10 Best Songs

The 10 Best Allman Brothers Songs

As so many dads, among others, will tell you, the Allman Brothers’ interpretations of blues, rock, country, R&B, and jazz were greatly their own, completely distinct from how an equally massive contemporary like, say, Led Zeppelin, grew from the same source materials. They’ve proudly counted as members no fewer than four guitarists who unanimously rank among the all-time greatest: Duane Allman, Dickey Betts, Warren Haynes, and Derek Trucks. And their distinctive use of slide and harmonized guitar lines sounds like neither Lynyrd Skynyrd nor Grateful Dead, two poles on the many spectrums the Allmans sit comfortably in the middle of, nor anyone else, really. Those fluid guitars can be almost indistinguishable from Gregg Allman’s watercolor organ lines, emulsifying into something else and alien altogether, as on the surging, almost Asian motif of 1972’s “Les Brers In A Minor.”

Then there’s the late Allman’s vocals, swampy and warm and mossy, which with time accrued the hoarse heft of his favorite bluesmen, particularly during the previously unthinkable feat of a ’90s comeback after more or less flaming out in the late ’70s. Recruiting Haynes and drummer Butch Trucks’ nephew Derek, two next-generation recruits as lauded as any of the original members, extended the band’s life far beyond that of their previous contemporaries and found them enjoying more popularity than ever. What’s more, the Allmans’ longevity is deserved, as they consistently put on some of the most engaging and exciting live shows of any dinosaur act on a purely musical level. Over time they stretched their material into jazzier, funkier depths far beyond the easy twang-pop of “Ramblin’ Man,” their biggest hit, which promptly disappeared from setlists after the troubled and temperamental Betts was booted from the group in 2000, while other Betts classics like “Blue Sky” would obtain longer intros and build on the three-drummer groove now augmented by salsa percussionist Marc Quiñones (won’t see one of those in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s recent lineups).

After Butch Trucks’ tragic suicide in January and now the passing of the soft-spoken last-living Allman Brother Gregg on Saturday, the time is right to look back on these rock heroes’ expansive legacy of wondrously colorful compositions that blurred all genre distinctions into one unmistakable stew and continued to cook long after the 1970s ran out.

10. “Woman Across the River” (from Hittin’ The Note, 2003)

As anyone who continued to see them would tell you, it’s barely disputed that the Allmans were no worse for the wear after their 1989 reunion. Dickey Betts’ chart-aimed 1990 ballad “Seven Turns” was strong and catchy, and even the post-Betts material had not only substance but brawn too: Warren Haynes and Gregg Allman had a blast ripping through “Rockin’ Horse,” originally the greatest tune by Haynes’ own band Gov’t Mule. But the most recent incarnation of the Brothers’ fearsome Freddie King cover “Woman Across The River” turned a decent ’70s blues vamp into a full-blown voodoo epic, with more hairpin turns and less subtly deployed dynamic changes than your average Allmans tune on what may be Haynes’ best vocal performance. It’s extremely difficult to imagine anyone who permanently got off the Allmans train in 1975 failing to appreciate the slicing and dicing solos in the excoriating final two minutes of the live rendition on 2004’s One Way Out, say. As good an argument for the latter-day Allmans’ interpretations as “One Way Out” was for the Duane era.

9. “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” (from Idlewild South, 1970)

Dickey Betts was usually the one to rein this band in, the one who wrote the number-one hit, who usually injected the rougher stuff with the respite of sweet melody, the one who penned the lines “People can you feel it/ Flowers everywhere.” But on the Allmans’ first-ever epic instrumental, he corralled their strongest link to jazz, beginning in Miles Davis territory and slowly ratcheting up the volume and tempo to one of the most memorable riff-vamp detours the band ever took (and continued to take repeatedly at shows with this live staple), even drawing on Santana-style deployment of salsa. The vivid places this falsely intermission-like instrumental goes are worthy of Dr. Seuss, and it’s a paean to sneaking around the Rose Hill Cemetery with Boz Scaggs’ girlfriend.

8. “No One To Run With” (from Where It All Begins, 1994)

The most jovial Allmans composition since 1970’s flowers-everywhere hit “Revival” could’ve easily been their “Kokomo” or something, if it wasn’t grounded in the gravelly earth of Gregg’s voice, the bluesy chug of those Bo Diddley strum patterns, and, oh yeah, the lyric meditating on loss and age. It’s a perfect summation of the Allman Brothers that they would utilize this extraordinarily happy melody in concert to underscore a montage of their fallen idols and brothers on the video display behind the band. That tugging undercurrent of sadness only makes it stronger, keeps it out of the Jimmy Buffett lightweight gutter. “No One To Run With” was their biggest ’90s-reunion hit, which doesn’t seem like much, so how about this: the hookiest chorus Gregg ever sang, except for “I’m No Angel” of course.

7. “Blue Sky” (from Eat A Peach, 1972)

“Elizabeth Reed” or no “Elizabeth Reed,” Dickey Betts was and forever will be the Allmans’ pop maestro, its shrewdest melodist, the writer of “singles” that made the band stand out from its amorphous jamming contemporaries then or now, whether their audiences have use for the radio or not. From “Revival” to “Ramblin’ Man” to “Seven Turns” and “No One To Run With,” Betts wrote the S-O-N-G-S in this unit, and it’s somewhat understandable how indignant he would be for being kicked out amongst later turmoil in the group. But Betts’ finest pop composition could never be extracted from the most gorgeous guitar he and Duane ever recorded, inseparably in the fills and hiding around the choruses of “Blue Sky,” named for the woman Betts would go on to marry. The symbiotic relationship between this band’s instrumental virtuosity and songwriting discipline has never been seen before or since, and “Blue Sky” is as clear an illustration of why as they ever made.

