The best thing about this four-disc set comprised of three consecutive nights at the famed Fillmore West in January of 1971 is how different, yet fundamentally akin it is to the performances recorded a couple of months later at the Fillmore East that would serve as the legendary At Fillmore East album. Certainly, the Allman Brothers Band were developing their rapidly evolving chemistry as a group from a limited repertoire, drawing from a dozen-song batch each night, with much of the list repeated from show to show. Yet, as any fan of the band knows, every performance was unique onto itself, led in the moment by the improvisational twin-guitar phalanx of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts.
Not only do each of the three shows captured here (and a 45-minute “Mountain Jam” from a March ’70 gig at The Warehouse in New Orleans) carry their distinct individual characteristics, as a whole they suggest something in contrast to those Fillmore East appearances: the venue mattered. Granted, it’s speculation, but the daring, amphetamine ambition of the tempos and the wild and dark edging of the extended jams that populate this trio of appearances seem to epitomize the streets of psychedelic San Francisco. Even Allman Brothers Band historian John Lynskey, in his liner notes, refers to one of the three versions of “Whipping Post” contained here as “evil-sounding”; an atypical, if strikingly accurate, description.
Whereas for the Fillmore East shows the band knew they were recording a live album, here they are under no such pretense and it shows. Loose, aggressive, mesmerizing, fearless; grab a synonymous adjective and it fits. This also means, however, the quality of the recording, while exceptional given the source material (reel-to-reel, two-track tape), isn’t the sonic marvel that is Fillmore East. There are times when Gregg Allman’s vocal or keyboard are lower in the mix than optimum, and, in general, the balance more than favors the two guitars. Still, the mere existence of these treasures, and their careful restoration overseen by former band manager Bert Holman, is joyous enough, and a befitting way to celebrate the band’s 50th anniversary.
Whether the confidently unbridled charge of “Hot ‘Lanta” from the 1/31 show, the maturing blues of the lone “Stormy Monday,” from 1/30, or the nuances within any of the three renditions of jam vehicles “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” “You Don’t Love Me,” and “Whipping Post,” Fillmore West ’71, both as band artifact and for the scintillating performances, is worthy of the same exalted status as its NYC sibling.