Weekly 40-Watt #7: The Allman Brothers' 'At Fillmore East'

Weekly 40-Watt is a feature where I listen to an album or band, new or old, for the first time and jot down some notes on it.

the original allman brothers band in 1969.

the original allman brothers band in 1969.

When you’re in school, they don’t teach you that The Allman Brothers rocked. There’s a bunch of rock’n’roll music that you hear on the radio or whatever, and you do inevitably hear “Jessica” and “Ramblin’ Man” and “Midnight Rider” at times. These songs do rock, but you don’t hear the extensive jamming that appears on the album that actually delivered the group into the mainstream.

While listening to the deluxe edition of At Fillmore East extensively over the past few months, I also began reading up on the tragic history of the band. The group released two records to minimal acclaim, but found through an insane touring schedule that they were much better on stage than in the studio at the time — this is what led to the group recording At Fillmore East live over the course of two nights on March 12 and 13, 1971. The original seven-song, 80-minute version of the album charted highly and brought the group the type of artistic and commercial breakthrough they needed to keep the project going.

Only seven months after recording the album, though, band leader Duane Allman died as a result of a motorcycle accident. Several members of the group struggled with a heroin addiction and drug problems would plague the band through the rest of their career in the ‘70s, as well as the ‘80s after a reunion. The purpose of this blog isn’t to summarize the history of the band, but I read so much that I didn’t know about a group that I thought I was at least mildly familiar with.

Many of the group’s biggest hits came well after Duane Allman’s death, but one reason the 1971 recordings are so treasured by Allman Brothers fans is that they came at a creative height while he was still with the group. One of the best guitarists ever, Allman’s influence is likely felt by folks who haven’t even listened to much Allman Brothers music — he composed and recorded portions of the signature riff on the Derek & The Dominoes song “Layla.” (The recording of that song has a fascinating history in and of itself. And, PS, while I was falling into a Wikipedia hole, I came across this insane entry about the airplane that bands like Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers and others chartered for touring during the mid-’70s.)

duane allman.

duane allman.

Allman’s presence here is a great reason to check out this album, but there are in effect two ways to check out The Allman Brothers. Their 16-track A Decade of Hits has the crucial stuff on it, although there are only a couple of live performances on that compilation. It’s an awesome greatest hits record, and listening to The Allman Brothers in the studio is great in its own right.

The other track to follow, in my relatively newbie opinion, is to check out the deluxe version of At Fillmore East. I chose this version because it’s got six more tracks than the original release, and at 2 hours and 14 minutes, it’s perfect to have on for extended working sessions or while doing several things around the apartment in succession. There’s also a considerably higher mountain to climb — the 37-track, 6-hour 1971 Fillmore East Recordings, released more recently in 2014, which includes five full shows by the band.

Anyway, that 13-track, 2-hours-and-change deluxe version of the album is what I’m writing about here. This has effectively been the only album I’ve listened to on weekends for the past several months and I’ve grown pretty familiar with it. This album is everything you want out of a jammy progressive rock act — the band’s Southern-tinged sound rocks when you want it to rock, but it’s also cooperative if you want it to fade away a bit and zone out. In listening as often as I have, I’ve identified a few points of the record that I consider to be some of my favorite moments.

The first four tracks on the album come in at 4:33 or less, and there’s no shortage of great playing on these shorter songs. Both “Statesboro Blues” and “Trouble No More” are great, but my favorite cut from the beginning of the record is “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’.” The guitar solo that dominates the latter half of the tracks absolutely screams at points, some of the best playing on the entire album.

Film of The Allman Brothers in concert — this in in 1970, not from the shows on the At Fillmore East recordings.

“Stormy Monday” is the first of the longer tracks at 8:48, and the slower tempo here is really nice. I think it’s emblematic of how tight the band is during these performances … going from some of the frenetic playing early on the album to a more laid back vibe like this and sounding great throughout. “One Way Out” is another shorter highlight that leads into the best portion of the record — the double-shot of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and “You Don’t Love Me.”

“Reed” stands at 13 minutes, while “You Don’t Love Me” goes over 19. There are still two longer songs to come on the album, but these are my favorite jams. “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” is an incredible movement, a journey through inspired playing that feels so perfect and correct every time I listen. It’s the type of track, though, where so much is improvisational that I’m very interested in listening to the other versions of it that appear on the full recordings from these shows. Meanwhile, “You Don’t Love Me” has some of the best interplay with the crowd on this live album. There’s a fun building bit that begins around 9 minutes where you can really tell how the energy of the audience is fueling the band — it’s no wonder the group felt like they needed to release a live record at this stage in their careers. It’s one of the most fun moments on the release.

“Mountain Jam” is the last song I want to mention. This is a monstrous 33-minute jam during which each member of the band takes a solo. My favorite part of it is a drum duet which begins in earnest around the 13 minute mark and goes for a solid five and a half minutes before being joined by an incredible bass portion. Some of Duane Allman’s best playing on the record follows the bass solo, around the 22/23 minute mark and going for several minutes, with a particularly mind-numbing segment shortly after the 24-minute mark.

At Fillmore East is overwhelming in its incredible excellence, but a very easy album to listen to. After plenty of listening, I still feel like I haven’t quite gotten my fill of it; I do fully plan on exploring more of the band’s live albums soon, though, once I graduate from this one. What a thing.