Allman Brothers hit it right on `Hittin’ the Note’
April 24, 2003
Southern rock is here to stay, it will never die. Following are reviews of several recent CDs from the American South.The Allman Brothers Band, “Hittin’ the Note”produced by Michael Barbiero & Warren Haynes (Peach/Sanctuary)For the Allman Brothers Band, the road seemingly does go on forever. Over the last decade the Allmans, energized by fresh blood, have toured like young upstarts. Their annual March residency at New York City’s Beacon Theater, where they recently played 13 concerts over 18 nights, is a reflection of how seriously they take their performing life.The studio, on the other hand, has become foreign territory. The band last released an album of new material nine years ago, with 1994’s “Where It All Begins.” Re-enter Warren Haynes, whose late-1980s addition to the Allmans was the spark to their resurgence. Haynes left the Bros in the late ’90s to concentrate on his other band – Gov’t Mule, Phil Lesh & Friends – but rejoined in 2001 after founding Bro Dickey Betts got the boot. Haynes brought his usual mind-blowing level of energy back to the Allmans and, presto, a new Allman Brothers CD. And not just a new Allman Brothers CD, but one that takes its place alongside “Eat a Peach” as the best work the band has ever done in the studio. (“Hittin’ the Note” doesn’t quite hit the level of “Live at the Fillmore East,” the Bros’ essential live album from 1971 … but what does?). Check out “Desdemona,” the centerpiece of the new album. Co-written by Haynes and Gregg Allman, the song, with its deliberate blues-jazz chords and Allman doing his most desperate moan, finds the band actually discovering a new corner of Southern rock songwriting. The verses segue into a shuffle jam, led by Derek Trucks’ slide guitar that starts hot and then explodes – the rare example of a jam band finding the stage mojo in the studio. “Old Before My Time,” with Allman getting reflective to the sound of strummed acoustic guitars, stretches in another direction. “Maydell” would be a standard blues rocker if not for how energized Allman sings, or how much the guitars sting. The Bros put their spin on the Rolling Stones’ “Hearts of Stone,” with Allman delighting in making the chorus his own. And what would an Allman Brothers album be without the extended instrumental workout? Here we get “Instrumental Illness,” 12 minutes of hook-filled boogie.It’s no surprise that Haynes wrote or co-wrote all nine of the original songs here. What is surprising is how much of a band album “Hittin’ the Note” sounds like. Allman co-wrote five of the songs with Haynes. And every piece of the picture – the three-part drum section, Allman’s keyboards – is allowed to shine in the excellent production. Hitting every note, indeed. The Allman Brothers play Red Rocks on Sept. 19, with Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe opening.Widespread Panic, “Ball”produced by John Keane and Widespread Panic (Sanctuary)Has anything changed for Widespread Panic, with the death last year of original guitarist Michael Houser, and the addition of his replacement, George McConnell? A little bit, yes, but mostly, no.On “Ball,” the first post-Houser studio CD, the Georgia jam band changes up its methodology. Instead of road-testing songs before taking them into the studio, their customary practice, Panic busts out a fresh batch of 13 songs never before heard.But that process doesn’t yield a different result. “Ball” doesn’t seem driven by a desire to experiment with the recording process; it’s just another way of introducing the songs. “Ball” comes off much like Panic’s last studio effort, 2001’s “Don’t Tell the Band” – perfectly straightforward, no guest players, the lightest production touch possible. Which is too bad; I have thought Widespread’s best records were those like “‘Til the Medicine Takes,” where there was a lot of knob-twisting going on.And the addition of McConnell hardly alters the familiar Panic sound. McConnell, in fact, is a longtime Widespread associate, having played in the band Beanland with Widespread keyboardist Jojo Hermann and frequently sitting in with Panic. “Ball” never directly addresses the absence of Houser, who helped form Widespread at the University of Georgia in 1985. But it doesn’t seem a coincidence that the CD opens