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Review: Duane Allman, “Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective”

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Skydog - Duane Allman Retrospective

“I ain’t wastin’ time no more,” Gregg Allman sang following the death of his brother Duane at the age of 24 in October 1971, “’cause time goes by like pouring rain…and much faster things/You don’t need no gypsy to tell you why/You can’t let one precious day slip by.”  Surveying the remarkable new box set Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective (Rounder 11661-9137-2), it’s evident that Duane Allman’s too few days certainly were precious, filled with soulful sounds that transcended genre tags like rock, blues, pop and R&B.  It’s sobering to realize that the seven-disc box’s consistently surprising, dynamic and gripping licks were recorded in just six short years, between 1965 and 1971, and only three of its 129 tracks were recorded under the name of “Duane Allman.”  Rather, as a leader of the Allman Brothers Band and anonymous session man for everybody from Lulu to Aretha Franklin, Duane Allman generously placed his gifts as a musician in the service of others.

Skydog tells the story of Howard Duane Allman’s transformation from journeyman guitarist in a number of bands to session pro and ultimately, rock star.  (“Skydog” was his nickname.)  It’s artfully crafted in chronological fashion by recording date, including all of the major touchstones in Allman’s career as well as a number of tracks that add color, context and a further understanding of the man’s art.  All told, 33 of its tracks are new to CD or previously unreleased altogether, and each disc as so expertly curated by producers Bill Levenson and Duane’s daughter Galadrielle Allman creates a distinct chapter of a tragically too-short story.

Dive in, after the jump!

The Hour Glass-  Nothing But TearsFrom “No Name” to Making a Name

The earliest surprise on Skydog is the unassumingly-titled “No Name Instrumental” recorded in the spring of 1965 by The Escorts, a four-piece, Beatles-styled Florida combo featuring Duane on lead guitar and Gregg on rhythm guitar and lead vocals.  In the box set sequence, it falls between youthfully ramshackle, simply-recorded stabs at “Turn On Your Love Light” and “What’d I Say,” hardly remarkable stuff though exactly the kind of tracks an all-inclusive box set like this should include.  Yet “No Name Instrumental” makes quite an impression, written by Duane and his brother Gregg.  Its three bluesy minutes are somewhat akin to slowed-down surf music, atmospheric and transporting.  Though “What’d I Say” is filled with abandon and it’s easy to see why the band was selected as a local opener for The Beach Boys, “No Name Instrumental” is the one track that shows the germs of a remarkable talent.  All of The Escorts’ tracks are previously unreleased.

These early discs chronicle Duane and Gregg’s time in The Allman Joys and The Hour Glass, two bands that hardly hinted at what would come with The Allman Brothers Band.  Despite their punning name, The Allman Joys were a strong garage outfit, seriously influenced by The Yardbirds.  The sheer attack of Gregg’s “Gotta Get Away” contrasts with the band’s straightforward cover of “Shapes of Things.”  Yet on that Yardbirds staple, Duane captures the psychedelia of Jeff Beck’s original solo while putting his own stamp on it.  Skydog also includes the band’s recordings of The Yardbirds’ “Lost Woman” and “Mister, You’re a Better Man Than I,” and this brace of Yardbirds covers show Duane’s imagination already blossoming, if still in restrained form.   (Three out of six Allman Joys songs make their debut.)  Duane’s rooting in the blues is also apparent from the band’s renditions of “Spoonful” and “Crossroads.”

