Any time a beloved, venerated rock 'n' roll band loses a key member (or members), there will always be holdouts among the fan base -- skeptics who feel the band should not have soldiered on without the founding members.
We've seen it over and over again -- the resistance to The Band without Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel; to The Who without Keith Moon and John Entwistle; to Little Feat without Lowell George; to The Dead without Jerry Garcia ...
But it's hard to imagine a still-vital group that has experienced more losses, for one reason or another, than The Allman Brothers Band -- which continued to carry the torch by hitting the road, year after year -- not only keeping the music alive, but finding new possibilities in classic, 35-year-old songs.
"Yeah, I think there was a lot of wondering among fans if the band was going to be able to carry on after losing some key people over the years, but it's admirable that the group has been able to do that," says guitarist Warren Haynes, who has served two stints in the Allmans -- from 1989-97 and from 2001 to the present.
In the Allmans' case, two losses came early enough in the band's career -- slide guitarist Duane Allman in 1971 and bassist Berry Oakley in 1972 -- that most current Allmans fans are more familiar (at least in terms of live performances) with later incarnations than with the original version.
But even the later version had to go through some growing pains, as several key members came and went between 1997 and 2001. But now, six years after the last line-up change, the Allman Brothers are cruising along, comfortably settled in what might be called the band's fourth chapter.
"I think we're lucky to have discovered the kind of chemistry we've attained," says Haynes, who grew up in Asheville. "And I think this band's legacy demands that this version of the band be constantly striving to break new ground. This band has never reached the point of being a nostalgia act, and would never want that."
The last personnel change was an acrimonious one, and still smarts among fans of guitarist Dickey Betts, who was ousted from the group in 2000 after conflicts with cofounders Gregg Allman and Butch Trucks -- allegedly over Betts' alcohol intake.
Indeed, following the deaths of Duane Allman and Oakley, Betts' lyrical but mercurial guitar work had become the centerpiece of the band's sound -- more so, even, than Gregg Allman's vocals. And he was the band's most adventurous composer after the band reunited in 1989, writing or co-writing such high-flying improvisational showcases as "Kind of Bird," "Nobody Knows," "True Gravity," "Back Where It All Begins" and "No One To Run With" -- perhaps the best tunes of the group's '90s-era output
Betts's ouster left the group with two "new guys" on guitar -- Derek Trucks (Butch's nephew) and Jimmy Herring. And this is where it get complicated. The "two-new-guy" guitar line-up was also due to the departure of Haynes in 1997. From 1989-'97, Haynes had held down the slide-guitar chair once occupied by Duane Allman, and during that time was regularly called upon to perform the thankless task of trying to replicate -- or at least recapture -- the luminous sounds of one of the greatest slide guitarists in rock history. Haynes left in '97 to devote full time to Gov't Mule.
But the Allmans ship stabilized when Haynes returned in 2001 ("replacing" Herring), bringing some much-needed ballast back to the band after a woozy four-year period of revolving-door personnel changes.
But Haynes and Trucks have now been building a guitar simpatico for six years -- and some say the band sounds better than ever. Such proclamations, of course, are viewed as heretical among those who remember Duane's ground-breaking slide-guitar brilliance and Dickey's thrilling, improvisational high-wire-acts. But, keep in mind, between his two stints in the band, Haynes has now been an Allman Brothers' guitarist for a total of 14 years -- while Duane Allman had the tragic misfortune to die after only three years with the band.
"Derek and I have known each other for a long time -- about 16 years now, and we've played on each other's records," reflects Haynes. "I think our chemistry is a pretty natural one, and one that has developed exponentially." One adjustment they had to make is that, after Haynes left in '97 and Trucks eventually came on board to join Betts, Trucks took on all of the slide-guitar parts that Haynes had previously been playing.
So when Haynes came back in '01, "we discovered that, as far as Allmans music was concerned, we were both coming from the same direction," says Haynes. "For each of us, during our respective stints in the band, our job had been to play off of Dickey. So we had to re-invent our roles. So now, we just split it up. If we do 'Statesboro Blues' two nights in a row, I'll play slide guitar one night and Derek will play it the next."
As a result of losing Betts and regaining Haynes, the Allmans sound is now probably bluesier overall, while the jazz and Western-swing elements (two of Betts's fortes) are not as prominent. Indeed, the group's 2003 studio disc, Hittin' the Note, was dominated by hard-blues moaners and mid-tempo R&B shuffles.
Over the last several years, as the latest incarnations of the Dead have been off the road, the Allmans have picked up a bit of the Dead's itinerant following -- those rock heads who like to follow a band from town to town and catch shows on multiple nights. As a result, the band has borrowed a page from the Dead playbook in that their set list dramatically alters from night to night.
"When we played the Beacon in March, over the course of 15 shows, we probably did more than 90 songs," says Haynes. "And our set list now includes a lot of covers -- like old blues tunes by Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, as well as some unexpected covers, like 'Into the Mystic' or 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.'
"We definitely like to mix it up, to keep things interesting -- not just for the fans, but for us as well."
The Allman Brothers Band with Drive By Truckers, JJ Grey, and Mofro will perform starting at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 10 at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre. Tickets are $19 - $43.50.