Heritage and ancestry are double-edged swords. They can bring name recognition, but also the burden of expectation. You can be nurtured by the reflected glory from a famous parent – or you can struggle to emerge from the shadow they cast.
It might not always be easy, being Devon Allman or Duane Betts. Right now though, may well be among the better times, because Down To The River is a pretty damn good album.
The seeds of The Allman Betts Band were sewn in the coming together of Allman and Betts for the tribute concert the former organised for his late father, Greg, and were then cultivated when Betts went on the road as support act to the Devon Allman Project. New material began to emerge from their association, with additional input from songwriter Stoll Vaughn. And having recruited a few other honchos to the band, they installed themselves in Muscle Shoals Sound Studios for a week, with producer Matt Ross-Spang and a couple of guests, and proceeded to come up with Down To The River. Easy, really. And did I mention that it’s pretty damn good?
|The Allman Betts Band - clearly bassist Berry Duane Oakley has a different stylist|
The album is suspended from two impressively tall tent poles, in the form of ‘Autumn Breeze’, the fifth of the nine tracks and the centrepiece, and ‘Long Gone’, which is a fittingly strong note on which to close matters. ‘Autumn Breeze’ is a suitably evocative title for a slowish affair that begins with guitars and drums circling, looking for an opening, before gathering up strands of acoustic, electric and slide guitars, over swells of organ from Peter Levin (one of the guests), push-pull bass from Berry Duane Oakley (son of Allman Brothers Band bassist Berry Oakley), and minimalist drums from John Lum. The result is a patiently developed tapestry that’s the backdrop for the best of Duane Betts’ vocals on the album, and which is first lit up by a quintessentially Allman Brothers-like guitar harmony passage, and then further embroidered by a very good extended solo, I’m guessing also from Betts. ‘Long Gone’ is a similarly slow song, producing an archetypal Southern rock epic of a finale. With both Allman and Betts contributing vocals, it has an air of Drive-By Truckers as it progresses in dynamic fashion, halting at an acoustic guitar passage before setting off again en route to another quality guitar solo with Celtic hints probably rooted in the mists of time, and occasional shooting stars of slide crossing its horizon.
But if those songs are the twin peaks, there are other pleasures too. Opener ‘All Night’ makes for a strong calling card, with a ringing riff that gets embroidered in a higher pitch, over strutting beat and bubbling bass, before a declining motif leads into a classically sweet Southern solo before mounting drums and guitars crash through. There’s more of those ‘Jessica’-like guitar harmonies on both ‘Shining’ and ‘Try’, and very nicely done they are too, and the former is also peppered by slide fills to good effect, leading to another solo of quality. In fact slide guitar decorates much of the album in style, and if it’s not the work of either Allman or Betts then the credit is due to fellow guitarist Johnny Stachela, recruited from the Devon Allman Project and by all accounts a slide player of note.
The title track works well too, acoustic guitar and bobbing bass creating a laid back vibe, accented by chiming chords again over restrained drums, with good vocal delivery from Allman and a measured, sparkling solo from one or other of the guitar pickers, ahead of nicely judged long fade. And ‘Southern Accents’ brings some variety with its piano foundation, courtesy of the guesting Chuck Leavell, its simplicity and more of those slide accents, which are more satisfying than the lyric – “Young ‘uns call it country, Yankees call it dumb/ I got my own way of talking, where everything is done/ With a Southern accent/ Where I come from.” Sentimental schmaltz is the phrase that springs to mind.
But such transgressions are few, and if ‘Melodies Are Memories’ is borderline country filler I’ll forgive that too. Down To The River may simply be new growth from an old vine, but on the whole it is, like I said, pretty damn good.
The Allman Betts Band are touring Europe until 3 August.
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