The Rewind: At Fillmore East by The Allman Brothers Band
by Shain Price
This week's edition of The Rewind takes us into 1971, with a bunch of guys from Jacksonville, Florida who were on the cusp of stardom, still struggling to find a way to express themselves and break out from the cage of time constraints on records, The Allman Brothers. Members from left to right include Jaimoe Johanson on percussion, Duane Allman on guitar, Greg Allman (organ and vocals), Dicky Betts on guitar and vocals sitting, Berry Oakley on bass standing, and Butch Trucks on drums. The record would prove to be the spark they needed to launch and become one of the greatest rock bands of all time, becoming their first platinum record, and later preserved in the Library of Congress in 2004, deemed to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important” by their registry.
The year was 1971 and the Allman Brothers Band were just coming off of a year consisting of 300 shows played, traveling the country in a Winnebago they called “Wind Bag”. They had just about 3 days back at home to relax and see their girlfriends and kids before they’d go back on tour through the south. If you search for the cover of this album, you’re going to find a lot of different photos of the same setting you see above. You’ll see the same setting with the band members scowling at the camera, or laughing as you see here.
A well-known photographer at the time, Jim Marshall, followed them home and took photos for the promotion of the album. The story goes that they had scowled at the first couple of photos, due to their feelings towards that side of the industry in general. However, guitarist Duane Allman saw his local drug dealer in the alley nearby and ran off, and came back. The band roared into laughter at Duane’s sly grin, and Jim Marshall captured the natural state of the band, basking in joy at the present moment and openness of the future, a state that soon would be shown to the world with the release of their third record and first live release, At Fillmore East.
At the time before the release, the Allman Brothers band had been on a relentless touring schedule, similar to that of the Grateful Dead, who they would often perform concerts with and promote tours together. After forming just two years earlier at the time, the Grateful Dead were the larger organization they needed to get that push into the spotlight. However, they remained ambitious to grow outside their shadow and blossom into their own unique style. Their last two studio albums did well, yet the band still felt like they needed to express the energy seen in their live performances. They wanted to try and preserve the present as they found joy in doing.
Their relationship with the Grateful Dead gained them the attention of Bill Graham, one of the largest concert promoters at the time. Owning venues like Fillmore East and Fillmore West across the country, he was known for throwing spectacular performances. Bill fell in love with the band after they opened at Fillmore East for Blood, Sweat & Tears in 1969, and once more for the Grateful Dead in 1970. On that particular performance in 1970, the Grateful Dead actually dosed the band without their knowledge, along with a majority of everyone else, leading to an anxious performance. Bill Graham would go on to say that the band was never quite the same after that. Their playing changed, they were more open. When Bill Graham later introduced them for this particular performance he labeled them as “The finest contemporary music… the best of them all”.
The album recorded would only capture a snippet of their performances through those two days in March, consisting of a 7-song tracklist. However, every song itself is dense, and the entire structure of what you’re listening to could change at any given second. You feel the intimacy of the crowd and their energy of what was being perfectly preserved on those two nights. Every song on this album is a must-listen, with the band playing at their best and their comfort in their chemistry combining into a free-form explosion of rock and blues.
The band was looking for a way to express their live performances and break free from the rules of record labels and record a song for as long as they want. This would be shown in songs like “Stormy Monday” (8:49), “You Don’t Love Me” (19:19), “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” (13:07), and “Whipping Post” (23:09).
The performance of “Stormy Monday” was smooth and bluesy, slowly revealing the listener to raging guitar from both Duane on slide guitar and Dickey on guitar. Greg Allman’s vocals and southern charm put us in the eyes of a broken young man who’s just begging for mercy, trying to find his way back to his love. Jaimoe and Butch’s drumming with Greg’s organ set the stage for Dickey Betts to express every emotion Greg can’t make with his own words.
Coming coincidentally right after the song about chasing a lost love, the band breaks into “You Don’t Love Me”, a perfect, funky contrast to the passionate playing seen in “Stormy Monday”. At just over 19 minutes long, the band would prove to capture their live energy. Greg and Dickey trade back and forth as Greg swings a solo on his harmonica. Dickey’s guitar tone is crisp and breaks through the speakers of the Fillmore East as the band winds down to almost silence and lets him play. Dickey takes full control as the drummers start picking the pace up again, before going back down, Dickey once again soloing with all the members just left watching. As the band finishes what sounds like the last chords, Duane Allman seems to start playing the chords from the verse once more. Dickey immediately notices this and his guitar starts screaming high notes, reaching a peak out of seemingly nothing. The band all raging towards a crescendo before Greg signals the band and plays the final chord on the organ.
I can only describe the essence of Dickey’s guitar playing on this album as that of the late Eddie Van Halen. There’s a way in the playing throughout “You Don’t Love Me”, “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”, and “Whipping Post” that I felt listening to Van Halen's debut album that literally shuts you up. His guitar is just shouting at you and forcing you to listen. It just sucks you in and it's so impressive you’re left there speechless when it's finished. The performance from “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” is in my opinion, the best showcase of this energy.
A song written by Dickey Betts, it would prove to be one of the more psychedelic songs in their catalog, different from their usual blues-centered rock sound. In a rare instrumental from the band, Duane Allman puts on his slide and makes his guitar whine through the opening of the song, filling in perfectly for the missing vocals from Greg. As soon as the song breaks out into the first solo, Duane eases on the slide to set up a high-energy rhythm section for Dickey to absolutely burn the roof off of the Fillmore East. However, Dickey teases the crowd, taking the pressure off before Greg steps in on the keys and somehow picks up exactly where Dickey left off, the tension rising more. As the band reaches its last chorus and what’d become the solo outro, Dickey takes over once again. Berry Oakley’s almost-robotic basslines provide the band with a way to add structure and on-time rhythm to their improvisation.
As the song breaks out into improvisational space, Dickey seems to somehow add more distortion and compression into his guitar, screaming across the entire mix. Roaring across the listener, it becomes more than just listening, you start to feel the same feeling as the people who experienced it in person.
I’m not kidding, if you have a second while reading this go to “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” from this album and start at 10:00 and let it finish if you’re not into longer songs. This is some of the greatest guitar playing you’ll ever hear.
“Whipping Post” would be the cap on this monster of a record. The longest track on the record at 23 minutes, it let every band member get every portion of the energy they had in them into the air that night in New York. Their biggest hit at the time, it was the perfect way the band could finally capture the contrast from their studio recordings, as “Whipping Post” was a 5-minute song when it was recorded in the studio.
Jaimoe and Butch’s drumming rumble through the song throughout its duration, rumbling a freight train through the verses. Greg’s raw vocals spread fire across the stage, as the band provides the rawest form of music experience there is.
Whereas the improvised section of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” was aggressive, exploding with power and energy, the later parts of this “Whipping Post’ would come off more methodic, and mellow. There are moments when the band is clearly listening for one another, one person will stop and you can hear them change to better fit what everyone else is playing. It starts to break into a territory similar to the Grateful Dead around the 12-minute mark. The band breaks off into a spacey exploration, open to anything and everything their bodies produce into their instruments. As that carries on, they seem to create their own outro for this jam and wind down, before breaking right into the final section of “Whipping Post” and reaching another face-melting peak that leaves you wondering what to do now that you’ve finished listening to this album.
After this release, the Allman Brothers Band would go on to become rock legends, earning spots on lists like best rock bands of all time, best guitarists, and best live album of all time. It is with this album that we are reminded that joy that can be found in the present moment, and there is no better way to embrace what is right now than to go to a concert. The Allman Brothers successfully captured that joy with The Fillmore East.
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