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Kings of the South

The rise and influence of Stephen Stills and Duane Allman

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"Spirits are moving me, larger voices calling" -- Stephen Stills' lyrics from "Southern Cross" quite sum up my abiding relationship to the South, and the essence of the region for me: my ancestors, the earth, animist spirit, plainspoken rebels and, above all, the music. The genesis of my love affair with the sounds of the Southeast: Stephen Stills, born in Texas, and the late great Howard Duane Allman, born in Tennessee, were both schooled in Florida -- good Southern boys who transcended the societal and cultural limitations of their time to become master bluesmen. So, it's nice to see them both enjoy a renaissance of sorts this season -- Stills with his solo tour barnstorming the East Coast; Allman resurrected in Randy Poe's Skydog: The Duane Allman Story (Backbeat Books).

Having sadly missed Stephen Stills' two-night stand at the Neighborhood Theatre, it was good to catch up with him at Manhattan's Society for Ethical Culture on May 14. On that date in 1607, the nascent South ensnared half of my family when the English sailed up "New World" waters, so I was determined to bear witness for the ancestors via Stills' protest songs. The Society's Concert Hall was beside what passes for the woods in Manhattan and its vaguely ecclesiastical setting, complete with pews and flowers on the altars, made it a suitable place to testify. There were sound issues, but Stills, undeterred, amusingly switched guitars between virtually every song, launching his set after Texan opener Jay Boy Adams with the famed white Gretsch Falcon and "Helplessly Hoping."

Stills' ensuing set deftly mixed songs spanning his career amidst anti-Bush barbs -- although sadly low on the Buffalo Springfield catalog ("Bluebird" and "Four Days Gone" would've been most welcome). What I can now recollect of the set: "Change Partners," "Treetop Flyer," "Daylight Again," "Find the Cost of Freedom," "Johnny's Garden," "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," the Cajun paean "Acadienne," "For What it's Worth," the aforementioned "Southern Cross" and "Woodstock," "Love the One You're With" (re-arranged d'apres Luther Vandross ... but still doesn't top the Isleys' cover), "Dark Star" ... and what I was waiting for (which left most of the audience nonplussed) -- "Isn't It About Time"! It fucking rocked the rafters (with vital organ assistance from Lubbock's Todd Caldwell), and I shook my literal feathers in honor of the ancestors.

Stills remains my favorite blues singer, and judging by the persistent complexity of his songs blending blues, bluegrass, R&B, classical and the Spanish tinge by way of Cuba and Central America, he deserves far stronger praise as a pioneer of world music and "Latinizing" southern rock -- as much as New Orleanian Jelly Roll Morton and the fine Carlotan musicians of today.

Meanwhile, Duane Allman was largely responsible for another prime strain of southern syncretism, which begat the much-maligned genre of southern rock. If Stills has yet to be fully recuperated into that lineage, it's also shocking that it took 35 years for a biography on Allman, the genre's "Freebird" martyr and patron saint, to appear. I'd once hoped to undertake such a project, yet Poe's Skydog will doubtless remain the go-to tome for some time.

Endorsed by southern luminaries past and present such as Bobby Whitlock and Patterson Hood, Muscle Shoals native son Poe lets ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons have the first groovy words and then sets off meticulously tracing the stages of Duane Allman's R&B and Opry-steeped creative development. If the Skydog remains a beloved cipher with little beyond his mischievous spirit, self-destructive will and musical discipline evident, this is a problem inherent to rock biography, particularly when the meteor subject has long since gone to glory.

Anyone familiar with the story of the Allman Brothers and/or old enough to have experienced some of it in real time may still find value in Skydog for its focused attention on Allman's sessions, as well as the inclusion of a discography and section about his guitars. Above all -- although commentary from latter-day Brers like Derek Trucks is conspicuously absent -- there are interesting revelations about the Brothers' distinctive dual lead style originating with Eddie Hinton and Paul Hornsby in fellow traveler band the 5 Men-Its and the essential tenure of Kiowa guitar hero Jesse Ed Davis in Taj Mahal's late 1960s band (doing "Statesboro Blues") as the catalyst for Allman's warm, mesmerizing slide playing.

Such quotes from Allman's peers and collaborators like Hornsby and David Hood make the man's creative essence come alive. Speaking powerful truth, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's John McEuen told Poe: "It was obvious that this Duane Allman guy was either transported from a different age or he was going to be a leading commentator on the guitar for our age. When they came out here [L.A.], it was in that nascent stage -- but it became obvious that he was a guitar player of unusual abilities."

Even now, on the rare occasions I hit the road, I always hear the music of Stills and the Allmans (spinning or holographic) -- in the grass at the side of the road, in the trees, in filtered sunlight, racing along the white lines and aloft in air. It is grace.

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