LOOK AT the album cover. Hard core normalcy at its best. Kids and wives, dogs and roadies, one big happy family. Southerners wear their superstardom well. None of your dissipated entourages, nine inch platforms, catered backstage parties, washed out groupies. Nossir. These are jus' folks. Who'd know that these very same Allman Brothers helped draw 600,000 hippies to a race track for a weekend of myth recreation? Or think it odd that the band hadn't achieved said superstardom until two members, one an original brother, had met violent deaths in similar circumstances, at locations within blocks of each other? You can't tell me we're not all fascinated by death.
When Duane Allman died I'd have been content for the band to break up, so I could hang on to the three albums I had and use them as a pedestal to put him on. But they decided to stay together because he'd have wanted it that way. With Eat a Peach, he might just as well have been alive; he was on all the live cuts, and the three studio pieces were hesitant and highly evocative of his style. I don't mind telling you I was worried.
But Brothers and Sisters has the same downhome feel that Alex Taylor, for example, has always been able to promote. Musically, it fulfills Richie Furay's proverb that "Patience is a Virtue." By not replacing Duane immediately, the Allmans insured musical growth, a growth reinforced by the masterstroke of replacing him with a piano player, instead of a guitarist. Moreover, Dickie Betts' own talent is showcased and it clear that he carries the band. (He had not only played in the shadow of Duane's prodigious talent, but his less real instrumental charisma as well.) The result is a music that is consistently excellent, without being repetitious.
MEANING that Brothers and Sisters is an album of nuances, and nuances don't bear up well under the critic's eye. Best to mention highlights; the contrapuntal guitar with one Les Dudek on "Ramblin' Man; the back porch, juiced-on-Saturday-night feel of "Pony Boy," especially in Betts' dobro playing and the hambone finale featuring Butch Trucks and Dickie; the two bar trade offs between Dickie's slide and piano man Chuck Leavell on "Wasted Words;" Dickie's chording on both "Southbound" and "Ramblin Man;" Gregg's vocals alternating between wounded innocence and catatonia throughout.
Betts' genius taken for granted, the real star of this album is piano man Chuck Leavell. Taken from the bank of Allman running buddy Alex Taylor, Leavell gives the band depth, and an added soloist. His playing, whether it's out front, or with the ensemble, is fluent and varied throughout. His chording underneath Gregg's vocal on "Southbound" focuses the rhythm section, and keeps time on the twelve bar bridge. His solo shows off his Otis Spann influences, rolling chords and full notes, all done in the middle ranges to avoid the piano's occasionally fragile sound.
The emerging pattern is one of divergence, a pattern well represented on Brothers and Sisters. "Jelly, Jelly" represents the band's dedication to blues. In the forties the definitive version was done by Billy Eckstine, and Chicago bands have done it with varying degrees of obscenity; it's a thank you note from the Allman Brothers. Their version is that Chicago style, thick organ chords from Gregg, and a truly painful vocal. His solo is straight-forward, with full chords from Dickie as support. Leavell's piano is taken directly from any number of Otis Spann sides, powerful, full-bodied, an emphasis on percussive chords. Dickie's guitar playing is steeped in blues; his sense of the idiom was stronger than Duane's. Here his tone and attack are faithful, and he constructs a solo that intensifies, peaking with a slashing set of lines before moving into a final chorus, all done in a classic urban blues tradition. The only problem is that the song is faded just as Dickie enters that peak.
JESSICA" represents the other end of the Allman spectrum. Dickie Betts writes mostly uptempo, good-natured, primarily instrumental tunes. This one will remind anyone of "Revival," just as "Ramblin Man" echoes "Blue Sky." It's likely that Dickie plays better uptempo than any other way. His lines tend towards the lyrical anyway, and "Jessica's" structure allows him those spiralling notes, and quick runs. Leavell's piano solo is similar, with an emphasis on runs and single notes. The structure is simple, with the theme stated in unison at the beginning and end of the piece. The song is directly descended from Peach's "Les Brers in A Minor," which was unique for its Latin influence. In fact, joining the end of "Jessica" to the beginning of "Les Brers" would make an interesting radio exercise.
It's tempting to suggest that the new Allman Band is better than ever. It was my original reaction, but comparisons are not fair. Besides, the band changed personnel precisely in order to avoid them. But I think it's fair to say that the new album marks a change in direction, a small change, but significant nonetheless. Brothers and Sisters shows the bands diverging tendencies, its allegiances, and its dedication to group progress. It could be their best album yet.