Duane Allman took a musical left turn via The Hour Glass, a psychedelic soul-rock band that offered little hint of the southern rock sound to come.  Though the band’s two Liberty albums feature their share of (eminently enjoyable) pop-ish material, Skydog has focused on a cross-section of their most soulful tunes.  Gregg (organ/lead vocals) and Duane ply their talents on smoldering R&B (Curtis Mayfield’s “I’ve Been Trying”) and an early Jackson Browne anthem (“Cast Off All My Fears”).  And while The Allman Brothers Band may have invented southern rock, The Hour Glass proved its mastery of southern soul with the horn-flecked “Nothing But Tears” and Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn’s strong “Power of Love.”  As sequenced here, these songs show flashes of Allman’s growing confidence with his instrument.  He enhances what might otherwise be straightforward pop-soul arrangements with searing, edgy blasts of raw and pure honesty.  (One curiosity is The Hour Glass’ jazzy instrumental version of “Norwegian Wood” with Duane on the electric sitar!)  Tensions came to a boil when Liberty rejected a Muscle Shoals session that cast of all pop aspirations; the fruits of this session (previously released on other anthologies but reprised here) yielded more blues-rock foreshadowing of the later Allman Brothers style.   Gregg’s original “Been Gone Too Long” is more polished than what would be considered “southern rock,” but the sound is definitely in its birthing stages.

Then came the pivotal moment when The Allman Brothers hooked up with Butch Trucks and his band 31st of February.  Duane’s tone is still in psychedelic mode on Tim Rose and Ronnie Dobson’s “Morning Dew,” but the band also recorded Gregg’s future staple “Melissa.”  This recording made history, capturing Duane’s slide guitar for the first time.  Hearing it on Skydog, it’s both familiar and utterly chill-inducing.  Yet soon Gregg and Duane went their separate ways, leading to the next major chapter of his life as chronicled in the box set.

Wilson Pickett - Hey JudeSession Man

Skydog could be considered a southern soul primer, as it unfolds the story of Duane Allman the session guitarist.  Much like two other legendary guitarists, Jimmy Page and Glen Campbell, Duane’s work as a sideman is just as much a part of the legend as his top-billed work.  Duane most frequently was called on to provide guitar at Rick Hall’s Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, cutting records under the auspices of Hall and Tom Dowd.  He lent his incendiary style to sessions in Memphis at Ardent Studios, in New York with producers Arif Mardin and Jerry Wexler, and at Memphis’ American Studios with Chips Moman.  Most of these recordings were for the Atlantic label, but Duane’s presence could also be felt on tracks from Goldwax and Chess during this pivotal 1968-1969 period.  This largely unsung work is, in many ways, at the heart and soul of this box, proving just how deep Allman’s musical roots ran and painting a complete picture that Allman Brothers Band tracks alone couldn’t.

These songs naturally ran the gamut.  Three tracks included from Ardent-recorded sessions with The Bleus recall Box Tops-esque blue-eyed soul.   The vocal on “Milk and Honey” verges on bubblegum, but the band is slightly harder-edged on “Leavin’ Lisa” and equally adept with orchestral balladry on Wayne Carson Thompson’s “Julianna’s Gone.”  The constant on all three tracks is the subtle but effective playing by Allman.  His contributions are even more pronounced, though, when paired with a powerhouse vocalist.

Duane proved such a good match with the Wicked Wilson Pickett that he was contracted to Fame following the fall 1968 session chronicled on the box’s second CD.  As subtle as he could be with other vocalists, Allman completely erupted with Pickett, as if everything else was mere prelude.  It’s been reported that Duane was the one to suggest Pickett try his hand at “Hey Jude,” and it’s not at all hard to believe.  As Pickett’s vocal riff turns into a master class in from-the-gut wailing, Allman’s guitar matches each yelp with searing filigrees that would have raised the hairs on Paul McCartney’s neck.  “Hey Jude,” a million-selling hit from the Pickett/Allman team, isn’t the only oft-recorded song given that extra special dose of energy from the guitarist.