with the intimate, minor-key “Fishing.” “Don’t Wanna Lose You” leaves everything to the imagination – much of the song is simply Hermann repeating the title over a bluesy guitar lick – but can easily be seen as a reference to Houser. Widespread pays its most overt tribute to their fallen mate by closing the album with “Travelin’ Man,” an upbeat, uplifting tune written by Houser. Not particularly ambitious but solid from front to end, “Ball” seems to reflect a desire by Widespread to get on with the business of making music. Widespread Panic does its usual three-night stand at Red Rocks, June 26-28.Tishamingo, “Tishamingo”produced by John Keane & Tishamingo After co-founding the local band Jes’ Grew in the late 1990s, singer-guitarist Cameron Williams returned to his native Southeast, with the intention of putting together a hot touring band.Good move. Williams hooked up with a bunch of old Tallahassee, Fla., friends – drummer Richard Proctor, a friend since seventh grade, and the duo of singer-guitarist Jess Franklin and bassist Stephen Spivey, who had played together in Jess Franklin and the Best Little Blues Band – to form the Athens, Ga.-based Tishamingo. After touring the Southeast some, Tishamingo hooked up with John Keane, best known as Widespread Panic’s longtime producer, to record their self-titled debut.”Tishamingo” does more than show promise; it is, in itself, the full package of Southern jam rock. The references to the Allman Brothers and Widespread Panic are there; it’s hard to be a Southern rock band without them. But Franklin and Williams are strong enough, both as singers and guitarists, that mimicry isn’t an issue. Most important, the songwriting is wide-ranging and distinctive enough that Tishamingo avoids stereotypes. “Way Back Home” has a singer-songwriter touch to its acoustic backbone; “Whiskey State of Mind,” while recalling the Allmans, is still an essential example of Southern rock. And neither the Allmans nor Widespread has come up with something like “Little Red,” a hit of jazzy, ragtime-style fun. Bottom line, “Tishamingo” is better than most Widespread Panic albums, and the band is, presumably, still on the up side of the learning curve. Great things are possible.Sonny Landreth, “The Road We’re On”produced by R.S. Field and Landreth (Sugar Hill)Sonny Landreth is best known as the designated slider for John Hiatt. But Landreth, a product of Southwest Louisiana, has a series of solo CDs to his credit, and “The Road We’re On,” with 12 originals, shows that Landreth is still on the upswing of his solo career. The guitar work is outstanding, and Landreth’s vocals are more than acceptable for someone generally thought of as a guitar sensation. Apart from the hints of zydeco, the sound on “The Road We’re On” never strays from Southern blues rock. And the songs – “True Blue,” “Hell at Home,” “Ol’ Lady Luck” – never stray far from tales of the death grip that love and the blues can get on a guy. Various artists, “Live from Bonnaroo, Vol. 2″produced by John Altschiller (Sanctuary Records)This is music made in the South, rather than music of the South. “Live from Bonnaroo, Vol. 2” is a sequel to last year’s first volume, a two-CD compilation of live tracks recorded at the inaugural Bonnaroo festival in Manchester, Tenn. The trick here is that “Vol. 2” includes only acts that didn’t make it onto the first set. Given that it’s essentially scrapings from the bottom of the barrel, “Vol. 2” is pretty impressive. There happen to be plenty of Southern sounds here. Col. Bruce Hampton & the Codetalkers do the bluegrass-edged “Body in the Lake”; the Old Crow Medicine Show’s take on “Minglewood Blues” leaves the Southern flavor of that jug-band classic intact. The CD closes with the Lil’ Rascals Brass Band’s “Rasta Second Line,” which cleverly mixes the sounds of two music-mad foreign countries, New Orleans and Jamaica.Away from the Southern sounds, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe puts Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” to a funk beat on the powerful “Straussmania,” and Les Claypool and Bernie Worrell team up – in an outfit called Col. Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains – for the hard-funking “Number Two.” Also included are tracks from Disco Biscuits, Particle, Drums & Tuba, Mofro and more.