Back then, Brothers and Sisters was a notable purchase: a new record, still on the charts. What led to this profligate expenditure? Perhaps the infectious boogie of the radio single “Rambling Man” demanded more frequent playing than AM radio offered; doubtless hearing the instrumental “Jessica” on 3XY’s Sunday night Album Show fanned desire. A late Christmas present to self, maybe?
Or, with the prospect of university creeping like an autumn chill under the bright door of summer, soul-soothing was required. Music was (and is) the balm of choice.
Less likely, but still plausible, is the explanation that, having completed a summer of work in two different jobs*, I felt wealthy enough to spring for a full-price record. Although, given that it was probably purchased from Max Rose Electronics, there may have been a staff discount of some kind.
Did I steal it? Conceivable, but unlikely. I don’t think the part-time job at Bentleigh Sewing and Records** had begun then.
One thing is certain, the fifth album by The Allman Brothers Band (released August 1973) was on high rotation in at least one suburban Melbourne bedroom by early ’74.
Brothers and Sisters was written and recorded during a difficult time for the band. Although a year had passed since brother Duane had died in a motorcycle accident, the impact reverberated still. Bass player Berry Oakley, in particular, could not shift the relentless grief arising from Allman Senior’s death; his alcohol consumption only accentuated the emotional ruin he wandered in. When he crashed his own bike just three blocks from where his friend died, there was a sense of an unstoppable tragedy having played itself out in Macon, Georgia.
Brother Gregg clearly wanted to be busy. The band had toured extensively and released the studio/live hybrid album Eat A Peach. Allman Junior began recording his first solo album using principally session musicians. One of these was keyboard player Chuck Leavell, who also contributed to Brothers and Sisters. There was a real sense that Laid Back was taking Gregg away from the Allman Brothers Band recording, and this created tension—particularly with Richard Betts (the Allman’s other guitarist/songwriter). Indeed, Gregg himself described his first solo project as ‘a mistress’. The younger brother’s alcohol use didn’t help band relations. Stories relate how Gregg’s presentation of new song, “Queen of Hearts” to the band was so affected by his drunkenness that the band dismissed the song outright.
As a result of Allman’s absence, creative control defaulted to Dicky Betts, with the result that Brothers and Sisters has a country feel in parts. Yet the filtering of Betts background through the blues-soul-rock prism of the band is exactly what makes Brothers and Sisters one of the best and most successful Southern rock albums of all time.
Brothers and Sisters opens with a bluesy bustle on “Wasted words”. Gregg is in fine voice, Leavell’s piano pumps and the slide guitar of Richard Betts glints like sunlight off a river. The country boogie of “Rambling man” (with Betts singing and added guitar from Les Dudek) rattles along like a branch-line freight train, powered by Butch Trucks sharp drumming; the final dual guitar section is a delight.
“Come and go blues” demonstrates beautifully how Southern rock melded blues and country influences with rock sensibilities. It starts slowly, building relentlessly so that you’ll be nodding along by the final chorus. “Jelly Jelly”, on the other hand, takes a slow blues and delivers it’s lovelorn lyrics in a soulful sway; a different kind of ‘South’ permeates its organ-based groove.
There are just three songs on the second side of Brothers and Sisters. Opener “Southbound” charges homewards with an upbeat shuffle and all the momentum of a weary traveller bursting into a jog as he nears home. Great Gregg vocal, fabulous Betts guitar solo, brilliant piano comping from Leavell. If I ever compile The Best Driving Album Ever^, this track will feature prominently.
Confession: I love “Jessica”. I’ve never met her yet her melodic curves and rolling harmonies beguiled me from the first strummed guitar chords, through the middle-section piano solo to the lead guitar(s) returning for a passionate closing reunion. Full of light and shade, sparks and interplay, “Jessica” is an almost-perfect example of a rock instrumental you can sing along to.
The contrast with the album’s final song could not be more marked. “Pony boy” is a back-to-basics blues both paying homage to and re-invigorating the Delta sound. Betts’ acoustic slide guitar is superb and the stomping piano and percussion accompaniment is mischievously lively. Story goes that Betts’ uncle would travel by horse and cart when he went out drinking ‘cos the horse knew the way home.
Talking of drinking, please raise a glass to Gregg Allman—singer, songwriter, organist, guitarist, Southern rock legend—who died on 27th May 2017 aged 69.
Although this piece features Brothers and Sisters, most of the Allman Brothers (and Gregg’s) 70s albums have received a spin over the past few days. Of the solo Gregg Allman material, my favourite is Laid Back (enhanced by a Mati Klarwein cover painting) though Playing Up A Storm is good too.^^
If you have ever considered checking out Allman Brothers music, Brothers and Sisters is an excellent place to start. However the first two albums also come highly recommended. The 1969 self-titled debut is as good as anything from the period while Idlewild South (1970) is perhaps even a shade better. Both were re-issued on vinyl in 2016.
The Allman Brothers Band were a hard-working live band, a fact clearly demonstrated in their catalogue. There are several live albums from the time and more extracted from the archives. But for the sound of a storming blues-rock band live in the seventies, you cannot go past At Fillmore East. Having said that, I also love the live/studio Eat A Peach, the deluxe CD edition of which adds a whole disc from the final Fillmore East concert, making it outstanding value. That live bonus disc is spinning as I finish writing this post.
There is a pull to focus on the deaths—Duane, Berry, now Gregg—but I’ll go with the playing: committed, soaring, sometimes indulgent… always passionate.
* After the bookshop adventure, a more satisfactory and long-lasting relationship was established with Max Rose and his small emporium of records and electrical goods. Typing Max’s name into the search field will produce a rack of stories.
** A brief intro to this remarkable shop appeared at the end of the post “Stitching together rock, jazz and funk”.
^ Either when CDs become fashionable again, or when home recording and car playing of vinyl records is commonplace.
^^ I couldn’t bring myself to spin the one with Cher.