Last week was a sad one for fans of classic rock, southern rock, and blues rock. During this time occurred what might be – though hopefully not – the final performance of The Allman Brothers Band, one of the very greats of rock history. The Allman Brothers Band, of course, formed in 1969, and they very quickly became the giants of the southern rock subgenre. Their live performances are legendary, so it should come as no surprise that their live album from 1971, At Fillmore East, went on to become one of their greatest successes and is still considered an essential classic today.
I first became a fan of The Allman Brothers Band when I was a small kid at summer camp, which probably brings to mind intense baseball games, cookouts with burgers and franks, and midnight raids on bunks. However, not being the sportiest spice on the block, I actually attended an arts camp, spending my days shooting short films on densely wooded pathways or singing along with someone’s acoustic guitar as the sun set over the treetops. One day my counselor, double tape deck cd-player boom box plugged in and resting on his shoulder, started playing what was undoubtedly one of the catchiest instrumental songs I’d ever heard. In fact, I’m not sure I’d ever heard a fully instrumental rock track quite like that before.
I stopped everything I was doing – barking commands at actors, probably – and was immediately seized by the moment. At the time, the extent of my musical listening was mostly limited to action movie soundtracks with the occasional Billy Joel ballad sprinkled in – horizons of rock may have been developing everywhere, but it was happening without my noticing. But this was a strange, foreign, exotic, hypnotic sound which had me entranced. What was this? Who actually played guitar like this? Amazing.
The cut was, of course, “Jessica,” the classic instrumental piece from 1973 that, in a live incarnation, would eventually go on to win Grammy glory over two decades later. Seeing The Allman Brothers Band play live at Jones Beach the next summer was one of the formative musical experiences of my young life, and paved the way for me to enjoy the blues music such as Joe Bonamassa’s that I do so much today.
And an appreciation for The Allman Brothers is something that Joe and I both share. In a recent interview with Esquire magazine, Joe listed what he considers to be 10 essential albums of the blues idiom and listed among them is – yep, you got it – At Fillmore East. Joe explains the deep parallel between what he is doing and what The Allman Brothers have also done. “I’m the same way as the Allmans,” he says. “I take old blues songs and redo them. And the Allmans were masters at that. They were masters at updating the Elmore James catalog and they also were writing some good original stuff. But At the Fillmore East, it really captured them at the height of their power.”
Both artists are masters of the reinterpretation of older blues tunes in new, exciting forms and variations that speak masterfully to their respective contemporary audiences, and they both have a deep, gripping catalog of their own originals. The connection between the two artists goes even further: recently, Rolling Stone magazine even suggested that Joe ought to join The Allman Brothers Band!
But what I also find interesting in the Esquire piece is Joe’s inclusion of the Allman Brothers on a list of blues records at all. As influenced as they were by the genre, I still have always thought of the band as a blues influenced rock band rather than a rock informed blues band. On the other hand, I primarily think of Joe as blues first infused with rock influence.
But maybe the line is somewhat blurred, and its difficult to tell for both artists, where, lies the boundary between rock and blues. I think that’s another thing that makes both artists so enticing – they really are genre-bending in the best way such that the division between rock and blues melts away into one seamless, beautiful sound.
I will miss The Allman Brothers Band if they are truly done playing, but at least we’ll always have the recordings, studio and live. And just as importantly, we have brilliant contemporary artists like Joe continuing the grand tradition of creating and playing fresh, phenomenal blues and rock.