On Arthur Conley’s brashly rollicking “Ob-La-Di,” Duane’s fills toughen up the reggae groove.  On Aretha Franklin’s immortal “The Weight,” Duane ascends to the status of a duet partner with the Queen and her Sweet Inspirations (including Dee Dee Warwick and Cissy Houston).   Duane contributed to saxophonist King Curtis’ swinging soul stew, too, returning to the electric sitar on “Games People Play.”  For Clarence Carter’s rendition of “Light My Fire,” Allman’s presence is much more subtle, with the overall arrangement modeled after the Jose Feliciano hit single.  The soulfulness of his playing is both at odds with the MOR stylings and completely complementary, bringing out the smoke and fire in Carter’s voice and elevating the song to another level.  If Allman found the day-in, day-out session grind stultifying, one certainly can’t tell from the music he created.

Lesser-known tracks are aired from Willie Walker and The Lovelies, and a rare treat is a trio of songs from The Soul Survivors, a long way from their home base of Philadelphia!  “Get Down on Saturday,” from Mickey Newbury’s pen, is an atypically dark, evocative ballad for the “Expressway to Your Heart” group.  Allman’s guitar shines on all of these tracks, no doubt, but it’s more impressive that it doesn’t steal focus from these legendary vocalists as well as Allman’s bandmates.  He knew about the band dynamic, clearly, but rather than “competing” with horn sections and smoking organs, he deftly integrated himself into the proceedings and brought out the best in them, too.

Duane Allman was still too fiercely independent, though, to be content playing others’ music as his only gig, and he handed in his notice at Fame Studios in early 1969, paving the way for The Allman Brothers Band to form when Gregg returned east from Los Angeles.  Yet more session work followed for this truly collaborative artist even as the brothers and their new unit (Dickey Betts on lead guitar, Berry Oakley on bass, Butch Trucks on drums, Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson on drums) relocated to Macon, Georgia (home of the Capricorn label), rehearsing and gigging.

The Allman Brothers Band LPTrouble No More

In the year leading up to the November 1969 release of The Allman Brothers Band, Duane soaked up many of the influences that would coalesce into the band’s hybrid rock-soul-country-blues-jazz sound.  Most interestingly, Skydog reveals Duane surrounding himself with other top-flight axemen who likely challenged him to play even more fiercely.  Mike Bloomfield joined Duane on a session for Barry Goldberg, and Bloomfield produced sessions with Duane for Otis Rush, a legendary guitarist in his own right from the West Side Chicago blues style.

Also early in 1969, Allman recorded eight songs as a solo artist for producer Rick Hall, three of which (all previously issued) are included on the set’s third disc.  He was joined by a band including former Hour Glass members Johnny Sandlin on drums and Paul Hornsby on piano as well as Berry Oakley on bass.  “Goin’ Down Slow” builds to a fever pitch, with plenty of room for Duane’s flashy soloing on the track.  The talking blues “No Money Down” is contrasted by the rollicking “Happily Married Man.”  Although Duane wasn’t the strongest vocalist, the song shows off his sense of humor and also showcases Hornsby’s piano.

Duane joined Boz Scaggs in Muscle Shoals on Dobro and slide for the sessions that yielded his 1969 self-titled album on Atlantic.  Scaggs’ record made critics take notice of Allman, and of the four tracks included here, the volcanic, thirteen-minute tour de force “Loan Me a Dime” best foreshadows the jam direction the Allman Brothers Band would take.  The entirety of the Allmans’ eponymous debut – ironically recorded in New York! – has been included on Skydog.  Gregg may have written the intense (and intensely personal) “It’s Not My Cross to Bear,” “Whipping Post” and “Black Hearted Woman,”  but these scorching performances fuse heavy blues with a catholic vision likely resulting from Duane’s tremendous versatility.  From the pop sessions to the soul to the psychedelic fretwork of The Hour Glass, all of Duane’s disparate experience seems to have played a role in this fiery, cosmic collection of songs.  He doesn’t just lend color to the tracks, but lends them their muscular character.  The brotherly bonds between Gregg and Duane saw them attuned to the same groundbreaking wavelength.  It’s an intriguing choice to include a full album that the target audience of this box set would likely already have owned for years, but it’s hard to argue with such a bold, important record.  The Allman Brothers Band is as tough, funky and soulful today as it was nearly 45 years ago.

