Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Allman Brothers Band Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

The Allman Brothers Band (1969, Atco)

A

Considering that the band is better known as a live act than a studio act and always preferred playing live to making albums, it’s remarkable just how excellent and how confident a debut album this is, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find too many – if any – other debut albums by a blues-rock band that are finer than this disc. Though the song is perhaps more famous for its twenty-three-minute, side-long rendition on The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East, the relative brevity of “Whipping Post” here works in the song’s favor and makes it seem like a much tighter, focused piece of songwriting than you might have previously considered it to be if you’ve only heard the live version, and its placement at the very end of the disc is a brilliant piece of sequencing that ends the album on a high note. “Black Hearted Woman” and the epic “Dreams” are here as well, as are first-rate covers of “Don’t Want You No More” (a song from an album the Spencer Davis Group made after Steve Winwood left the band, interestingly enough) and Muddy Waters’ “Trouble No More.” The former cover might seem like an unusual song for the band – who could clearly write their own first-rate material – to open their debut disc with, but it actually proves to be a fitting choice, the instrumental performance proving to be a nice introduction to the sound that would come to define the band and giving each of the band members a chance to show off their chops, particularly brothers Duane and Gregg on guitar and keyboard, respectively.

Idlewild South (1970, Atco)

A +

Arguably the best studio album the band ever made, the band’s sophomore outing is a monster. It’s noticeably less blues-influenced than the debut and more country-tinged, but unless you’re a blues purist, you’re not likely to object to the slight change in style since the band not only remains at the top of their game as musicians and composers both – in fact, the band members have grown considerably in the songwriting department since the last disc – but also prove themselves here to be quite versatile as well, working in hints of just about every genre you can think of and to remarkably great effect. The soulful classic-rock-radio standard “Midnight Rider” can be found here; despite the single’s failure to reach the Hot 100 (the song itself, however, reached the Top 40 twice, first in the form of a cover by Joe Cocker in 1972 and later in the form of a re-recording by Gregg Allman from his 1974 solo album Laid Back), it’s the Allman Brothers Band’s version that’s the more frequently-heard and better-known version of the three recordings today. But “Midnight Rider” is just one of several classics contained within the grooves of this album, and the disc gets off to a rousing start with the gospel-tinged “Revival (Love Is Everywhere),” while the album’s first side closes with guitarist Dickey Betts’ unforgettable seven-minute instrumental “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” which features Duane and Dickey playing twin leads, Duane sporadically providing a harmonic counterpart to Dickey’s basic melody to absolutely breathtaking effect. [If you’re not particularly familiar with the Allman Brothers and have ever wondered why the late Duane Allman is so highly regarded a guitarist, this song is as good a starting point as any to study the man’s body of work.] The swampy blues-rock of “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’” and the pleading ballad “Please Call Home,” meanwhile, are fine showcases for Gregg’s powerful vocal work. This is a must-own for any fan of the band.

The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East (1971, Capricorn)

A +

Obviously, we’re cheating here – this isn’t a studio album. But five of the seven songs here had never before appeared in any form on either of the band’s two previous studio albums, and this album is simply too legendary to not say a few words about here. This double-disc set is regularly included on lists of the greatest live albums of all-time and for good reason: this is the sound of the greatest lineup of one of the best live bands of the ‘70s captured on stage at their most magical. It’s rare that any live disc that includes not just one but two songs that each take up an entire side of an album can be called anything other than “tedious” or “self-indulgent,” but the performances here actually largely justify the long running times, especially on the thirteen-minute rendition of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” (which is even better here than it was on Idlewild South) and the twenty-three minute reading of “Whipping Post.” The full-band-penned instrumental “Hot ‘Lanta” – which has never appeared on a studio album from the group – has never sounded better than it does here, while the band also turns in what are arguably the best covers of T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday” and Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues” that any rock band has ever attempted.

