country music fan, although I always liked the Dead’s foray’s into country-rock on say, ‘Working Man’s Blues.’ Gregg’s vocal is impassioned on the track and it just works. The song, “Out of Left Field” is a beautiful thank you to a lover. I’m hoping Gregg had someone at the end… everybody needs someone at the end… for me, it’ll be the Rock Chick.
I love that they also chose to do some blues songs here. Muddy Waters’ “Love The Life I Live” is a great, joyful blues number. Hearing Gregg Allman sing Muddy Waters, well, he was just born to sing Muddy songs… Or Willie Dixon songs, either way you look at it. The Jenkins’ cover, “Blind Bats and Swamp Rats,” the nod to Duane, is another great blues tune here. “Blind Rats…” has a real New Orleans, swampy vibe to it. It’s a nice slow crawler of a record with some laid back horns. I also love the fact that he covers Lowell George of Little Feat’s “Willin'” on this record, another great road song… “And if you give me weed, whites, and wine, Show me a sign, I’ll be willin’ to be movin’.” Great stuff! And a really funny song. There are moments in “Willin'” where the band tails off and it’s just Gregg’s voice…outstanding! “Love Like Kerosene” is anther track written by Scott Sharrard and it’s a nice bluesy, scorcher. “Kerosene” may be the most upbeat song on this record. Great guitar/horns interplay with a nice boogie-woogie piano solo.
When Duane and Gregg’s band Hour Glass broke up and Duane went back to Muscle Shoals to do session work, the record company threatened to sue them. To avoid that, Gregg agreed to remain in Los Angeles, and to cut a solo record. It was a low point for Gregg as he was far from home and his brother was back east. A young songwriter, a kid named, uh, Jackson Browne, who’d written tracks for the first Hour Glass album, was looking for a roommate. Believe it or not, Gregg Allman and Jackson Browne were roommates. While it may have been a low point for Gregg, it produced one of the longest lasting rock and roll friendships ever. On his first solo album, Gregg did Jackson’s oft-covered track, “These Days,” and I believe Gregg’s version is definitive.
For ‘Southern Blood,’ Gregg not only turned back to those early days by recording Jackson’s haunting “Song For Adam,” he has Jackson singing harmony vocal on the track. It’s, again, an inspired choice. Clearly as he breaks down while singing toward the end of the song, you know Gregg was thinking of Duane, who had died too soon. The fact that Jackson Browne showed up this way, with a beautiful harmony vocal for his old friend, is one of those special moments in life that must be celebrated. Good on ya, Jackson. ‘Southern Blood’ started with “My Only Friends,” which gave me chills… and it ended with “Song For Adam” with Jackson on harmonies… more chills. Those two voices, from those two old friends, intertwining… not a bad way to go out.
There are two bonus live tracks on the record… they’re nice to have but not essential. I’d say the two bonus tracks are more for the completist… FYI.
I can’t say enough good things about ‘Southern Blood.’ It’s essential listening for Allman Brothers fans, Gregg Allman fans, and well, fans of rock and roll music everywhere. This ranks amongst Allman’s best work (solo or with the Allman Bros Band) and it’s a damn shame we didn’t get a few more years and few more records from the man. Turn this one up loud…
There’s only so much time, only so much road left for any of us, folks… use it well.