Though less than two years ago it wouldn't have seemed possible, a retooled and re-energized Allman Brothers will take over the Chicago Theatre for three shows.
In June 2000, Dickey Betts' sudden, acrimonious departure had left the Allmans in disarray. Two months later, Govt. Mule was devastated by the death of bassist Allen Woody from a heroin overdose. The man caught in the middle of both crises was guitarist Warren Haynes.
"When Woody died, I just pulled the plug on everything, it freaked me out so much," Haynes recalls. "I felt as though no one had felt that kind of pain before. Then I started getting phone calls and letters from people who have been through the same thing, like Blues Traveler, Dave Grohl, the Grateful Dead, and they reminded me how important it was to go on, to use the music to help get through the pain. It's strange and amazing that something so good has come out of something as tragic as that."
Betts had brought Haynes into the Allman Brothers' fold in the late '80s, and together they helped return the quintessential Southern rock band to its former glory. Then Haynes went on to form the power trio Govt. Mule with drummer Matt Abts and his Allmans sidekick, Woody, and they brought a new, heavier kick to the jam-band circuit.
So it was a bittersweet moment when Haynes was invited back into the Allmans fold in March 2001, at least temporarily, for a show at the Beacon Theatre in New York.
"I was billed as a special guest so it wouldn't appear that I had rejoined the band," Haynes says in an interview. "It was a trial basis. We were both feeling each other out."
The test run went beyond both sides' expectations. "I was amazed at how great the band played and the vibrant spirit," the guitarist says. "That vibe had deteriorated by '97, which is one of the main reasons Woody and I left. To see everybody communicating, with their hearts in the music again, was a very pleasant surprise, especially after Woody's death. Out of two unfortunate circumstances, this opportunity arose. I never would have gone back otherwise, because we were going full tilt with Govt. Mule before Woody died."
Haynes continues to tour with Govt. Mule; he and Abts play with a variety of fill-in bass players, including the Allmans' Oteil Burbridge and Widespread Panic's Dave Schools. He also wrote songs, played guitar and sang lead vocals on Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh's recent solo project, "There and Back Again." But the Allmans have once again become a priority, with Haynes overseeing production of the band's first studio album since 1994, tentatively set for release next year. The band is performing a batch of new songs, many of them co-written by Haynes and keyboardist Gregg Allman.
Crucial to the band's renaissance is the fresh spin applied to its classic twin-guitar sound, with Haynes joining Derek Trucks, the son of Brothers drummer Butch Trucks, on the front line. Their performances are inevitably measured against the great Brothers front lines of old: Dickey Betts and Duane Allman circa 1970, and then Betts and Haynes in the early '90s. When Haynes first joined the band, he renewed the fire in Betts' playing, and now he holds himself against that standard.
"There's always going to be that shadow," says Haynes, who says he remains on friendly terms with his old mentor, who is touring with his own band, Great Southern. "Dickey and I played together for 11 years, and we had a rapport that built up. Derek and I have established a different sort of rapport, because we're both slide players. With Dickey, I was always playing the slide, while now Derek and I switch off every night; it gives a new slant to a song like 'Statesboro Blues' every time we play it."
Yet Haynes doesn't dismiss the difficulty of the challenge: "A lot of fans initially were weirded out by Dickey's absence. But what's the alternative? Having no Allman Brothers at all? Myself, I try to look at it through a fan's eyes. I've been a fan of the band since 1969, when I was 9 years old, and I think of that classic lineup everytime we're on stage, and can we live up to that standard? What's gratifying is that the band goes out there every night with that intention."
Fourth in longevity after Gregg Allman, Butch Trucks and Jaimoe, Haynes' 10-plus years as one of the Brothers now casts him in the role of an elder statesman in a band he once idolized. He also can be seen as something of a catalyst and a balm, an affable, easy-going virtuoso whose presence has had a calming effect on the band's volatile chemistry. Without him, the Allmans could very well have fallen apart. With him, they're a more vital band than they have been in nearly a decade.
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