Saturday, April 9, 2011

Gregg Allman: Low Country Blues (2011)

Okay, so I'll admit that I picked this up after seeing it in my local Starbucks. I didn't know Gregg was coming out with a new album until I saw it by the register, and then I said to myself, just like the Starbucks marketing team must have figured at least 5% of the over-40 white males who buy coffee there would say to themselves, "hey, a new Gregg Allman record in 2011 sounds like a good idea. I have to have it."

I'm a victim of marketing.

But I will note that I am an Allman Brothers fan from way back. ...Wait, I guess that doesn't really contradict my previous statement. Um.

Anyway. When did Gregg's voice change? I guess I haven't heard any of his work since the late '90s, but at that point his voice hadn't aged appreciably since his early '70s heyday. He had that same plush blues howl, deep-pile and bare-feet-enticing. But now his voice sounds thin and pinched, threadbare. He sounds a lot like Dickey Betts now, actually. Which is kind of ironic, since Betts was disowned by the Brothers over ten years ago.

I've listened to this record maybe a dozen times since getting it - that's incredibly heavy rotation for me. And I just can't get past the voice. Otherwise it's an excellent record, living up to the promise that cover photo made to me over the counter: it's a record as drenched in bluesy wisdom as that road is in rain. A fine assortment of familiar and not-so-familiar old songs (and one new original), expertly played by a collection of crack studio musicians, including former Clapton second banana Doyle Bramhall and the ubiquitous, omnipotent Dr. John, all produced by T-Bone Burnett in a style that sounds like he's channeling Daniel Lanois. Lots of fecund murk, in other words. The high point may be a bemused "I Can't Be Satisfied" with a new lilting hypnotic piano line.

And I'll even praise Gregg's singing: he's using his diminished instrument about as well as he can, I guess, singing with a plaintive simplicity that almost saves the record. I mean, he refuses to oversing, and that's incredibly refreshing these days. But at the same time, he just doesn't quite have the vocal power anymore to own these fairly busy arrangements. As artful as they are, he might have been better served by a plainer backing. He sounds a bit drowned out here, like a guest on his own solo album.

The result leaves me with a curious sadness. Kind of like the Allmans' career as a whole. They've made records that move me like nothing else can. But not many of them. Just enough to show you the potential that they otherwise busily fail to live up to.

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