When a career reaches a peak like the one that Gregg Allman’s has, with Lifetime Achievement and Living Legend appointments coming to him from the highest levels of the music industry, not to mention a farewell, at least for the moment, to his tenure with The Allman Brothers Band after 45 years, it may seem more likely to find the golden-haired veteran casting a line into a lazy Georgia river than up on-stage commanding one of his best performances. Yet, that’s just what he has done with the double-disc set, Gregg Allman Live: Back to Macon, GA. Dug-in and crackling, controlled and combustible, Allman and his eight-piece band churn and burn through a song selection linking Brothers material with solo work that not only reaffirms his place, but extends it to a new plateau.
The renewable energy of his ensemble is exhilarating right from the opening lines of “Statesboro Blues,” with the trio of horns rifling staccato notes in harmony under guitarist Scott Sharrard’s bottleneck response. If Allman is the king of this deck, Sharrard is his ace. As musical director, Sharrard’s drawn a map that provides lanes wide enough for the players to stretch a number beyond its studio counterpart, but securely avoids being Allman Brothers lite. Instead, the horns, collectively and individually, drive a torrid train of soul with stops in Memphis blues and New Orleans funk. What would be guitar solos, as on a rippling-good “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’,” are instead snapping saxophone breaks. Not to say Sharrard doesn’t peel off his fair share of fretboard thrills; perhaps his best attribute- melding the roles of Dickey Betts and Duane Allman with his jazz-inflected own for a style that is both conversant and transformative.
So iconic across the territory he’s covered, Allman’s voice virtually has its own flag. Whether the growling, howling bluesman on “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” or the poignant singer-songwriter on his classic “Melissa” and a reading of old buddy Jackson Browne’s “These Days,” or Ray Charles acolyte on “Brightest Smile in Town,” Allman here sounds invigorated, inspired, and centered. He does, when introducing the Charles song, refer to it as being from a solo album, as though reminding everyone of his output outside of the Brothers. Notable, too, that he chose the Grand Opera House in Macon- the backyard for years of the original incarnation of the Allman Brothers Band- instead of, say, the big-city lights of New York, which has always been like a second home for him. Further, in traditional familial spirit, Allman’s son Devon guests on guitar for a jolting “One Way Out” that follows a re-imagined “Whipping Post,” tying the legacy of the seminal group and its next generation to Allman’s continued and present excellence as a solo artist, rather than as a nostalgia trip.
This is a lock-tight band, a legendary voice, and an historical repertoire in an equally-historic locale. There is, as well, an accompanying DVD of the evening, documenting on film what was apparent to every ear; it was one corker of a show. It all comes together in an appearance and an album that pulls out Gregg Allman’s superlative talent not only at this mile-marker, but on par with any on his nearly five-decade journey.