LLulu - New Routesiving on the Open Road

Duane hardly stayed stagnant even during the burgeoning early days of the Allman Brothers Band.  Just when The Allman Brothers Band Story (already chronicled on a box set) threatens to overwhelm the Duane Allman Story, Skydog fleshes out Duane’s prolific 1969-1970 on Discs Four through Six.  Tracks have been selected from artists including Ronnie Hawkins, Johnny Jenkins, Doris Duke, Eric Quincy Tate, John Hammond, Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, as well as two of the most deliciously unexpected singers here, British pop queen Lulu and musical earth mother Laura Nyro.

This brace of tracks beginning on Disc Four (1969) shows Duane at his most expressively fresh, from Hawkins’ revitalized rockabilly to Lulu’s brassy R&B-pop.  (Both Hawkins and Lulu were recorded at Muscle Shoals.)  On Lulu’s recording of The Bee Gees’ loopy “Marley Purt Drive” (“With fifteen kids and a family on the skids/I got to go for a Sunday drive”), Allman supports barrelhouse piano and woozy showbiz brass; he cuts loose on her version of Delaney Bramlett and Mac Davis’ “Dirty Old Man.”  These underrated sessions feature some of the finest, most inspired singing the former Marie McDonald McLaughlin Lawrie ever committed to vinyl, including a “Mr. Bojangles” in which Duane’s fluid tones seem to echo each mournful lyric.  In all, four tracks have been included from Lulu’s New Routes album.  Four more have been selected from blues guitarist Johnny Jenkins’ adventurous 1970 album Ton-Ton Macoute, including the clattering, gospel-infused “Walk on Gilded Splinters.”  Berry Oakley, Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson all joined Duane to support Macon native Jenkins, whose style of playing also proved influential to Jimi Hendrix.

The final three discs cover just a few precious months at a time, though giant strides were being taken particularly with regard to the freight train that was The Allman Brothers Band.  Disc Five (1969-1970) spotlights the meteoric live ascent of the band along with choice cuts from artists such as Tate, Nyro, Bobby Brown, Ella Lance, Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, and of course, Derek and the Dominos.

Of the live material, the swaggering, thunderous reinvention of “Hoochie Coochie Man” from February 1970 at the Fillmore East is hard to top, though two songs have been well-chosen from the group’s Ludlow Garage gig in April of that year.  The live sequence is “interrupted” by Gregg’s “Midnight Rider” from sophomore studio album Idlewild South.  Though more subdued than the live tracks, the momentum is sustained by this compellingly moody, even cinematic nugget of a song.

Laura Nyro’s “Beads of Sweat” finds Duane a harmonious partner for Nyro’s gospel piano chords as the haunting meditation cedes to a full-blown rave-up.  And “raving up” is an accurate description of much of Duane’s work with the loose unit known as Delaney and Bonnie and Friends.  D&B planted the seeds that would blossom when Allman joined Derek and the Dominos in fall 1970 at Miami’s Criteria Studios.  The Dominos’ Bobby Whitlock played on the first D&B big-band session included on Skydog, from April 1970; later sessions following the Dominos’ recordings included Carl Radle and Jim Gordon among the “Friends” of Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett.  One D&B track, “Gift of Love,” is a previously unreleased treat circa November 1970, and two more unreleased, acoustic D&B songs hail from a 1971 radio broadcast.  A later WPLJ-FM program with The Allman Brothers Band from August finds Duane paying affectionate homage to the recently-murdered King Curtis and plugging the sax great’s Fillmore West album before a titanic “You Don’t Love Me” incorporating Curtis’ “Soul Serenade.”

