Where Does The Road Go?: At Fillmore East Turns 50

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The Allman Brothers Band – At Fillmore East

Released July 6th, 1971 on Capricorn Records

Produced by Tom Dowd

Peaked at #13 U.S.

When the Allman Brothers Band convened in New York City’s Fillmore East venue to record their third (and first live) album, Duane Allman had seven months to live. He died in a motorcycle accident on October 29th, 1971; he lived long enough to see his band achieve a commercial and critical breakthrough and then checked out.

Their first two albums didn’t really go anywhere. Both of them charted, but not at such a sustained level that the band was making any real money on them. The first two years of the band’s existence should be familiar to any group that has struggled to get a good thing going: endless small venue tour dates, shifty promoters, cramped space in a Ford Econoline van, too little money and too many drugs. Tensions ran high and the rock ‘n’ roll insanity was always present; their manager at one point stabbed and killed a promoter who refused to part with the money. Said manager, the legendary Twiggs Lyndon, pleaded temporary insanity and was sent to a mental hospital in Buffalo; he missed the recording of At Fillmore East, the subsequent breakthrough, and Duane Allman’s death, but managed to get out and return to business in time for the band’s fourth record, 1972’s Eat A Peach.

Eventually, the band made the connection between the lackluster sales of their studio records and the ever-increasing crowds who came out to see them, driven by hot word-of-mouth. A live album, they thought, that will solve all of our problems. They were right, as it turned out.

Recorded in March of 1971 over two dates, At Fillmore East represents the early Allman Brothers Band at their peak. The group has always been shy of taking on the ‘jam band’ label even though they spawned a legion of bands who quite readily adopt the moniker. Nonetheless the band recorded here is very much in a jamming mood; if nothing else, the version of “Whipping Post” here, clocking in at well over twenty minutes, is the epitome of The Jam. The first LP is dedicated to blues covers, done in that slick, sweaty southern style that made the band such a blast of humid summer air. The second LP is all Allman Brothers, though, and their white-hot tear through their material, uh, whips.

At lot of contemporary critics compared them to the Grateful Dead, which seems a bit odd in the wake of 50 years of subsequent history but makes some sense once you delve into it. Both bands were compulsive touring units whose studio records were almost like an afterthought (although by 1971 the Dead had much better albums – that one-two punch of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty being two of the best albums ever made). Both bands functioned more like collective parties than what we think of as ‘bands’ today. Both bands loved psychedelic drugs and had unfortunate tendencies toward opiates. Both bands jammed endlessly in concert and loved to jam on the blues especially. The difference, in the end, is regional. The Dead were a California band, and the Allman Brothers Band were very much a product of the south – physically from Jacksonville, but spiritually from Georgia. In a sense they were like flip sides of the same Weird American coin. Christgau’s comment on the two bands is somewhat enlightening as well. To paraphrase, he commented that while Duane Allman and Dickie Betts together were the equal of Jerry Garcia, Garcia took you somewhere new everytime he unleashed the jam. Garica knew that the road went somewhere; there was a destination at the end. For the Allmans, the road was the point, not the destination. He meant it as a dig of sorts, but I think it reveals the strengths of both bands separately.

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