Thursday, February 3, 2011

Rediscovering His Home: Gregg Allman’s Low Country Blues

Any assessment of a musician, in whole or in part, can only be made with the hard facts. On Low Country Blues, the new release by Gregg Allman, we have the musical evidence of a great and unadorned player. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, Allman’s new record features the weathered, but soulful voice of a long, often turbulent life, too.

Low Country Blues is not a bumpin’ and grindin’ record. It’s pure, plain and simple while featuring Allman’s inspired vocals backed by the “Burnett Band” featuring Jay Bellerose on drums and percussion, Dennis Crouch on acoustic bass, Doyle Bramhall II on electric guitar; all rounded out by Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John, on piano. The result is a balanced mix with different acoustic colours and shadings. It’s a style Burnett has applied to some of the most significant albums of the past few years such as, Raising Sand by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss and Elvis Costello’s under-recognized, National Ransom, released last year. And like those records, which married the innate talent of the artists to their love for genuine American sounds, Burnett has successfully done the same with Gregg Allman. Low Country Blues is the perfect music mix featuring Burnett’s “sound” and Allman’s desire to re-discover the home of his life-long journey found in the blues.

Gregg Allman at the organ
It’s been 14 years since Allman has released a solo album. But you wouldn’t know it on the opening track, “Floating Bridge” by Sleepy John Estes. It’s the perfect start to the record as the story of the blind bluesman from Tennessee who, poor of sight, fell into a river and was saved by a stranger. Clearly, the blues means the same thing to Gregg Allman because it’s often in the blues that a musician, who’s metaphorically lost his way, finds the truth about himself. Low Country Blues is a cross-section of the genre that features re-imagined versions of such classics as “I Can’t Be Satisfied” by Muddy Waters and the ever constant “Rollin’ Stone,”now in the public domain. The latter is still fresh in its new version arranged by Allman, Burnett and Dr. John. This closing number also reflects the steady pulse of the whole album. Unfortunately, that can’t be said for everything here.

Some tracks sound deliberately sluggish such as “Checking on My Baby” by Otis Rush. It’s a great blues song, but I don’t feel any forward motion from the band. The performance sounds restricted and reined-in, as it were. “Little by Little” has the fastest tempo on the whole album and is particularly strong because Allman is featured on Hammond B-3 organ. He likes that comfort zone, often seen when he once fronted the Allman Brothers Band, which results in a stronger vocal performance. The Amos Milburn song “ Tears, Tears, Tears” features a good horn arrangement, as does the B.B. King standard “Please Accept My Love,” but the vocals are too self-conscious to my ear.

Greg Allman with T-Bone Burnett
But what the album may lack in some of the performances, it makes up for in the buoyant “Just Another Rider,” “Blind Man” and “Devil Got My Woman.” These songs are successful because of Allman’s familiarity with the material and what their meaning holds for him. He sings these standards with just the right balance of angst and inner pain.

Recording with T-Bone Burnett is as much about the history of the music as it is about the artist performing it. That brand, as it were, is evident on most of the albums he’s produced over the years, including his own. It’s not that everything he touches turns to gold, witness the rather disappointing Elton John/Leon Russell collaboration last year, but this time his magic works with Gregg Allman.

The liner notes are graced with several photographs of Allman standing among, what appears to be, the magnolia trees of the South. But inside is a portrait of the Allman sitting, bare-armed, in a high backed chair. On his right forearm is a large tattoo of a treble clef. To quote Joni Mitchell, “blue songs are like tattoos.” For Gregg Allman whose love affair with the blues started when he was 10-years-old, Low Country Blues reveals his love with passion, commitment and soul.

John Corcelli is a musician, actor, writer and theatre director.

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