Five tracks on Skydog are reprised from the Dominos sessions (including, of course, “Layla,” with its indelible, everybody-knows-it riff created by Duane), and they represent another turning point here.  The furious twin-guitar attack of Allman and Eric Clapton remains unmatched in the rock realm, yet Allman still was functioning as a sideman to Clapton, Radle, Gordon and Whitlock, and in the process, elevating that art to one of the highest plateaus it has seen before or since.

Allman Brothers - Fillmore EastSpirit in the Dark

The biggest surprise here to Allman newbies may be the fact that Duane continued to make music with a variety of artists even during the Allman Brothers Band’s ascendancy.  From the sixth disc (1970-1971) comes further collaborations with “The Hawk,” Ronnie Hawkins, plus Sam Samudio, a.k.a. Sam the Sham, as well as jazz flautist Herbie Mann and most pivotally, Grateful Dead.  On the Hawkins and Samudio tracks, Duane was joined by The Dixie Flyers, Criteria Studios’ house band led by Jim Dickinson on acoustic guitar and piano.  This aggregation clearly spurred him onto imaginative heights much as the Muscle Shoals team had.

The Allman Brothers Band’s near-mythic New York performance of March 13, 1971, captured on the At Fillmore East album, is represented by “Statesboro Blues” and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” both of which capture the spine-tingling, jazz-influenced freedom the band took in a live setting.   A visit from Duane to the Grateful Dead show at the Fillmore East on April 26 resulted in a guest appearance.  The smoking version of “Sugar Magnolia” played that night is officially released here for the very first time.  As when Duane joined with Eric Clapton, sparks flew when Duane had a friendly rival like Jerry Garcia trading licks with him.  (Duane also played that evening on “It Hurts Me, Too.”)

Duane got his opportunity to play jazz (to a fashion) when he joined Herbie Mann for the album Push Push.  Much as Allman had fused blues, soul and rock into a singular whole, Mann pioneered world music with Afro-Cuban and Brazilian-inspired records.  The one-time bebop flautist was as comfortable and fluent in funk, R&B and dance settings as with “pure” jazz.  Mann’s own “Push Push,” Aretha Franklin’s rousing “Spirit in the Dark” and Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” all feature Duane locked into tight, pulsating grooves alongside such luminaries as David Spinozza, Richard Tee, Bernard Purdue and Ralph McDonald.  And don’t forget to compare this performance of “What’d I Say,” in which Duane’s guitar musically spars with Mann’s flute, to the 1965 take by The Escorts!

For all the exultant music contained on the first six discs, it all inevitably builds to the seventh and final disc, capturing the last few months of Skydog’s life beginning in July 1971.  More than half of this disc is devoted to Allman Brothers Band recordings including tracks released posthumously on 1972’s Eat a Peach and more blazing live performances.  The final song on which Duane is represented as a session player, “Please Be with Me” from the underrated southern band Cowboy, has him on Dobro for a quiet, acoustic country ballad.

The box set’s concluding track, Eat a Peach’s “Little Martha,” was recorded the month of Allman’s death.  With just the acoustic guitars of Duane and Dickey Betts, it’s graceful and lyrical. In the context of the box set it’s a moment of tender reflection on all that’s come before, capping Duane’s career not with a firestorm, but with understated, plaintive beauty.

Skydog ContentsBlue Sky

Skydog goes further than any single past package in revealing the essence of Duane Allman.  His daughter Galadrielle was just two when he perished.  She writes in the enclosed booklet, “It is in the music in these seven discs where Duane can finally be found.”  Indeed, his soul seems bared for all to hear.  Duane wasn’t chiefly a songwriter, lead singer or producer (although had he taken up jazz, he might have been recognized as a composer, due to the creativity of his improvisations which brimmed with melody and invention).  He was a musician, first and foremost, one of a rare breed with the ability to tap into the core of a song’s feeling and translate that into notes which supported and transformed a song’s melody and arrangement.  One couldn’t imagine a more definitive assessment of his legacy than the one here.  Skydog makes a fine – no, an essential – companion to the landmark 1989 Allman Brothers Band box set Dreams, also produced by the tireless Bill Levenson.  It’s also rare in that it chronicles the artist’s work as a bandleader with equal weight given to his tenure as a sideman; such anthologies are more often associated with those jazz musicians to whom Allman felt such a kinship.

