Ramblin’ Band : ‘It’s What We Do Best,’ Allman Brothers’ Drummer Butch Trucks Says of Their Live Shows
If anyone knows how fleeting musical arrangements--and life itself--can be, it ought to be a man like Butch Trucks, who has spent most of his adulthood drumming for the Allman Brothers Band.
The Allman Brothers, who play tonight at the Pacific Amphitheatre, are on the third chapter of their career. The first chapter, played out from 1969 to 1976, followed an arching trajectory from glorious rise to tragic fall. Next came a 1978-81 comeback attempt that fizzled without producing any further glory. Now the band is two years into its third incarnation, which has been devoted to reclaiming the legacy of the brilliant early days when it rode a wave of deep bluesy feeling and improvisational genius.
Given that impermanent past, how stable is the band’s current arrangement?
Trucks, speaking in a phone interview, said that one never really knows.
“It’s gonna last as long as it’s working,” the husky-voiced drummer said. “It could be a week, it could be 10 years. It’s what we’re all doing full time. We’re making plans a year ahead, with no end in sight. But in this kind of business, you never know what’s going to happen. The bus might flip over tonight.”
There was a wry tone in Trucks’ voice, but given the band’s history, there had to be more than casual flippancy behind that fatalistic remark. The Allman Brothers Band was at its artistic peak when its most acclaimed member, guitarist Duane Allman, died in a motorcycle accident in October, 1971. Little more than a year later, bassist Berry Oakley also died in a motorcycle accident only a few blocks from the spot in Macon, Ga., where Allman was killed.
Trucks, 44, thinks that the current edition of the Allman Brothers has been able to recapture some of the spark that the band had before those tragedies.
It began to click, he said, during a tour of Japan early this year.
The Allman Brothers had dropped Johnny Neel, the piano player who had been brought on board when the group reunited in 1989, and were playing once more as a six-piece unit--the same format they used in the early days.
The members decided, Trucks said, that “it got a little cluttered” with the piano in the mix. In Japan, they tried it the old way. The lineup included the four surviving original members--drummers Trucks and Jai Johanny Johanson (also known as Jaimoe), guitarist Dickey Betts, and singer-organist Gregg Allman--as well as newcomers Warren Haynes and Allen Woody on guitar and bass.
“There was just so much freedom, so much space,” Trucks said. “For the first time since Duane and Berry died, there was a group of guys all going in the same direction, all feeling the same type of music and energy. It really (had been) a problem since that long ago.”
The Allman Brothers set about recording their new album, “Shades of Two Worlds,” with the idea of keeping that feeling alive.
“That was (in) our discussions before anything was written” for the album, Trucks said. “Go back to play the way the Allman Brothers play. Write songs that are like what we do on stage, like ‘Whipping Post’ and ‘Elizabeth Reed,’ the songs we love to play on stage year after year.”
“Whipping Post” and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” both were long, episodic, improvisational pieces culled from “At the Fillmore East,” the great 1971 live album that was the last full record the band made with Duane Allman. For “Shades of Two Worlds,” the Allmans whipped up a couple of those long excursions, “Nobody Knows,” and the jazz-influenced “Kind of Bird,” and filled in the gaps with other songs deeply embedded in the blues.
“The album is selling quite well and getting great reviews,” Trucks said. “I think the reason is we’re stretching out a little more and taking chances.”
On “Seven Turns,” the band’s 1990 comeback album, “we just weren’t familiar enough with each other yet to take the kinds of chances we do on this record,” Trucks said. “We had another year to get to know each other.”
The touring lineup now includes an extra percussionist, Mark Quinones, who was spotted by Trucks playing with Spyro Gyra earlier this year at a concert in Tallahassee, Fla.
“He was just phenomenal. I said, ‘Man, I’m going to steal you.’ ”
There is one major change from the original Allman Brothers’ approach, Trucks said: “About the only thing I do differently is I stay sober. I’m enjoying the hell out of playing straight. It seems to be the case with everybody. We’re having a lot more fun. The energy is going into the music now, instead of all the side trips we got into in the ‘70s.”
Trucks had some classical training during his youth in Jacksonville, Fla., including a tenure during his high school days as timpanist for the Jacksonville Symphony.
“That was my first love growing up--classical orchestral music, especially Impressionism,” he said. “Jaimoe has some training, too. Jaimoe and I are the only two guys in the band who read music. To get as complex as we do (rhythmically) and not step over each other, we’ve got to listen,” an ability Trucks says the classical training helped foster.
When the Allman Brothers Band was forming in the late ‘60s, Trucks recalled, “Jaimoe turned us all on to John Coltrane and Miles Davis. I don’t think we listened to any rock ‘n’ roll at all in the early days. It was Miles Davis and John Coltrane 95% of the time. I think that’s where a lot of our approach comes from.”
The first time the Allman Brothers broke up, Trucks went back to school, settling in Tallahassee and taking music courses at Florida State University.
“I was just trying to screw my head back on after six or seven years of rock ‘n’ roll fantasies,” he said. “I picked up a lot of new ideas and try to use them now.”
The Allman Brothers broke up again in 1982, after releasing a series of albums that resulted in dwindling commercial and artistic returns.
“The chemistry just wasn’t right. Southern rock was anathema. The record company, Arista, was telling us they wanted us to be like Led Zeppelin. We compromised to the extent of adding synthesizers, and it became an embarrassment. Nobody wanted to hear us, so we decided, ‘Let’s back out.’ ”
After the second breakup, Trucks spent most of the 1980s building and running a recording studio in Tallahassee. By the end of the decade, the business was limping, Trucks said. Then came an offer from Epic Records to reunite the Allman Brothers.
The band’s main concern was artistic control, he said. “We said: ‘If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it on our terms. We’re not interested in your input (about) what we sound like or look like or talk like. We played that game with Arista 10 years ago.’ ”
Epic wanted the band to record immediately, Trucks said. “Given our reputation, they were afraid if we went out on tour first, we’d split up before we could make a record.” Instead, the Allman Brothers used Polydor Records’ 1989 release of “Dreams,” a boxed set retrospective album, as an occasion for a 20th-anniversary reunion tour. The regrouping lasted, and the band’s third go-round has continued.
Next on the agenda, Trucks said, are plans for the Allman Brothers to record a live album during a three-night stand at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta at the end of December, in what he hopes will be a fitting sequel to the classic “At the Fillmore East.”
The two recent comeback albums “are just scratching the surface of what we do live,” Trucks said. “We’re a live band. It’s what we do best.”
The Allman Brothers Band and Little Feat play tonight at 7 at the Pacific Amphitheatre, 100 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa. Tickets: $25.85. Information: (714) 979-5944.