Allmans still reaching for great possibilities

Greg Allman, pictured at the Beacon Theatre in New York. Greg Allman, pictured at the Beacon Theatre in New York. (The New York Times/File 2006)
By Jonathan Perry
Globe Correspondent / August 31, 2009

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MANSFIELD - If the Allman Brothers Band knows about anything besides blues, guitars, and the fastest way out of town and trouble, it’s honoring tradition. And it just wouldn’t be summer without the Allmans’ annual pilgrimage to the great outdoor sheds across our land, playing music that in some cases is much older and more grizzled than the audience itself.

Although Saturday’s dampness and drizzle seemed to keep a good chunk of the crowd away - especially the die-hards who follow their blues-rock road warriors on motorcycles, which were in short supply in the parking lot - on stage it was still as hot as summer and heavy with history.

The Allmans are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year (a marker that encapsulates a few bumps, busts, and breakups along the way), but that longevity doesn’t seem surprising given the source, or a catalog of songs that seem to have only grown sturdier with the years. And after all, as singer-keyboardist Gregg Allman sang with dreamy conviction on “Midnight Rider,’’ which came early in an expansive, musically transmogrifying two-hour set, “the road goes on forever.’’

The veteran Georgia rockers certainly seem hell-bent on testing the theory, but the journey did have a starting point way back when. As if to remind us, and perhaps themselves, of the tragic early chapter that very nearly tripped up their travel, the show opened with a message that appeared on the huge video screen behind the band: “Dedicated to a Brother.’’ As Allman waded with measured authority into the gospel-tinged opener, “It’s Not My Cross to Bear,’’ a photo montage of his late brother, the gifted guitarist Duane Allman (1946-71), flashed images of those long-ago days when only youth, triumph, and possibility seemed to stretch endlessly before them all.

Although youth may no longer be an option (with the exception, that is, of slide guitarist Derek Trucks, 30, who is the nephew of founding Allmans’ member drummer Butch Trucks), further triumph and possibility clearly remain within reach. A concise reading of “One Way Out’’ and “Mountain Jam’’ (which contained melodic elements of Donovan’s ’60s curio “There Is a Mountain’’), not to mention a slew of others, showcased the Allmans not as a meandering, mushroom-huffing jam band but as tightly disciplined groove architects.

In fact, what has always set the group apart from the glut of lesser jam bands is that the Allmans rarely ramble aimlessly, but rather explore and expand on improvisational ideas, and then subvert them in favor of blazing a new path, or revisiting an ancient one. Cases in point: a souped-up Willie Dixon-by-way-of-Led Zeppelin charge through “Dazed and Confused,’’ and Sonny Boy Williamson’s lascivious “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,’’ both sung by guitarist Warren Haynes, who earlier had guested on opening act Widespread Panic’s galvanizing take on Howlin’ Wolf’s one-riff wonder, “Smokestack Lightnin’.’’ (That, plus Widespread Panic’s brilliant guitarist, Jimmy Herring, proved the highlight of the former’s two-hour set; the musicianship was as consistently stunning as its songs were undistinguished).

Speaking of revisiting history, when the Allmans encored with their own torrid “Whipping Post’’ - an epic free-fall into gut-level heartbreak and soulful despair - the explosive emotional core of the song felt, even after all this time, of the moment and utterly immediate. Has it really been 40 years since we first heard it?


At: Comcast Center, Saturday

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