Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Allman Brothers Band "Idlewild South" (4*)

Right from the beginning of Dickey Betts’ Revival it’s obvious the second album by the Allman Brothers Band is the product of an outfit with some aspirations to commercial success. The self-titled debut album had identified them as an outfit with potential, but in a crowded marketplace they’d been doing it tough, and one suspects a realisation that they needed something that would find its way onto the airwaves if they were going to operate at anything beyond semi-starvation level.

As a result (and I suspect slotting Tom Dowd into the producer’s chair had a fair bit to do with it) Idlewild South presents as tighter, more accessible, reasonably commercial and definitely radio-friendly. Part of the credit, of course, also has to go to the emergence of Dickey Betts as a second writer in the outfit, and while he might have only contributed two tracks here, Revival’s poppy gospel delivered hints of a genuine commerciality and In Memory of Elizabeth Reed pointed towards another ABB trademark, the long jazz-inflected instrumental.

Rolling Stone described the album, which takes its name from the band's nickname for the Georgia farmhouse where they were living at the time (the comings and goings reminded them of Idlewild Airport) as comprising briefer, tighter, less 'heavy' numbers, which just about nails it as far as the first three tracks on Side One are concerned.

Dickey Betts’ Revival gets things off to a lively start and could, with a stroke of luck in the airplay department, have been a fairly successful single (think Blue Sky and Ramblin’ Man), Gregg Allman’s Don't Keep Me Wonderin' works as a reasonably poppy take on the blues and Midnight Rider comes across as an on the road campfire anthem and is, arguably, in a three way photo finish with Whipping Post and Dreams in the  Gregg Allman Signature Song Stakes.

Regardless of whether Dickey Betts actually had sex across the relevant grave in Macon’s Rose Hill Cemetery, almost seven minutes of In Memory of Elizabeth Reed’s Latin jazz  instrumental would also have worked in an FM radio environment and would have been handy, in a word of mouth sense, in promoting the band’s live appearances (sort of Hey, man, that was really cool but you should see what happens when they do it live)...

The only track on the album that looks back to the first album’s stone blues is the cover of the Willie Dixon/Muddy Waters Hoochie Coochie Man, though it’s Berry Oakley rather than Gregg who takes the vocal. Gregg, allegedly, doesn’t like to sing more than three in a row, and at this stage there weren’t too many Dickey Betts vocals, so it looks like Berry (or possibly Duane, who probably could but seems to have preferred not to) was about the only option.

But regardless of any shortcomings in the vocal department (Berry’s handy enough but he ain’t Gregg) the thunderous churning bass riff that drives the track makes it, for mine, the album’s highlight. Red hot solos and stinging licks from Dickey, and then Duane take off from there in a setting where it probably doesn’t matter who takes the microphone, and one shouldn’t neglect the thunderous drumming from Jaimoe and Butch Trucks that propels everything forward and maintains the momentum.

After that battering, the polished but relatively low key Please Call Home, with its weary Gregg Allman vocal and Leave My Blues at Home, which is mostly groove without going overboard on substance (impressive solos, though) probably seem like a bit of a let down, but wind things up rather neatly and would both have been FM-friendly.

Or at least they would have been if Hughesy was doing the DJ bit...

At a touch over thirty minutes, Idlewild South might seem a bit on the skimpy side time-wise, which is, of course, why I’d point the potential listener towards the two for less than the price of one Beginnings (I paid $10.99 at iTunes) which has both of the band’s first two albums in their entirety. Really, at the price you can’t go wrong, though there are issues when you split the tracks into the individual albums (my iTunes has the two albums listed between The Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet and Teddy Thompson’s Bella).

The debut might have delivered a touch more power, but for production, songwriting and performance Idlewild South is definitely a superior package when you line it up beside The Allman Brothers Band, largely due to what Dickey Betts brings to the party as a second source of original material. As a result there’s a fair bit more sonic more variety, and while it mightn’t be 100% killer there’s a definite lack of filler.

The band were, at this point, still in the process of establishing themselves and exploring the possibilities, and the apex of their achievement is just around the corner with At Fillmore East.

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