Starting in 2003, a partnership between The Allman Brothers Band and the “Instant Live” series gave fans the opportunity to bring home a copy of the show immediately following its conclusion. Subsequently, there’s no shortage of live recordings of the group, especially from the latter period of the band’s 45-year history. What this new concert souvenir opportunity also provided for the Brothers, consciously, or otherwise, was even more incentive to make each and every performance unique and of the highest possible quality.
15 years after that summer run that took the group to 26 cities and provided a proof-of-concept for the Instant Live idea, here is a four-disc set gathering 36 songs without a single repeat from several of those magnificent nights. Blessed with the guiding hands of guitarist Warren Haynes, band manager Bert Holman, producer Bill Levenson, and ABB historical writer John Lynskey, it is a carefully curated, thoughtfully sequenced, tremendously rewarding collection. Playing like one continuous dream of a concert, Cream of the Crop 2003 is not only some of the finest performances of that tour, but some of the best work of this particular Allman Brothers Band lineup.
2003 was a turning-point time for the Brothers, supporting its first new studio release in nearly a decade, Hittin’ the Note, adding inspired new material into their reliable repertoire of chestnuts and war horses. Guitarists Haynes and relative newcomer Derek Trucks were boiling over night after night; their indubitable, full-bodied tones and effortless phrases of notes ricocheting off of the sublime bass playing of Oteil Burbridge, backed by the cannon-fire of the three-headed-monster percussion section of Jaimoe, Marc Quinones, and the late Butch Trucks. The late Gregg Allman, to whom the album is dedicated, is invigorated and uncaged, letting his inimitable voice wade as deeply in the blues-soaked laments of Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and Sonny Boy Williamson as it does into the band’s own well of ageless classics.
There are sparkling guest appearances from sax men Karl Denson and Branford Marsalis-the former on “Good Morning Little School Girl,” and the latter on a double shot of “Dreams” and “Whipping Post.” Plus, the old-soul vocals of Susan Tedeschi on Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” But, it’s the relentless gallop of the Brothers, the ambitious, confident musicianship, the flammable, celebrated interplay between the seven that fills every track with moments of have-to-hear-that-again. The (very) extended takes on “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” (with its “Les Brers in A Minor” reference) and “Mountain Jam,” (also with sly teases, of “Afro Blue” and “Third Stone From the Sun”) clock-in over 30 minutes, giving the JaMaBu percussion trio free-range, and Burbridge, as well, an expansive playground for blissed-out bass.
This incarnation of the Brothers would end up being the longest-running lineup when the curtain lowered on their 2014 finale. 11 years earlier, this was a unit still very fresh to one another, rapidly evolving the telepathy that made an Allman Brothers Band concert a near-religious experience for so many. As a suitably representative statement from this sizzling summer, Cream of the Crop 2003 is a certified grade-A collection.