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Review: Allman Brothers Band makes new magic in Las Vegas

27 May 2009

By Mark Whittington, Las Vegas Sun
LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- The Allman Brothers Band turned back the clock Sunday night at Red Rock.

The band, touring to celebrate its 40th anniversary, put on a two-set, two-plus-hour show that reaffirmed its place in the musical firmament.

I was lucky enough to see the original band – fueled by the twin guitar lines of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts – at the Fillmore West. Suffice it to say, that night's headliner, Hot Tuna, need not have bothered to play. The crowd wandered into the San Francisco night bathed in the Allmans' magic.

But nine months later Duane was killed in a motorcycle accident, and bassist Berry Oakley died similarly a year later.

The band carried on. Betts' guitar and Chuck Leavell's piano were wonderful. But when I caught the Allmans shows, it just wasn't the same.

So, when a friend – a young music fan who grew up on Nirvana but recently had been discovering the classic "Live at Fillmore East" – asked if the Allmans were worth seeing at almost $80 a ticket, I was tempted to give a jaded response about the old magic.

But I had seen the band a few years back, and I told him, "For 30 years, I would have said no, but this current lineup ranks up there with original." So we decided to buy tickets and go.

The crowd – some in tie-dye, most old enough to see the originals – filtered into the pool area at Red Rock on a perfect night. No free apples. But then the Fillmore didn't have blackjack dealers in bikinis either.

No opener either – which was a bonus.

The Allmans started the evening on time with the two songs that began its first album back in 1969 – "Don't Want You No More" segueing into Gregg Allman's growling vocals on "It's Not My Cross to Bear."

The band kept close to its roots with the Elmore James' blues "Done Somebody Wrong" and "Don't Keep Me Wonderin'" -- from the second album, "Idlewild South."

At 61, Allman's bluesy voice sounds as good as it has in years, and he laid down fine organ and piano lines throughout the evening. Only he and drummers Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny "Jaimoe" Johanson remain from the original band.

Percussionist Marc Quinones and bassist Oteil Burbridge now help power the signature cross-rhythms behind the jams.

But guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks provide the spark that rekindles the old Allmans' magic. The two guitarist are similarly inventive but distinctive visually and sonically.

Haynes joined the Allmans when they reunited in 1989 and also replaces the late Jerry Garcia in the current version of the Dead. He wears his long brown hair flowing. He gives the band bite with his chocked back, distorted tone.

Trucks, just 29, is drummer Butch's nephew and recently toured as the slide guitarist for Eric Clapton. He pulls his blond hair back tight in a ponytail. He fingerpicks and uses a glass slide and open tuning to coax clear, ringing tones from his guitar.

Their first real guitar battle came midway through the first set on "Woman Across the River." Then Trucks' guitar – played without effects – sounded like it was running backward through a loop during a magnificent solo on "Ain't Wastin' Time No More."

The drummers started a crazy jam as Burbridge dropped into a bass solo that seemed to resolve into "Leave My Blues at Home." Don't quote me on that as the music was taking me some place brand new but very familiar place at this point. I sure wasn't listening to the lyrics.

As a cool breeze kissed the crowd, the guitarists began a soft line that flirted with the drums and everyone dropped into the distinctive opening riff of "Revival." Gregg sang "People can you feel it? Love is in the air" to close the first set.

The fireworks between sets were a nice touch – but superfluous. The real fireworks were on stage.

The second set began with "Sweet Melissa" as old photos of the band showed on the backdrop – Duane in his mutton chops, Berry and Dickey and the original band looking so young.

The Allmans skipped forward in time for "End of the Line" and "Rockin' Horse." But the 12/8 rhythms, percolating bass lines and dueling guitars remained the same, still lifting the songs into outer space. The band rewound to its roots with "Statesboro Blues" and "Midnight Rider."

At the end, the only choice was an extended version of "Whipping Post" with the guitars soaring and finally descending back to earth after 15 minutes.

For the encore, the Allmans brought out Las Vegas guitarist Chris Tofield for a rousing version of "One Way Out" with the crowd singing the chorus: "Might be your man, I don't know."

So, was it worth it? My friend smiled. He got to see and hear the magic live.

And I was reminded that "time goes by like hurricanes" and that an old band can make new magic happen every day.

Copyright © Las Vegas Sun. Inc. Republished with permission.