The Allman Brothers Band Live at the Beacon Theatre Review

The Allman Brothers Band began in 1969. Florida-born Duane Allman, who had built up a considerable reputation as a session guitarist, joined up with his vocalist/keyboardist brother Gregg. Drawing just as much on gospel and fusion jazz as they did on blues, R & B and rock, the band rapidly made its name. Not only did they have two lead guitarists (Dickey Betts was the other one), they also had two drummers (Butch Trucks and Jay Johnny Johansen aka Jaimoe, both still with the band) and in Gregg Allman one of the best white blues singers then active. Their concerts were legendary, often only just getting started by the two-hour mark. They also had some hit singles, too! The Allman Brothers Band in their classic lineup are captured on Live at Fillmore East, a seventy-minute double album containing a mere seven tracks. With three of these clocking in over fifteen minutes each you’d expect pointless, self-indulgent jamming but that’s exactly what you don’t get. This is one of the great rock live albums.

Outside the group, Duane Allman is best known for his contributions to the Derek and the Dominoes’ album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, particularly his playing alongside Eric Clapton on the title track. Sadly, he met a premature death in a motorcycle accident in 1971, followed by original bassist Berry Oakley a year later. The band has seen many lineup changes over the years. Meanwhile, Gregg Allman had a shortlived marriage to Cher and has done occasional acting work, most notably in 1992’s Rush. In the wake of their first studio album in nine years, Hittin’ the Note, the band played two nights at the Beacon Theatre in New York City, which were recorded for this DVD. The present line-up is:

Gregg Allman (lead vocals, Hammond organ, piano, acoustic guitar)
Jaimoe (drums)
Butch Trucks (drums)
Warren Haynes (lead & backing vocals, lead & slide guitar)
Marc Quinones (congas, percussion, backing vocals)
Oteil Burbridge (bass)
Derek Trucks (lead & slide guitar)

As they play for nearly three hours, you certainly get your money’s worth. The set list (see below) is a mixture of old favourites and new material, all impeccably played. Fans of the band will need no recommendation, and this is no doubt muso heaven. But I can’t help thinking, for those less committed, that nearly three hours of extended workouts might be far too much of a good thing. That it is a good thing is not in doubt: the closing number, the eleven-minute “Whippin’ Post” (also on Live at Fillmore East, though it runs nineteen minutes there) is a masterpiece of pacing, tension and release, building up to a frenzy before giving way to a slow, keyboard-led comedown.

Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More
Black Hearted Woman
Statesboro Blues
Woman Across the River
A Change is Gonna Come
Come and Go Blues
Rockin’ Horse
Don’t Keep Me Wondering
Midnight Rider
The High Cost of Low Living
Leave My Blues at Home
Old Before My Time
The Same Thing
Instrumental Illness
Worried Down with the Blues
Whippin’ Post

And yes, they do play an encore, but that’s on the second disc!

The first thing to note about this all-regions two-disc DVD is that it’s NTSC format, despite being on sale in the UK. If you’re someone bothered by PAL speed-up of music discs, then this won’t be a problem, though anyone tempted by this disc should check if they can play it first. The DVD transfer is full-frame, from what would seem to be a digital-video source. It’s generally very sharp, given the difficulties of filming under stage lights. Only some minor artefacting prevents it getting full marks.

The soundtrack is available in three mixes: Dolby Surround, Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1. I played the Dolby Digital 5.1 one throughout and sampled the Dolby Surround. (As I don’t have DTS facilities, I’ll note its presence but say no more than that. This review will be updated once a sound comparison can be made.) Of those two, there’s no doubt that the 5.1 track is the superior one: clearly recorded so that you can hear each instrument, with the audience taking up residence in the surrounds and the subwoofer filling in the bottom end of the music.

There are no subtitles, presumably due to copyright restrictions on reproducing song lyrics. There is virtually no between-songs chat to subtitle in any case. There are twenty-one chapter stops, one per song.

The extras are contained on the second disc. First up is the encore “One Way Out (7:45). This is really a continuation of the concert on the first disc and the picture and sound are up to the same standard, and has the same three soundmix options. This is followed by a 2:23 credit sequence, which runs against a background of the audience leaving the theatre, shot in sepia and in a ratio of 16:9 but non-anamorphic. The bonus track, “Old Friend”, is an impromptu guitar duet between Haynes and Derek Trucks (Butch’s nephew), filmed backstage. This is again in 16:9 non-anamorphic, and runs 6:59. Due to the brighter lighting, the picture here is very sharp, though there is some aliasing, particularly with guitar strings. Unlike the concert footage, this song just has one soundtrack option, namely Dolby Surround.

“True Colors” is a set of interviews, intercut with backstage footage and brief concert excerpts. It’s divided into seven sections and runs 75 minutes. As you can guess from that running time, this is certainly extensive, featuring contributions from all seven band members, and detailing the history, roots and influences of the band. I doubt this DVD will be of much interest to the very young, but anyone likely to be offended by strong language should note that one piece of backstage footage features Butch Trucks talking about a word which, he says, started out as an abbreviation of Fornicating Under the Consent of the King. “True Colors” is in non-anamorphic 16:9 with a Dolby Surround soundtrack. No subtitles are provided.

The remaining extras are fairly minor – a forty-picture stills gallery with a simple back-and-forth navigation system, a long text biography of the band, two-page discography and a single page describing the new album.

This isn’t quite the classic line-up of the Allman Brothers Band; for obvious reasons, that would be impossible. But it’s an excellent substitute, and if you like their music this DVD will be an essential purchase.

8 out of 10
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