Near the top of my ridiculously long list of favorite albums is The Allman Brothers Band’s At Fillmore East live double set, recorded and originally released in 1971. It’s an album that I still play fairly regularly 43 years (gulp!) after its release.
The Allmans had earlier released two studio albums that failed to catch a fire. This 2 LP, 7 song set is the album that put them over the top. There’s something about that 23 minute live version of Whipping Post that still excites me. Plus, it’s possible to listen to this album differently each time – focusing not just on Duane Allman’s astonishing guitar work but listening instead to Berry Oakley’s melodic bass lines or the interplay between drummers Jai Johanny Johanson and Butch Trucks.
In 1992, this was reissued on CD as The Fillmore Concerts with 5 additional tracks. The 2003 “Deluxe Edition” release changed the running order slightly and added a 13th track.
This week, we finally get what I’ve been 40 years for, a 6 disc boxed set called The 1971 Fillmore East Recordings. The box features 5 complete Allman Brothers Band concerts – early and late shows from March 12 and 13, 1971, as well as the Allman’s complete June 27th show the same year – the last show performed at the closing of the fabled Fillmore East. While some of these tracks eventually turned up on Eat a Peach and various compilations, 23 of the 37 tracks here are previously unreleased. (Plus the original release of You Don’t Love Me was pieced together from two separate versions; here we get both original performances in their entirety.)
One can argue that the box is still not completely complete. They also played two sets on March 11th that are not included here. That’s because on that night they added a reportedly under-rehearsed and out-of-tune horn section. Producer Tom Dowd thought it sounded horrible and basically ordered the band to drop them for the following nights. We may be better off not hearing that. Or perhaps in another ten years there will be yet another release of these shows that reinstates that material as well.
At six hours and six minutes, there’s a lot of material to go through here, and I haven’t listened to all six discs yet. From what I’ve heard, I have no doubt that they picked the “right” versions for the original release. But the other performances ain’t exactly chopped liver either.
And that’s why this set is such an important document of a major band. They might have played similar set lists from show to show, but there’s a lot of variation in the performances. The Allmans were not just an incredibly tight unit but really into improvisation in ways rarely heard outside of jazz in that era. So you can listen to them as they come to forks in the road and take different turns each time. Rather than just having the 7 tracks we’ve known all these years, hearing these different versions side by side provides a truer picture of what made the original Allman Brothers Band so unique.
The set was produced by Bill Levenson – the man who helped invent the retrospective boxed set back in 1988 when he put together the Eric Clapton Crossroads boxed set. (I guess I should mention that I knew Bill back in the 80s and 90s and we remain friends today via Facebook.)
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Speaking of Eric Clapton, he’s got a new album out, and it’s the first Eric Clapton album in decades that I can wholeheartedly recommend. It’s credited to Eric Clapton & Friends and titled The Breeze – An Appreciation of J.J. Cale.
It’s no secret that Cale was a huge influence on Clapton. Clapton basically changed his career direction and musical style completely after being exposed to Cale’s music. Cale never sold a lot of records and has said that it was the royalties from Clapton’s covers of his songs After Midnight and Cocaine, among others, that kept him going.
J.J. Cale died in 2013 and Clapton decided to record this tribute to his idol. (Clapton said in a recent interview that he no longer writes new songs, he finds it too difficult and time consuming.) A decision was made to not try to reinterpret any of the material but to stay relatively close to the original versions. To his credit, the album doesn’t include any of the Cale songs that Clapton previously had hits with (but apparently there were a lot more songs recorded and there might be a “volume 2,” much like Clapton’s Robert Johnson albums a decade ago).
The “& Friends” is a pretty stellar list. Tom Petty, Mark Knopfler, John Mayer, Willie Nelson, Don White, Derek Trucks, Albert Lee, David Lindley, Doyle Bramhall II and quite a few others. I think the most successful tracks on the album come from Mark Knopfler (Someday) and Willie Nelson (Songbird). Cale was clearly also a major influence for Knopfler and Nelson just effortlessly wears that Tulsa groove like a comfortable old pair of boots. Mayer does better than I would have expected but Tom Petty sounds uncomfortable.
To be honest, I’m a fan of Clapton from the days with the Yardbirds, Mayall, Cream, Blind Faith, Delaney & Bonnie, Derek & the Dominoes. Clapton’s first solo album (the self-titled album produced by Delaney Bramlett) was the only one of his solo albums that I ever really liked. I’ve always loved him as a musician but mostly I could take or leave the studio albums.
I think this may be the first Clapton album in at least 20 years that I’ve played more than twice and would recommend to anyone else. And that might be more a tribute to the amazing songs that J.J. Cale wrote than anything else.