The Allman Brothers — At Fillmore East

For once, the alphabetical is also the autobiographical. The Allman Brothers’ At Fillmore East is one of the first records I ever owned, pinched, I think, from the giant stash of albums my parents kept in a cabinet below their living-room bookshelf. According to its price tag, my copy of At Fillmore East was stocked in April of 1998, the end of my seventh-grade year. My parents had been frequenting a used record store that had recently opened in a strip mall on Lafayette’s main drag. Though I’d grown up shopping for cassettes and CDs at Raccoon Records, just up the street, this place was the first used-record store I’d ever been into. I asked the guy behind the counter once whether they had any copies of Kill ‘Em All or Ride the Lightning, and ignored his Motorhead recommendation, thus setting myself back a good ten or so years. The place closed after a couple of years, but not before I scored a nasty picture-disc single of Mötley Crüe’s “Dr. Feelgood” that has since left my possession.

At Fillmore East is the album I most associate with “album rock.” My dad took it upon himself to give me a musical education, and had breathlessly stated that the Allman Brothers, a bunch of bearded dudes from Georgia who played speedy guitar like nobody’s business, had once filled an entire side of vinyl with a single song. Side Four: “Whipping Post.” My grandfather had passed away a few years prior, and I somehow had ended up with his old record player, an all-in-one console unit that had mostly sat in my room like a promise of countercultural things to come. I’m fairly certain that this copy of At Fillmore East migrated to my bedroom shortly after my dad brought it home; I’m almost equally certain that today marked the first time I ever listened to it the whole way through.

I’ve always appreciated the Allman Brothers with a kind of quiet respect; I’m glad they exist, but it’s never occurred to me to interact with them. With the exception of a few show-induced spells (The Dead at Willie Nelson’s Picnic in 2003, Phish at Bonnaroo in 2009), I’ve never really gotten into the meandering jammery that I’ve always assumed the Allmans did best (once again, Side Four: “Whipping Post”), and I’ve stayed even further away from the white-boy blooze packages with which they always seem to be involved. The opening moments of At Fillmore East only fill in my presuppositions with solid evidence: “Statesboro Blues” choogles along at a default pace, though Duane Allman’s peeled-skin tone scratches things up nicely.

“Stormy Monday” grates on me even more. Listening to the lead runs splattered over a minute groove, you can see the dudes in the Fillmore crowd nodding along to Gregg Almman’s vocals, their eyes closed in thought and their brows furrowing on the “Tuesday’s just as bad” line. “Stormy Monday” embodies something I’ve never really been able to access–that strange, maybe overwrought, weirdly masculine soulfulness. It always looks strange to me, seeing these men swaying along at music festivals with their eyes closed, moved at some level by a group that sounds to me like they’ve co-opted someone else’s blues. Which, in the case of “Stormy Monday,” which was written by T. Bone Walker, I suppose the Allman Brothers have. But the emotion in the crowd, that reaction, is legit; I know, because I have friends to whom this music speaks deeply and truly. To me, though, it sounds slick and pretentious, the band on stage a simulacrum of something more authentic than themselves, though I can’t deny that they feelings they stir in their listeners are paradoxically authentic.

But I’m a sucker for twinned and tripled guitar lines, and the Allmans are more than happy to share their supply. “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” is tugged along by the guitarists, and while the nineteen-minute jam “You Don’t Love Me” seems largely content to wallow in its own bluesiness, the Sabbath-thick opening riff and the dueling guitars that kick off the jam keep things lively, eventually devolving into an excellent sonic mess, Duane Allman’s guitar peeling off into sketchy proto-postpunk riffing. At Fillmore East is, to my ears, largely devoid of the distinctly Southern rock that flavors the Allman’s radio hits, but the sour mash that comes out when Allman and Dicky Betts’ guitars scratch around one another twangs like a good ole red-dirt Georgian.

My copy of At Fillmore East is wafer-thin, and as I flip it over, the monolithic Side Four actually looks rather skimpy, with plenty of room left over for more music. “Whipping Post”’s sole residence there seems like a trick of seventies rock mythmaking, designed to produce gasps before you even got the record out of its cellophane. And as it starts to spin away, I’m tempted to toss “Whipping Post” aside; it seems at first to be going nowhere, but, I think, at least it’s getting there at a lively trot. But then then the song starts to reveal itself. There’s a difference between the aimlessness of the earlier jams and the plaintive meandering the Allmans put their band through here. On “Whipping Post,” the band sounds focused, willing to experiment with something besides note-per-minute counts. The band follow Duane’s lead through strange detours, stalling out while he plucks away a few guitar-only bars. I’d read that the song ended with Allman riffing on “Joy to the World,” and while that could have been obnoxious pastiche, it instead feels earned, and true, acutely joyful and unexpectedly reverent.

And it takes up a whole side of vinyl.


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