Though relatively diminutive in size at 11 x 5 ½”, the 13-years-in-the-making Skydog is elegantly packaged.  It’s designed after a guitar case, with a flip-top lid and gold interior lining.  The cover artwork depicts Duane’s actual case.  But the real treasure is the music, so swag has been kept to a minimum: just a Duane Allman Special guitar pick and a sticker.  Each disc is housed in an individual paper sleeve, and the attention to detail is such that the paper stock used for the sleeves resembles the stock used for guitar strings.  The lavish 72-page booklet features numerous photos as well as wonderful essays from Scott Schinder and Galadrielle Allman as well as full discographical and personnel information.  Paul Blakemore has handled remastering.  [Longtime fans will note that this release handily supplants the original double-vinyl set Duane Allman: An Anthology. Each of that collection’s nineteen tracks appears to be included in the new box. Where An Anthology Vol. 2 is concerned, every track from that 2-CD set appears to be present with the exception of The Allman Brothers Band’s “Leave My Blues at Home” and “Done Somebody Wrong.”)

It’s difficult to say that Duane Allman was cut down at his peak; after all, who knows what further sonic journeys he would have embarked on had he lived?  Chances are he would have pushed the envelope even further.  Yet he left behind an unparalleled body of work important to anyone who’s ever picked up a guitar and anyone who’s ever enjoyed the sound of that instrument.  Skydog vividly captures that thrilling body of work.  The lyrics to Dickey Betts’ “Blue Sky,” heard in two versions here, come to mind: “Walk along the river, sweet lullaby…it just keeps on flowing.”  The music of Duane Allman will, indeed, always flow, sweetly and resonantly.

You can order Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective here!

7 Responses

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  1. Nicely done, Joe. I’ve been a fan of Duane’s amazing music for over 40 years, and your review has helped me to decide that I definitely need to get this.


    March 19, 2013 at 10:48

  2. Joe, excellent writing yet again. Looking forward to listening and hopefully buying the set someday when the price comes down.

    Mark I.

    March 19, 2013 at 12:43

    • I hope it’s still around come the holiday season… This goes to the top of my Wish List!


      March 19, 2013 at 22:35

  3. He also played on “Beat It On Down The Line” along with “Sugar Magnolia” and “Hurt’s Me Too” at that Grateful Dead show.
    There is another famous bootleg where he joins the Dead along with Peter Green and Danny Kirwin for an epic “Dark Star” jam. Seek and ye shall find.
    One other has him, Dickie and Berry along with Gregg trading verses with Pigpen on “Lovelight”.
    It’s all out there and relatively easy to find.

    If you want this buy it now. 10,000 copies only.
    It’s sold out pretty much everywhere but Amazon.


    March 20, 2013 at 15:50

  4. Johnny Jenkins was Otis Redding’s mentor. Otis was his valet and occasional rhythm guitarist, and some of his first recordings were cut at the end of a Jenkins session. Jenkins is one of those forgotten legends.

    Too much stuff I already have, for a $100+ box set. I think I may have some of these tracks ten times over already, between vinyl and other compilations and boxes. Should have been all rarities and session-man material-no casual fan is going to buy this cause of the price. Just another way the record companies rip off the fan/collector!

    mark schlesinger

    March 20, 2013 at 22:01

  5. To anyone interested, this set is a limited-edition and there are 10,000 copies available. If you want it, get it quick, because when the original run is gone, there won’t be another pressing.


    March 27, 2013 at 09:16

    • Why do they do this? If there’s an original pressing of only 10,000 and it sells out quickly–print another 10,000. I don’t understand a record company refusing money. But the collectors won’t…


      June 5, 2013 at 13:10

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