Devon Allman to take Aspen stage
August 28, 2009
ASPEN – At the age of 13, Devon Allman was at a friend’s house. The friend claimed to be a guitar player, yet Allman noticed that the guitar, stashed away in a corner of the room, was covered in a half-inch of dust. Allman ordered his companion to play something; the friend did, poorly.
“It was my first time seeing someone play a guitar. I mean, I’d been to a few concerts, but that’s seeing it from a hundred yards away,” Allman said. He went home, told his mother he wanted a guitar, and within the hour, Allman had his first six-string.
That sets straight those who assume an alternate version of the story – that Allman came out of the womb with a guitar in one hand and a slide in the other, that he spent his diaper years backstage in arenas. Yes, Allman is the son of Gregg Allman, the singer and keyboardist of the enduring Southern rock machine the Allman Brothers Band, and the nephew of the late Duane Allman, the band’s original guitarist. But while those Allmans were creating a distinctive brand of blues-boogie, Devon was growing up in Corpus Christi with his mother, Shelly – Gregg Allman’s first wife – and his stepfather, a pilot. He wasn’t studying the licks to “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”; he was a “regular beach kid” who dug Beatles and Elton John LPs out of his mother’s collection.
“I didn’t grow up backstage,” he said. “I grew up in the suburbs.”
Instead of learning rock ‘n’ roll from one of the greatest bands to tour the earth, Devon Allman was inspired by a neighbor who could barely play his guitar on those occasions when he even tried. But as soon as his mother got him the guitar – and no Duane-style slide; he has never used a slide in his life – Devon made the family name proud: “I was hooked. It was over,” he said.
The 34-year-old Allman is particularly proud of the effort he has put into his art. For the past five years, he and his band, Honeytribe, have played a brutal schedule of some 300 shows a year; the numbers – 44 states, 14 countries – roll off his tongue. Next stop on the never-breaking tour: Saturday at Aspen’s Belly Up.
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“I put us in the running for hardest-working band in America,” said Allman on a very rare day off in Colorado Springs. (In fact, he was planning to work on some material for his forthcoming album, his second.) “I figured it would take 300 shows a year for five years to get to where we want to be. So we play Toledo, Ohio and Saratoga, Wyoming – places I know nobody else plays. Nobody.”
The Honeytribe that takes the stage tonight is a far different group than Allman founded a decade ago. The St. Louis-based band has had as many as eight members; it is now down to a trio of Allman on guitar and vocals, bassist George Potsos, and drummer Gabriel Strange, who joined up nine months ago.
“It was awesome, but it was also a cluster,” Allman said of the bigger version of the band. “I like to play off a second guitar or a B3 [organ] or a piano, or all of them. But right now, the trio pushes me to be a better player. The songs breathe a little better. That freedom element is a lot cooler.”
Allman grew up without knowing his father. And he grew up with a conscious indifference to his father’s music. When fellow musicians would want to jam on an Allman Brothers tune, “I’d say, Dude, no,” said Allman. “I could learn that stuff in five minutes. But there’s no reason for me to learn every single song.”
The music of Honeytribe, especially in its stripped-down form, won’t be mistaken for the Allmans’, but Allman says he and his dad both draw from the same well of blues influences. The reasons, though, have little to do with family habits: Devon latched onto the blues through Jimi Hendrix. As a kid, he had heard Hendrix hits like “Purple Haze” and “Castles Made of Sand.” Then at 16, he heard “Red House,” and that took him deep into the blues.
Also at 16, Allman developed a desire to meet his father. This was not a musical concern, but a family one. “I’d have wanted to meet him if he’d been a plumber,” he said. Allman left a message for his dad; within days, the two had a relationship.
That bond has now made its way to the stage. Devon has performed as a guest with the Allman Brothers some 50 times. In March, he was among the many musicians who joined the band’s 40th anniversary celebration at the Beacon Theater in New York City.
On the question of whether there is a genetic element to musical talent, Allman is unsure.
“It has to, yeah?” he said, unconvincingly. “But I don’t know. That’s part of it. But I don’t know how.”