#49: The Allman Brothers Band, "At Fillmore East" (1971)

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I’ve always resisted live albums, so naturally I thought it would be a good idea to write about what’s considered the greatest of all time. My dislike is partially from my father playing the Emerson, Lake & Palmer live album as he drove me to school sometimes. The endless solos were lackluster for me, especially since I would only hear about 5-10 minutes of them once a day. He would joke about pausing it after he dropped me off so I wouldn’t miss anything (still not sure if he really did) but it never clicked for me. Sorry, Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

The only live album I’ve ever owned was John Mayer’s Where the Light Is. I was never fully interested in that album either. There was something about listening to a show I would’ve rather been at that caused me to be disinterested in it when it was gifted to me for my thirteenth birthday.

I’ve held onto that for the past almost-decade. I’ve avoided live albums of current musicians and bands completely. I’d rather be at the show or not have a hand in the experience at all. I detest those 3D concert movies. I’ve categorized the whole thing in my mind as just some cheap way to turn a profit by recording something that was happening anyway. I had this whole impression of them that formed at thirteen and I’ve never reconsidered it until now.

While trying to understand why I felt this way I realized it was because at some point I convinced myself live recordings are just live renditions of album versions, no changes. But I’m an idiot. When I’ve gone to shows I’ve seen bands play different versions and arrangements of songs, something that’s so special and intimate. There was a disconnect; I didn’t fully think through that these moments happen at most live shows. Capturing these moments was then the point of a live album. John Mayer, a blues-rock artist, is actually a good example of someone who does the guitar solos and different arrangements, giving the album versions soul when performed live (I have since listened to it). I just didn’t give the album the chance to prove that to me when I was younger. I do admit, though, that I always became a total hypocrite and changed my stance completely when it came to music and bands that no longer existed.

It feels like cheating the system to be able to listen to and see videos of performances from bands and people that have already lived and died, whether or not the members themselves are dead. But that’s why they documented them (duh), for preservation and legacy. Can you imagine someone describing something to you but never being able to hear it? Tragic. It would be just as much a tragedy to not understand what an Allman Brothers Band live show was like. Luckily, their shows at Fillmore East in March, 1971 were recorded. These recordings became the album, released July, 1971, that is now considered to be one of the greatest live albums of all time. This album showcases and captures their unique sound which is a combination of blues, country, rock, and jazz. The incorporation of so many genres meant they weren’t confined to any one, allowing the Allman Brothers Band to be indulgent with not only their own songwriting but also with their changes to the songs they covered. No one had really done what the band was doing before, especially when it came to what it truly meant to jam onstage, so why wouldn’t you want to record that for everyone to experience? Again, I’m an idiot.

The album starts with the most modest introduction: “Okay, the Allman Brothers Band.” The crowd goes wild. When I first went to listen to the album I was having a bad day, turned it on in the car, and immediately had to turn it back off because it felt too positive, too upbeat—I was overwhelmed. So then to later realize the song was “Statesboro Blues,” oof, I had to readjust how I was listening to it. Sidenote: I’m not a blues expert but I do know that the blues shaped rock in a lot of ways, so the vibe of the song isn’t really that crazy at the end of the day, I was just having a bad one. The second run-through, I lay on my floor and closed my eyes, making sure this album had my full attention. This cover of Blind Willie McTell’s song from 1928 (which I had heard before) had such a completely different energy and feeling than the original, partially due to their full band versus the stripped down version of the original. How they made this old blues song and rock ‘n’ roll fit together was the perfect introduction to the Allman Brothers Band.

It’s followed by another cover, Elmore James’s “Done Somebody Wrong,” this time more closely related to the original blues rock track. Then another cover, T-Bone Walkers’s “Stormy Monday.” You can hear Gregg Allman catch himself as he introduces the song, “While we’re doing that blues thing, we’re going to play this song by Bobby Bland for you—actually it’s a T-Bone Walker song.” The commentary, the slip-up, something that wouldn’t have ever happened on a studio recorded album. This is their most original cover version throughout the set. The emotion captured in Gregg Allman’s voice is so raw, the same emotion which is then somehow echoed by either Duane Allman’s or Dickey Betts’s guitar—since they traded off solos, I’m really not sure (I bet a die hard fan could tell the difference). I’m always impressed by how vocal a guitar can sometimes sound, especially with the inflection it can communicate. And it’s not just the guitar, it’s the player’s ability to make it sing. Duane Allman and Betts could really make them sing.

Then they shift from the blues to a jazz inspired jam, “You Don’t Love Me.” Here’s where we really get audience involvement, as they clap along with the fast paced beat that makes me want to get up and dance. I thought about clapping along too. Alone in my living room, lying on the floor. Would I feel a part of it? Or just stupid? I didn’t clap. This song features my favorite guitar solo. The entire band falls silent, leaving Duane Allman to do what he does best. The moment with just him and a guitar is captivating to listen to. He slows it down and really takes his time. How does the cliche go? Sound is nothing without silence, and he uses the silence so intentionally. The sporadic and awkward claps are also something I relished in. You could tell the audience wasn’t quite sure when to clap, or when it was over, so there was a contradiction between regretting and embracing the claps as you would’ve wanted to applaud what was happening but also didn’t want to interrupt it. What was really the right thing to do?

Then they play another jazz inspired song, this time fully instrumental, “Hot ‘Lanta.” It’s followed by the second to last song, “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” another instrumental. This seems to feature some latin influence as well, proving there’s no genre they can’t incorporate.

The final song on the album is “Whipping Post.” It’s from their first album, the recorded version a mere 5 minutes and 17 seconds. This version is a full 23 minutes and 9 seconds. It bears some similarities to the original but also diverges completely. It’s intense. That’s the best word I can think to describe it. Intense. Betts does the guitar solo and it merges into a chord progression they later said they’d never done before. The level of musicianship and how quickly the other members ran with it to end up with this 23 minute track, it’s immeasurable. What a way to end, as the album fades out with the crowd roaring.

Some of the wonder and fortune of this album also lies in its circumstances. There was a bomb threat the third day at Fillmore East and while they still played, this was recorded over the first two days. Then three months after its release, Duane Allman, founder of the group, died in a motorcycle accident. There was no way then that they could ever redo what they had done at Fillmore East. Someone else could replicate his slide-guitar parts and improvise their own solos, but it would never be the same.

The Allman Brothers Band’s original lineup formed and disbanded before I was even born. I missed out and didn’t even have the shot not to, but here we are, I still got to hear it. I’m still trying to figure out my full feelings on live albums, but there is undeniably a level of comfort and genuineness that a studio album can never capture, and this exemplifies it. It’s spontaneous, unpredictable, almost unintentional in some ways. There is value in the differences between live and studio albums, I just have to tell my stubborn self that thirteen-year-old me didn’t really know anything. Inevitably, someday, there will be a band that’ll redefine genres and the limits of what we think live performances are, and what a tragedy it will be if we miss it.

—Grace Howie