Close your eyes and tell me what sound comes into your head when I ask you to think of southern rock? You’re probably imagining bands like ZZ Top or Lynyrd Skynyrd with their drawl, slide guitars, and songs about the good ol’ times below the Mason-Dixon line. Sure, southern rock isn’t one of rock’s more distinguished subgenres, but it can be crafted. With the right amount of precise rhythm disguised as swinging swagger, soaring soundscapes undercover of epic guitar solos, and folk tales remastered with soul and rock, southern rock can sound like the music of tomorrow. For a brief moment, two nights in March of 1971 to be exact, southern rock sounded like a symphony thanks to The Allman Brothers Band.
Today is the 45th anniversary of the release of that moment: At Fillmore East, one of the best live musical recordings ever made and southern rock’s finest moment. The swinging, soulful sextet of Jacksonville, Florida broke into the mainstream with this two LP set (later issues as a double-disc CD) that set the world on fire and turned rock and roll’s eye to the south. Led by brothers Duane (guitar) and Gregg (organs and lead vocals) along with Dickey Betts (guitar), Berry Oakley (bass), Jai Johanny Johanson (drums and percussion) and Butch Trucks (drums), the Allmans were a good old-fashioned American rock band: they were barely successful and did a lot of drugs, but they gained a powerful following on the road.
In 1970 alone, the band played over 300 live shows and their second album, Idlewild South, sold reasonably well. Then Duane caught the attention of one Eric Clapton. After recording the session for what would become Derek & the Dominoes’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, Duane returned to the Allmans just as the band had an epiphany. Their passionate crowds and killer live shows couldn’t possibly be captured in the studio, so why not try a live album? Three nights at the famous Fillmore East in New York was the wind-up pitch and the good ol’ Allman Brothers hit a home run.
It wouldn’t be too crazy to call At Fillmore East one of rock’s first “fusion” albums. Gregg’s southern charm is a trait hard to miss, but the precision and accuracy of the band’s playing is pure jazz with laces of R&B. The strutting groove comes from the locked-in rhythm in “Statesboro Blues,” “Trouble No More,” and “One Way Out.” The band barely even needs lyrics when they turn “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and “Whipping Post” into soaring jam sessions. Heck, the longest song on the album is a 33-minute long play called “Mountain Jam.” But the Allman Brothers still had their home in their blood, so it was a given that they’d play bluesy tracks like “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’,” Stormy Monday,” “Done Somebody Wrong,” and their traveler’s tale, “Midnight Rider.” Everything that southern rock could ever hope to be was on At Fillmore East and the band made it sound so natural.
First and foremost is actually not the Allman Brothers themselves, but the rhythm that backed them. There’s never a moment where Johanson and Trucks are out of sync, like they’re rolling their sticks on the drums together like the motor in a Dodge Challenger. Even when they have moments of breakneck speed on “Hot ‘Lanta” or “Whipping Post,” they never miss a beat together. For extra punch, there’s Oakley never misses a cue on bass. His rolling bassline on “Whipping Post” gets any fan pumped up. But of course the X-factors of the band are those sweet guitar licks from Betts and Duane. The give and take the two had onstage was spot on, as the two left just enough room between their own solos for each other like on “Trouble No More.” What made their playing so impactful was the effort they put into it, almost like you can hear the passion of their playing through the speakers. There’s so much heart and soul in the delicate sliding of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and “Whipping Post” that it almost brings tears. The ace in the hole is definitely Gregg Allman, whose organ is always the extra topping to each song while his vocals bring the southern charm to every song. He aches and howls every line he gets like he’s Howlin Wolf or Muddy Waters.
At Fillmore East is the highest southern rock would ever go musically (no, “Freebird” has nothing on any of the tracks here). It’s another snapshot of American music captured at the right place at the right time with the right band. Just a few months after the album hit the shelves, Duane Allman died in a motorcycle accident. A little over a year later, Berry Oakley would also die in a motorcycle accident, just a few blocks away from where Duane had his fatal accident.
At Fillmore East leaves enough of an impression to be a masterpiece, an iconic piece of Americana and a crowning jewel of an entire genre. The funny thing is, it was just another night on tour for the band.