Eat a Peach (1972, Capricorn)

A +

If you want to get technical, three of the nine songs on this double album were, in fact, recorded in concert, but, that disclosure aside, only Idlewild South prevents this from being the best of the Allman Brothers Band’s studio albums. Sadly, Duane Allman had died prior to the completion of this disc – he appears on just six of the songs – but the album is a fitting epitaph to the guitar legend, and the final studio cut on the disc, stirringly enough, is his self-penned acoustic guitar instrumental, “Little Martha”; you’d have to be a real stoic to not be moved by the moment. Though you could certainly make a valid argument that two full sides of the improvised instrumental “Mountain Jam” (based on ‘60s folksinger Donovan’s hit single “There Is a Mountain” and recorded live at the same shows that produced the At Fillmore East album) is a bit too much, Duane really shines on the cut, especially in its slide-guitar-led climax. Lest you think this album is that self-indulgent throughout, most of the cuts here are actually quite concise and quite fantastic, including the gentle groove of Dickey Betts’ breezy “Blue Sky,” the top-notch cover of Elmore James’ “One Way Out” (which makes especially great use of the band’s double-drummer format),  Gregg’s passionate piano-driven rocker “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More,” and the Gregg/Dickey co-write “Stand Back.” But best of all here is the album’s most rightfully famous song, the devastatingly pretty Gregg-penned “Melissa,” easily the finest ballad the Allman Brothers Band have ever made.  Recorded after Duane’s death as a tribute to their fallen comrade (the song was actually written five years earlier but was Duane’s favorite of all his brother’s songs), Betts’ lead guitar work on the cut is simple but incredibly emotionally powerful and remains one of his finest moments.

Brothers and Sisters (1973, Capricorn)

A

Yes, Duane’s presence is missed here, as is the presence of bassist Berry Oakley, who died in eerily similar circumstances to Duane’s during the making of this album and consequently appears on only the album’s first two tracks. And, yes, as most critics alleged, this was their weakest studio album yet, but considering the high standards set by their three prior studio albums, that by no means necessarily means that this is a bad album – far from it, actually. The Betts-penned-and-sung country-rock classic “Ramblin’ Man” is here, for starters, and the band’s new lineup – with Lamar Williams replacing Oakley on bass and Chuck Leavell added on piano – sounds pretty stellar in its own right, special guest Les Dudek (later a member of the Steve Miller Band at that group’s commercial peak) serving as a nice lead-guitar partner to Betts on the hit single, which became the band’s first-ever Top 40 hit and stopped just one spot shy of reaching Number One. (Betts also sings lead on the album-closing “Pony Boy,” which features some mighty impressive dobro-picking from the guitarist.)  Dudek plays just as vital a role in the artistic success of the jaw-dropping seven-and-a-half-minute instrumental “Jessica” (one of the most instantly-recognizable instrumental songs in all of Southern rock and one that was later immortalized on the small screen as the theme song to the BBC series Top Gear and on the big screen in the Kevin Costner flick Field of Dreams), Dudek’s breezy acoustic guitar providing the perfect underpinning to Betts’ unforgettable lead-guitar lick. Gregg lets Betts handle most of the songwriting duties, but his own “Wasted Words” makes a fun opening cut, while his vocal on the Betts-penned “Southbound” is a similarly great moment.

Win, Lose or Draw (1975, Capricorn)

C +

Band relations were allegedly at an all-time low during the making of this album and the band would break up shortly after its release, but though there are certainly moments here where the band just sounds like they’re at the end of their rope – “Just Another Love Song” in particular is performed with so little enthusiasm, it ends up seeming more ironic than was probably intended – the album isn’t nearly as bad as critics or the band members themselves claim it is, and there’s actually half of a great album here. The title cut, a Gregg-penned piano ballad, is incredibly beautiful (arguably the band’s prettiest song since “Melissa,” actually) and remains one of the band’s most criminally underrated songs, while the expert cover of Muddy Waters’ “Can’t Lose What You Never Had” is one of the band’s most soulful moments and boasts some great guitar work from Betts. For fans of the band’s more jam-oriented side, there’s also the lovely, near-fifteen-minute atmospheric instrumental “High Falls”; the cut might not be quite as rock-oriented as the band’s oldest fans might like – it actually leans closer to the jazz-fusion that several of the band members would indulge in as part of the splinter band Sea Level than the blues-rock of the band’s earliest albums and is more of a showcase for Chuck Leavell’s electric-piano work than Betts’ guitar chops – but the band sounds just as tight an instrumental unit as ever, and they generate a nice quiet storm on the track.