Hitting a new peak with the Allman Brothers Band on Hittin’ the Note
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
In those moments when I’m alone and it’s late and there’s not much else to do, there’s little as satisfying pulling on a pair of headphones and listening to a group of musicians travel off into the unknown.
Let’s take a recent example. Here are seven fellows, ranging in age from their twenties to sixties, sojourning into a new realm. Some of it’s blues, some of it’s jazz, all of it melds into a sound that could and still belongs only to them. To be more specific, this is the Allman Brothers Band, and they’re reaching into the distance within the tight-but-loose confines of “Instrumental Illness,” trading solos and returning to the roots of the composition and playing like a band at their peak. That they reached this peak more than 30 years into their career is another feat in itself.
By 2003, I was as deep into the Allman Brothers Band as anyone born 11 years after Duane Allman’s death could expect to be. Their annual trips to Great Woods in Mansfield, Mass., were a must each summer for my friends and myself. I’d really stretched the bounds of assignments and good taste when I kept writing essays about the band during college writing requirements. I can’t even count the amount of time I’d spent in the dark listening to all 33 minutes of “Mountain Jam” on repeat back then — all while completely sober, mind you.
Also by this time, I had a healthy skepticism about any new music by what we now know as “legacy” acts. This despite the fact that I always enjoyed whatever the Rolling Stones or Paul McCartney had released, and that with the Allmans themselves, their previous two albums — Shades of Two Worlds and Where It All Begins — were always in rotation when it was time for some jams to fill the air.
That hesitancy is simple enough to explain. This was a band whose first four albums were so stunning that everything else they produced, no matter how good or how valuable, was always going to pale in comparison. In isolation, Hittin’ the Note, their 2003 return to recording, was a tour de force, an organic statement by a band that was back on the upswing after some years navigating the darker roads of the music business. And with some separation, it’s even more obvious now what a triumph this album was. Go ahead and play Hittin’ the Note after anything the original band did, and it holds its own.
Chalk this up to the new blood in the band — Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks on guitar, alongside Otiel Burbidge on bass — along with Gregg Allman singing and playing at his strongest in years, and all the elements were lined up for a band that had been clicking on the road to march into the studio and get it all down onto tape.
The return of Haynes signaled that path back to recording, as well as some much-needed artistic growth. Haynes originally left the band, along with then-bass player Allen Woody, to pursue their power trio Gov’t Mule, at a time when the band was stagnating in the writing department. When they left, the Brothers went out and continued to tour, with resentment building between Allman and guitarist Dickey Betts until, first, Haynes’ replacement Jack Pearson left the band due to concerns over the increasing volume on stage and, second, Allman finally had enough and dismissed Betts before their 2000 tour (the machinations of which Allman detailed in his autobiography, My Cross to Bear, albeit from his own perspective).
Jimmy Herring filled in on guitar for that tour, alongside Derek Trucks, before Haynes returned to create what would become the strongest version of the Allman Brothers Band since Berry Oakley, Dickey and Duane anchored the original incarnation. With Haynes’ work ethic and professionalism paired with Trucks' inventiveness on slide, the spark returned and the shows began to reach new heights. Haynes split production duties on this album with longtime Gov’t Mule producer Michael Berbeiro. And to hammer home that Haynes was back and that this was indeed a new, vibrant version of the band, they broke out “Rockin’ Horse” for Hittin’ the Note, a tune that served as a calling card for Gov’t Mule and should be considered a classic. Here, it retains the tough blues edge it had on the Mule’s first album, but adds the flourishes of those dual drums, Allman’s organ trills and, of course, Trucks’ slide guitar flying in and out between the gaps. It was essentially a calling card for all that the Allman Brothers Band was and could be.
But refreshingly, the band took plenty of chances on this record. For as mean, tight and defining as the playing is on the opening “Firing Line,” for example, they loosen up and stretch out on “Desdemona,” which finds Allman in incredible voice while the band flexes its instrumental muscles and creates a classic that would’ve sounded at home on Eat a Peach. They look inward, tackling their demons on “High Cost of Low Living” and the poignant “Old Before My Time.” And the band takes risks, putting their spin on the Rolling Stones’ “Heart of Stone,” turning one of that band’s early classics into a prime example of their own, unique southern blues.
The tune that immediately grabbed me, though, was “Instrumental Illness.” Cementing the telepathy between Haynes’ and Trucks’ guitars, it interwove elements of jazz and blues with the spirit of the band’s early instrumental explorations, but sounding fresh and new all the same. It kicks off with Burbidge’s Mingus-like bass line and launches with Haynes’ and Trucks’ harmonized guitar weaves. Marc Quiñones’ percussive inflections blend perfectly with the drums of Butch Trucks and Jaimoe. It flows from there, with guitars flowing in and out and the band moving down different paths, all seven musicians focused on the same destination. All told, it confirmed what the band had set out to prove in the previous two years — that this incarnation in the Allman timeline was the best since the original sextet.
The entire endeavor wraps up with Haynes and Derek Trucks armed with acoustic guitars on “Old Friend,” a back-porch blues that saw its two recent revivers bringing the band back to its roots. The lessons and influence from Gregg’s vocals and Duane’s slide were embedded within these two, and it served as a fitting and worthy conclusion to a striking comeback record.
These days, there’s no hesitancy or skepticism, no wondering about how this material will sound on the next tour or what the next record could sound like. There won’t be another tour or another album. Gregg Allman and Butch Trucks are no longer with us. The band is in the books.
But, as is the case with any great artist, the work remains. In a few weeks, it will have been 20 years since Hittin’ the Note hit shelves. Put it on today, and it sounds as fresh as the week it arrived and as classic as the material that preceded it by 30 years. That result seemed so improbable back then, but it should have been glaringly obvious with any detailed observation. This was one of the great bands of all time, and they made one final mark right when it was needed, one final voyage into the unknown committed to tape.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org