It was rather shocking to see Gregg Allman in such good shape this week: He looked as fit and trim as he has in decades.
By Brett Milano
If ever a double bill was in the wrong order, it was Gregg Allman opening for the Doobie Brothers at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion this week. The Doobies were tight and polished as always, enjoyable if good-natured ‘70s flashbacks are your thing. But they’re not too big on bluesy grit and gravitas, which are still Allman’s stock in trade.
Allman was in terrible shape when I last saw him, in late 2010 at the Orpheum. At the time he’d rejoined the Allman Brothers Band a few months after a liver transplant, walked with difficulty, barely played keys, and had to hand over most of the vocals. He was hospitalized again last year, causing a delay in his solo tour, and the Brothers played their final shows in October. (Health issues weren’t the reason, but they couldn’t have helped). So it was rather shocking to see him in such good shape this week: He looked as fit and trim as he has in decades, his voice was fully restored, he played his trademark Hammond B3 and some guitar, even talked a bit between songs.
Allman was writing world-weary songs as a young man, penning the chorus “Good Lord, feel like I’m dying” when he was barely out of his teens. So he’s more equipped to handle them now, infusing them with a lot of hard living — “Melissa” and “Midnight Rider” were both slowed down to good effect. While he played mostly ABB songs, he didn’t stick with the hits or the original arrangements: The rarely-played “Don’t Keep Me Wondering” was a highlight and “Whippin’ Post” was more of a Stax/Volt version, without its signature bass riff. The solo band includes three horn players and the drummer (Steve Potts) from the latter-day Booker T. & the MG’s, so the arrangements flirted with a Memphis soul influence. And he jumped in altogether with a cover of Amos Milburn’s blues nugget, “Bad Bad Whiskey.” As a reformed drinker he wasn’t about to treat this one lightly.
Allmans diehards will note that he encored with “Southbound” and respectfully introduced it as “a song by Mister Dickey Betts.” The ABB’s cofounding guitarist, Betts got booted in 2000 and wasn’t included in the final shows. But that moment lent credence to recent rumors that he and Allman are on speaking terms again, and may be on playing terms before long.
A biker band gone Vegas, the Doobie Brothers currently include founding singer/guitarists Tom Johnston and Pat Simmons, but not later frontman Michael McDonald. Which means they steered clear of the white-soul McDonald hits (except “Takin’ It to the Street” which Simmons sang), and drew from their earlier days as a tougher guitar band. Didn’t sound the same, though: With a sax player and lead guitarist (John McFee, who was much cooler in his days with Elvis Costello) who tended to overplay, and with a Nashville bassist (John Cowan, ex-New Grass Revival) who brought no funk whatsoever, the grooves in “Jesus is Just Alright” and “Long Train Running” were pretty much ironed out (and the less said about their cover of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me Talking” the better). There was salvation, however: Their guest keyboardist was Little Feat cofounder Bill Payne, who played just as anarchically as he does with the Feat. Even when he’d played on the original record (that’s his piano on “China Grove”), he steered off the charts and invariably made things more interesting.
The night’s nicest Doobie moment actually came earlier on, when Simmons joined his son Pat Jr., who opened the night acoustically; father and son then harmonized on America’s “Ventura Highway.” Always good to see families bond over vintage vinyl.
Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat.