The Brothers’ Madison Square Garden reunion show to celebrate the Allman Brothers Band’s 50th anniversary on Tuesday (March 10) was, in a word, superb. From the first note to the last in the four-plus-hour performance, the band played with urgency, intensity and creativity, breathing fire into one of rock’s greatest catalogs.
The group was centered around the five surviving members of the Allman Brothers’ last and longest lasting lineup, which played together from 2000 until their final show, at New York’s Beacon Theater, on Oct. 28, 2014: guitarists Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes, bassist Oteil Burbridge, percussionist Marc Quinones and drummer Jaimoe, the only founding member on stage. (Dickey Betts is the only other survivor; he has not played with the band since 2000 and was not in New York.)
The 2017 deaths of drummer Butch Trucks and organist/singer/namesake Gregg Allman left gaping holes, which were filled by Duane Trucks, Butch’s nephew and Derek’s brother; organist Reese Wynans; and pianist Chuck Leavell, the Rolling Stones’ musical director for the last 30 years who made his first mark with the Allman Brothers from 1973-76. Wynans is best known for his work with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble but played in the nascent Allman Brothers before Gregg arrived in Florida in 1969.
The eight musicians welcomed no other guests, with Leavell playing about half of each set. With virtually no interruptions even for guitar changes and few words said, they played marvelously well together, veering effortlessly into modern jazz, deep blues and Indian ragas before falling right back onto the riff every time. It was exactly the type of tight but loose musical focus that made the Allman Brothers the best, hardest hitting improvisational rock band of all time.
They started the night with the first two songs on the Allman Brothers’ 1969 debut, “Don’t Want You No More” and “It’s Not My Cross to Bear,” and stayed focused on the classic material from the band’s first four albums for much of the night. The first ’90s era song was Haynes’ “Soulshine” late in the first set, which kicked off with a gospel-y piano and organ duet. The first set ended with “Jessica,” with Leavell’s signature licks on a grand piano sending the Garden crowd into a frenzy. Quinones turned from his percussion kit to play the timpani, one of Butch Trucks’ go-to moves, and brought the first set to a thunderous close.
The second set started with the timpani again, as the familiar refrains of “Mountain Jam” rang across a dark stage. Like most of the night, the song was played at the original, faster tempo. Leavell sang a great version of “Blue Sky,” the only song Haynes did not sing and the only Betts vocal of the night. “Desdemona,” the only song they played from 2003’s Hittin’ the Note album, had a beautiful jazz interlude, and the third and last late-era song, “Nobody Left To Run With,” led into a set-ending “One Way Out.”
Coming back for the encores, Jaimoe took the microphone and said a few words of thanks, before they closed out with “Midnight Rider” and “Whipping Post.”
Throughout the night, the center focus was on Haynes and Trucks’ guitar partnership, which was in perfect sync, but really it was all about tight ensemble playing, with the musicians locked and loaded and playing all night as if their lives depended on it. It was impossible to know what to expect of this lineup, or the decision to play at MSG instead of the band’s familiar and cozier confines of the Beacon – and it was almost immediately impossible to doubt any of it.
The specter of COVID-19 hung over the show, with most attendees questioning their choice in the hours before, and word of a flood of cheap tickets online. But the arena was packed, and it was rocking. If this is the last concert we attend for a while, no one who was in the house is going to complain.
As Reese Wynans said after the show, “That felt historic and beautiful.”
Alan Paul is the author of One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band.