NEW YORK, NY—Sometimes, I like to take a step back and admire the ideas people come up with to make life more fun. March is a prime example of this: a mediocre month embellished by traditions that make the transition to spring much less crappy. Humans, bless them, have turned this tedious time into an excuse to become wildly invested in college basketball and drink lots of beer leading up to St. Patty’s Day. I’ll take the beer, but my favorite March tradition is the Allman Brothers’ annual residency at the Beacon Theatre.
The Beacon run is a magical few weeks of three-hour setlists, surprise guests, and epic musicianship. It’s a time when I’m able to come home from a show at 1 a.m. on a Tuesday, get up for work the next morning, and thrive on the superpower energy I generated from excitement of the night before. The Allman Brothers have been doing the Beacon residency since 1989; I first caught a show in 2009 and haven’t missed a year since. I will keep going until they stop—which I actually worried might be soon, because Gregg Allman appeared to be in the midst of a health meltdown during the 2011 and 2012 runs. Watching the legendary founding Brother’s flubbed lyrics, missed cues, and frail presence felt like a sad sign of the Beacon tradition’s decline. (Not that he didn’t do his best while recovering from a liver transplant and suffering from a hernia.)
So it was a huge thrill to see Allman sit down at the good old Hammond B3 this year to open yet another Beacon show. On the one night I attended of the 11-show run, the opener was the organ-driven instrumental “Hot ‘Lanta.”Allman fired through the song, soloing with an obvious spirit of renewed energy—and it just got better from there. The evening’s first set really showcased Allman’s drastically improved health: he soulfully nailed the notes at the end of “One Way Out” and owned the powerful vocals on “Desdemona.” Even more impressive was the strength in his voice as he sung a stirring rendition of The Band’s “Tears Of Rage” backed by Jersey’s own Juke Horns. It’s hard to listen to that song without feeling emotional, but hearing Allman sing it so well despite his recent troubles was especially moving.
Allman’s transformation from ailing to sharp seemed to allow the rest of the band to rise to new heights of collaborative intensity. Watching guitar virtuosos Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks trade blissful slide solos on “Blue Sky” made the ticket price worthwhile. The band’s take on “I Walk On Guilded Splinters” turned the smoldering Dr. John song into a fast, edgy tune with great harmonies by Allman and Haynes and hard-rocking beats by all three drummers. A long, jammy version of “Jessica” before the set break gave each member of the band individual moments to shine. It left the crowd cheering and excitedly waiting for more.
The Brothers dove deeper into jams in the second set, playing just eight songs in 90 minutes. They started with a steadily building new song called “Spots Of Time” (written by Haynes and Phil Lesh) that played out like a musical conversation between Haynes, Trucks, and bassist Oteil Burbridge as they took turns grooving. Switching back to a classic, Trucks delivered a beautiful solo in “Stormy Monday”—one of those breathtaking, melodious slide guitar moments. “Black Hearted Woman” was the pinnacle jam of the night. It was yet another lengthy song that harnessed the band’s power as a unit while still highlighting individual talents, like Marc Quiñones’ intricate percussion rhythms. The Juke Horns returned for a funky version of Eat A Peach track “Stand Back,” a cover of Van Morrison’s “Into The Mystic” made perfect by Haynes’ stellar blues voice, and the super-danceable encore “Southbound.”
The great thing about seeing an Allman Brothers show during the Beacon run is that you don’t watch a band play its same hits over and over—you see a group that challenges itself to dive deep into a mix of classics, new songs, and inventive covers. Though the Allmans’ lineup has evolved frequently throughout its almost 45-year history, the band’s unspoken mission to take each live song to the highest level possible is a tradition they’ve upheld throughout the years—not just a March tradition, but a decades-long one.