6. “Trouble No More” (from Eat A Peach, 1972)

As a singer, Gregg’s strength was interpreting the blues, and he has loads of gritty, powerful moments, but, with love to its speedier eternal neighbor “One Way Out,” the band’s swinging take on Muddy Waters’ “Trouble No More” is the greatest, for three distinct reasons. There’s the call-and-response between the harmonica that the guitar riff echoes, the lassoing guitar leads interweaving between vocal bits, and best of all, Gregg’s frustrated, triumphant cries of “Anymore!” blowing each chorus to smithereens. Even Bob Dylan copied his phrasing and shuffle of the Allmans’ version for his own 2006 rewrite of the tune as “Someday Baby.” Tip: Forego the slightly stilted 1969 studio version for the electrocuting live rave-up the Brothers wisely opted to include on Eat A Peach three years later.

5. “Little Martha” (from Eat A Peach, 1972)

It’s no wonder that Gregg Allman titled his 1997 album Searching For Simplicity considering simplicity was the one thing you could say he was obsessed with. For all of the Allmans’ complicated instrumental threadwork and three goddamn drummers, they liked things easy, earnest, and, to quote another Gregg solo title, Laid Back. You’d be hard-pressed to find anything that better exemplifies those qualities than this two-minute, fingerpicked final testament of Duane Allman, though. Leo Kottke once called “Little Martha” the “most perfect guitar song ever written,” and in many ways that’s true. It’s all compact jangling and ringing, a fitting and flowery coda for a brother who no longer existed, to finish out the group’s finest album. Few bands consistently executed tributes so graceful, or made the term “tasteful” live up to its intentions.

4. “Midnight Rider” (from Idlewild South, 1970)

“Melissa” was a beaut, and recorded in tribute to Duane as his favorite song-as-song Gregg composed. But this lone-highway anthem is Gregg’s “Yesterday,” his great big entry in Leonard Cohen’s fabled tower of song. It’s got lyrics for one: “The road goes on forever” was a T-shirt slogan waiting to happen, nicely braided with “I don’t own the clothes I wear.” And “I’ve got one more silver dollar” is a hell of a desperate image for the nomadic lifestyle a very young Gregory was espousing, but let’s not overlook that opening line either, “I’ve got to run to keep from hiding.” He went on to call it the song he’s most proud of in his career, but we already kinda knew that when he felt strongly enough to break into Capricorn Studios in Macon to record the demo.

3. “Mountain Jam” (from Eat A Peach, 1972)

Did Duane deserve an indulgent 34-minute sendoff that took up two whole sides of double vinyl on its own? Anyone who’s ever listened to the dilettante-polarizing “Mountain Jam” knows what their answer is to that. But the chutes and ladders of harmonized guitar could be described as rainbow paint, just floating and spattering onto those twin drummers’ rattling funk rhythms without any singing (especially not that of the supremely silly Donovan Leitch, who wrote “There Is a Mountain,” the theme it’s based on) to sully the purity of it. It also serves as a magnificent testament to the less heralded Berry Oakley’s fantastic, frenetic bass playing, while Gregg splashes around on organ. There are dead spots of course — who needs a five-minute drum solo? And none of the later codas live up to those first ten minutes, no. But that’s a small price to pay for the best rock improvisation you may ever hear on record.

2. “Jessica” (from Brothers And Sisters, 1973)

Jam bands don’t go pop, and seven-minute instrumentals don’t become major hits. This one does. Dickey Betts’ sprightly main theme was inspired by the two-fingered stylings of Django Reinhardt, but even Gregg’s blocky piano parts have a buttery comfort feeling to them reminiscent of say, Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus And Lucy.” The sheer impossibility of “Jessica” is only matched by its unabashed universality. “Ramblin’ Man” was the other major hit from Brothers And Sisters, but its cheerful sentiment was still limited to the ethos of the wandering bros in the band. “Jessica,” named after Betts’ daughter because she was dancing enthusiastically as he put its melody together, is for everyone who wants in. It’s the most joyous tune they ever wrote, and it didn’t need one word more.

1. “Whipping Post” (from The Allman Brothers Band, 1969)

It’s only fitting that Gregg Allman’s greatest tune is right where he started, on the Allmans’ very first album, steeped in the blues and nothing but. And even more fitting that it’s an overextended metaphor for his brother torturing him. But you can feel the Brothers transmuting it into rock and roll with every measure of that shaky 11/4 time signature whenever the song returns to its tense, climbing intro passage. And you can feel Gregg finding his voice, turning sibling rivalry into a cry of pain and depth of soul via an infidelity tale that his blues heroes could envy. While the Allmans are historically laid-back, “Whipping Post” was their payment to the debt of their forefathers who knew what it’s like to feel like they’re dying and transmitted it through steel strings. Gregg’s more lightweight organ passages underscored the toughness of the stumbling beat, the howling vocal, and the line-drive guitar solos that would turn “Whipping Post” into their signature live odyssey. You could compare the 1969 version, the 1970 version, the 2004 version; even the obscure cover that Jay Z mined for Kingdom Come at his nadir is crackling with fury. Plenty of the Allmans’ music was “timeless” so to speak, but no other Allmans song made such a convincing case that it knew the value of time. “Good lord, I feel like I’m dying,” Gregg bellowed into his finest work. But that’s when his life began.