Allman Brothers’ ‘At Fillmore East’ reaches new heights

By Dave Thompson

IF YOU OWN ONLY ONE Allman Brothers album, it is frequently said, then make it “At Fillmore East.” Their third release and first concert set, this lurid work hit stores in 1971 – mere months after the shows themselves – and no matter what America had heard about the Allmans in the past, this was the album that crystallized the vision.

ABB-boxsetcoverExcept it’s not just one album, is it? Even at the time, “At Fillmore East” itself could never contain every highlight recorded that weekend in New York City. Just seven of the performances would be spread across that album; two others – “Trouble No More” and that behemoth “Mountain Jam” would be set aside to expand the Allmans’ next album, “Eat A Peach,” into a “Wheels Of Fire”-esque studio/live hybrid that would both consolidate their reputation and broaden their appeal even further. One more, Gregg’s “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’,” made its entrance on the “Duane Allman Anthology,” that so-delicately compiled tribute released following his death in a motorcycle accident during a break in the “Eat A Peach” sessions.

And that wasn’t it, either. There was the remastered CD to replace the worn vinyl. There was the deluxe CD a decade ago that wrapped up all that, plus another Elmore James stomper, “One Way Out,” recorded during the band’s next visit to that palace of dreams, on June 27, 1971, as they headlined the last concert at the Fillmore East. And now there’s “The 1971 Fillmore East Recordings” (Universal), available in your choice of three Blu-ray discs, six CDs or four LPs – all of which offer yet another take on the Fillmore tapes, and maybe, at last, we have finally reached the one Allman Brothers album that you need to own. Because there’s not much more that could be added.

The vinyl seriously truncates the best of the box, so it’s down to whether you go that particular route. Cased to match last year’s “Brothers and Sisters” four-disc, super deluxe box, the 5.1 Blu-ray and the CDs are the true full package. What a table of contents they offer. Discs one and two comprise the two shows from March 12, with all but four tracks previously unreleased. Disc three is the first show from March 13; discs four and five feature the second show, with another two unreleased cuts. And disc six leaps ahead three months, to the Allmans’ share of the Fillmore’s final night, June 27, 1971. This wasn’t a part of the original show, so think of it as an altogether unexpected bonus.

AllmanBrothersKirkWest1Long before they took the Fillmore stage, the Allmans knew what they wanted to achieve. No simple “set-it-up and bang-it-out” warts-’n-all live recording. They planned the show as diligently as other bands would prepare for a studio recording. Neither were they intending to follow the safe route that so many other live recordings journey down – the greatest hits and favorite bits that merely overlay the oldies with the sound of a roaring crowd. They’d never even recorded the vast majority of the material they intended performing. But anyone who’d seen the band in concert already knew the peaks to which the live show carried bluesman Will McTell’s pulsing shuffle “Statesboro Blues,” Elmore James’ “Done Somebody Wrong” and T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday.”

It was little more than a year since the Allmans played there for the first time, third on the bill behind Blood Sweat and Tears and Appaloosa in December 1969. They’d returned three times since then, climbing the order and swelling their audience each time. Now they were headliners for the first time with six shows (two per night, at 8 p.m. and 11:30 p.m.) over March 11-13, 1971, and producer Tom Dowd knew that history would be made. “They were at their absolute peak, the playing just flowed.”

The opening night was not recorded – or, if it was, nobody’s turned up the tapes yet. From the mobile studio parked outside the Fillmore, Dowd recorded both the hour-long early shows and the more open-ended late ones on the Friday and Saturday nights (March 12-13) alone, but still he wound up with 20 reels of truly incendiary tape from which to carve the ultimate album.

The bulk of the album was carved from the final show, a flawless performance that gained additional tautness and energy after someone phoned in a bomb threat to the venue, and the concert was placed on hold while the Fillmore was thoroughly searched. The delay ensured that the gig went on until 6 in the morning (hence its consumption of two CDs), but the marathon was worth every minute. All these years and all these revisits later, a mere eight minutes of music (“Stateside Blues” and “One Way Out”) were left on the archive shelf – the rest of the set has seen daylight already. But don’t let that put you off. You’ve never heard it like this.

Like the vinyl, which more or less adhered to the actual set, the shows open gently, at least compared to what was in store later. An exquisite “Statesboro Blues” showcasing Duane’s breathtaking slide guitar eases the audience in. Slowly, however, the mood grows tighter, across Gregg Allman’s vocal showcase “Trouble No More” and a dynamic “Don’t Keep Me Wondering,” each luxuriously stretching a little further out. And then the band blasts into orbit, as Dickey Betts’ “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” stretches past the 13-minute mark, and what Tom Dowd later called “the greatest fusion I’ve ever heard” slams into view.

Unleashed, the Allmans let everything fly. A turbulent “Stormy Monday” – surely the definitive rendering of the old blues chestnut; an epic “You Don’t Love Me,” effortlessly nudging the 20-minute boogie bar; and then a triumphant “Hot ‘Lanta,” teeth-bared and claws unsheathed tearing into a second night “Whipping Post” that was itself whipped into a frenzy, a side-long battleground that closed the original double album with an intensity that had never before been captured on wax.

In reality, however, the concert had only just begun to climax. Listen carefully to the vinyl, and you can hear another titan rising up from the closing bars of “Whipping Post,” the megalithic “Mountain Jam” (titled for a favorite Donovan song, “There is A Mountain”). Thirty-three minutes of inspired thunder and still there’s more, as a “Drunken Hearted Boy” comes out with Elvin Bishop, to send the audience blinking into the Manhattan early morning.

This is not the first box set to delve deep into the shows that surround a sainted live album and finally let us in on the moments we missed. Humble Pie’s Fillmore shows, expanded across four discs; Rory Gallagher’s Irish tour, spreading out eight; and King Crimson’s USA, in a box of 20-plus, have all done the same job recently. “The 1971 Fillmore East Recordings” is certainly a welcome addition to the company, though, not only serving up a solid six hours of flawless music, but also allowing us to play the collector’s favorite game, playing “beat the boss” with producer Dowd’s original track selection and deciding for ourselves whether or not he selected the best moments.

For the most part, he did, with the jury only really humming and hawing over his decision to take two different takes of the epic “You Don’t Love Me” and merge them into one for the LP. But even more than all of that, here at last is the chance to sit down with one of the – I’ll repeat that, THE – greatest live albums in history, a vinyl extravaganza that became a CD monster and is now a Blu-ray behemoth. You don’t just hear it, but utterly relive it.

Now, if only they’d do the same thing for “Wipe the Windows, Check the Oil, Dollar Gas.” 

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