As surely as April showers or the sound of birds singing, the annual string of shows by the Allman Brothers Band at the Beacon Theater serves as a harbinger of Spring. Only this time they’re moving uptown, to the United Palace Theater on 175th Street. But the spirit and the energy will remain the same, no matter what the venue.
“It was pretty simple, it’s the only other venue in New York that’s similar to the Fillmore East and the Beacon,” says Butch Trucks, one of the original members of the legendary group. “It’s just something about the Allman Brothers in a 3,000 seat theater that works. That just seems to be where magic things happen all the time. Sure, there’s excitement and fun and everything else playing the sheds and arenas. But that’s much more like being on stage, more like the feeling you have to perform, and that you’re under the microscope. But in a 3,000 seat theater, it’s much more like the band and the audience are all in this together. They’re listening to us, we’re feeding off them, and magic things happen. It’s a seed that sprouted back when we were doing the Fillmore East. When we started doing the Beacon in ’89, it just kept going. This is the only other venue in New York like it, and the place is wonderful.”
The band has had the same lineup since 2001, and includes Greg Allman on lead vocals and organ, Butch on drums and tympani, Jaimoe on drums, Warren Haynes on vocals and guitar, Derek Trucks on guitar, Oteil Burbridge on bass, and Marc Quinones on percussion. Last year’s shows included special guests ranging from Eric Clapton and Bob Weir to Billy Gibbons and Bruce Willis. In fact, a 15 CD box set has been released chronicling the shows.
Will the band be inviting any special guests up this year? “We always do. I mean it’s New York,” laughs Butch. “I don’t think we’ll ever see another year like last year, being our 40th anniversary. We dedicated the whole run to Duane. We started the run with two nights with Eric Clapton, and built it around that. Once word got out, it grew. Sheryl Crow called, and Kid Rock. We invited a few people specifically, John Hammond and Bonnie Bramlet. When Duane died, his best friends were Eric, John, and Bonnie, so we called them to make sure they were there, and they blew the roof off the place.”
Musically, it’s different every night, which keeps things fresh for the band. Butch’s personal favorites change with each show. “Oh man, you know every night, it’s just something different,” he muses. “One night be ‘Dreams,’ one night it might be ‘Elizabeth Reed,’ one night it might be ‘Whipping Post.’ It has to do with how everyone’s feeling that night. I think that may be one reason why we don’t have bad nights. We have a pretty broad spectrum of music to draw from. Last year, on those 15 shows, we played 100 different songs.”
With the line-up changes over the years, one would surmise that the songs have gone through a metamorphosis themselves. “They’ve all evolved,” Butch relates. “I mean, you know, certain songs like ‘Midnight Rider,’ there’s a certain character to them we’ve tried to stick with. But there’s other songs that we shut up for a jam, even ‘Whipping Post,’ that are the reason it’s so much fun after 41 years that you don’t know what’s going to happen, it’s a surprise. When that stops, that’s when we’ll stop. When we got back together in ’89, we thought maybe five years, and here we are in 2010 and it’s still going strong. We just finished four days of rehearsal, and even rehearsal is fun these days!”
Still, there must be standards they feel obligated to play. “Well, there’s a few,” says Butch. “We play ‘Statesboro’ a lot, and ‘Midnight Rider’ a lot. There are some songs we feel people want us to do that we don’t do because we don’t like them anymore. Every night we try to stick in two or three of the old standards. We know that’s part of why people are coming.
“A lesson I learned 41 years ago, that Duane taught to me, is there comes a time when you stop trying to get up and please everyone else and you learn to let what’s inside you come out. You do it because it feels good. We all tried that other stuff for several years before that. The record companies telling us to do this and do that, have the blond haired kid put a salami in his pants and jump around the stage. Not only didn’t it work, we didn’t have any fun because the music sucked. In early 1969, something magical happened, the reason 41 years later we’re still doing it. We’re playing music for music’s sake. No ballet, no fashion show, just plain music. It seems to just get better every year; last year the Beacon shows were unbelievable. There were no bad nights. The rest of the year was the same way, like being on a baseball team and never losing a game.”
One of the treats for Butch these days is playing with Derek, who has blossomed as a musician. “It’s wonderful, he’s the best guitar player in the world right now, and that’s not just because he’s my nephew,” exclaims Butch. “This kid, jesus, I still have no idea what he’s going to do next. I can’t say that about any guitar player I ever worked with. After a while, you start learning what their style is, and there becomes a certain predictability to what they do. It just changes and evolves, but there’s still a predictability. That’s not the case with Derek. I’ve never seen anything like it. You never know where he’s going to start, and you never know where he’s going to go.”
One thing that has stayed comfortable is his playing with Jaimoe, his partner in pioneering the two drummer line-up. “It’s just something like when you’re married to somebody,” he explains. “It’s something that works. We don’t talk about it, we don’t dwell on it, we don’t think about it. We just start playing and it just works. It’s like Tiger Woods and his golf swing. He practices, then when it’s time to play he just gets up and swings. From the very beginning, there was just something about Jaimoe’s style that just worked. I never played with another drummer that I can say that. With other drummers, I’m making an effort to make sure we don’t step all over each other, with Jaimoe that’s not the case, he’s just another member of the band that happens to play the drums. It’s just another musician. And now that we’ve added Marc, it’s even more so. Marc’s just the penultimate professional, he comes in and puts the icing on the cake.”
A few years ago, Butch had an idea for using the Internet to stream concerts, and to create a community with archived shows, blogs, and discussion about the bands. It has seen it’s fruition in Moogis, a site that will broadcast the upcoming shows. “That’s my idea, I built it,” Butch states. “It started six or seven years ago. I got to thinking, music’s not going to go away, the only thing that’s changing is how music’s going to be delivered, and I’m really into computers. I keep myself sane on the road by playing Warcraft, I know that the communities of today are online. When I was a kid I’d run down the street and play ball. Today, kids come home from school and log on and find their friends. Moogis is what my youngest son used to call ‘music.’ The concept is we’re going to build a jam band music community. When we did it last year, it worked well. We did something that everyone said we couldn’t do, we got a lot of people to pay $125 for a subscription, and they got to see 15 shows, and they can still watch those shows.
“We’re doing it again this year. Now that we’ve proved it worked, now we’re going the next step, Moogis 2.0, and we’re going to do the whole jam band scene. We’ll wire six or seven clubs around the country, and every night you’ll see a concert from somewhere, from young startup bands to the Allman Brothers or Dave Matthews. We’re trying to leave a legacy. Where people can come, have forums, places to post, a chat room where they can argue ‘My band’s better than your band,’ ‘Have you heard so and so.’ We’ll load it up with thousands of videos, even weekly and monthly shows. I talked to John Popper about a weekly show, I talked to Trey Anastasio and Warren Haynes, and we’ll give them an hour to do whatever they want to do. And every night they’ll be a live concert. I want to build a website that has more content then you could ever see.”
In the midst of the acclaimed New York shows, and with a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career behind him, what possible future goals could Butch have for the Allman Brothers and himself? “Oh man, we’ve surpassed any goal I could ever have,” he says. “Just play the next show, and then play the next show, every one is more than I thought we would ever do. I’m working real hard on getting Moogis up and going, and there’s a couple other little projects I’m working on getting going. I’m just enjoying everything that we do. Every one is a blessing.”
The Allman Brothers perform at the United Palace in NYC on March 12, March 13, March 15, March 16, and March 18-20. For more info, visit allmanbrothersband.com.