TBT – Allman Brothers’ “At Fillmore East” Still the Gold Standard for Live Recordings
Editor’s Note: With the Allman Brothers Band in the midst of performing their final live shows ever at the Beacon Theatre in New York City, we think this is the perfect time to look back at an album that has set the standard for what a live album should be.
The Allman Brothers have always been an enigma in the music world. Their music incorporates elements of rock, blues, country, soul, and jazz seamlessly, and has been wooing audiences for over 45 years.
The band was founded in Jacksonville, Florida in 1969 by Duane Allman, Greg Allman, Dicky Betts, Berry Oakley, Butch Trucks, and Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson. By the time 1971 rolled around, the band had already been through more than most bands go through in a whole career. They had issued The Allman Brothers Band in 1969, and Idlewild South in 1970 to only mild success. Determined to control where they chose to live, record, and perform, they wanted to stay in the South.
After a while it became apparent that their live shows were where the magic happened. Through word of mouth, their reputation as a live act began to spread and audiences continued to grow. Fortunes slowly improved, with the band starting to make a little more money. To really kick things into gear, it was decided that they needed to make a live album.
That live album, At Fillmore East, was recorded on three nights, March 11th – March 13th, 1971 by Tom Dowd. Dowd had worked with the band on their second album, Idlewild South in 1970. The band was paid $1250 per night for these performances. Dowd used a 16 track machine to record the band, who had an unusual lineup with two lead guitarists and two drummers. There were some initial missteps where the band added a sax and a harmonica player causing bleed over the tracks rendering them useless. This was soon remedied after Dowd talked with Duane and the additional players did not join the band onstage thereafter.
There are several reasons this album has stood the test of time so magnificently. First, there is the sound. Dowd and company did an amazing job setting up and recording these shows. His main concern was to “properly capture the dynamics.” After each show, Dowd and the band would adjourn to Atlantic Studios in the city and review the performances. When we listen to this album today, most of us would agree that the mix is perfect. There is life there. There’s ambience and warmth and heart there, captured perfectly.
Then of course, there are the songs themselves. When originally issued in July of 1971 on the Capricorn label, At Fillmore East consisted of two discs. Side one featured Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues,” “Done Somebody Wrong” (Clarence Lewis, Bobby Robinson, Elmore James), and an almost nine minute version of T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday.” Side two boasted a 19 minute version of Willie Cobbs’ “You Don’t Love Me.” Side three contained the band’s own composition, “Hot ‘Lanta,” and the 13 minute journey of blues and jazz perfection, “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” by Dicky Betts. Side four offered up a 23 minute version of Gregg Allman’s tour-de-force, “Whipping Post.”
What really sets these performances apart is the playing. The band is tight enough, and they trust each other enough to let each member go their own way, yet still stay cohesive as a unit, bringing the listener back home. Jaimoe, Trucks, and Oakley keep time and a great groove, cajoling each other, but never losing the beat. Betts and Duane Allman weave in and out of each other’s lines seamlessly, and while their individual voices are unique, they come together like perfect dance partners. Gregg Allman’s keyboards add just the right touch of color, and his vocals are powerful and full of life’s experiences.
It is hard to believe that it has been 43 years since At Fillmore East was first issued. Even now, all these years later, every time we put this on, it is still an hour and sixteen minutes of heaven.