BY HAL BIENSTOCK
As hard as it is to believe, there are probably thousands of Allman Brothers fans under 30 who have only the vaguest idea who Duane Allman was. What’s more surprising is that there are probably even more fans who swear by their copies of At Fillmore East that don’t realize the full scope of Duane’s accomplishments. Skydog should change that quickly. It’s not only a fitting tribute to one of the greatest guitarists of all time, it’s practically an advertisement for Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours theory.
A 7-CD embarrassment of riches, Skydog traces Allman’s growth from his early days playing in bar bands with brother Gregg to sideman extraordinaire to full-fledged star with the Allman Brothers. Most of the never-heard-before material comes from the early days. While it’s essential to understanding Duane’s evolution, it’s also inconsistent. Hearing Gregg and Duane tackle British Invasion cuts like Manfred Mann’s “Mister, You’re a Better Man Than I,” or a sitar-heavy version of “Norwegian Wood” mostly shows that their talents lay elsewhere. On the other hand, you can already hear the Allmans sound taking shape in a 1966 recording of “Spoonful” as the Allman Joys and a cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “I’ve Been Trying” a year later as Hour Glass.
The real joy of this set is having so much of Duane’s session work in one place. The sheer scope of being able to perform alongside Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin one minute and Boz Scaggs and Herbie Mann the next is astounding. Maybe even more impressive is the way he lifts up lesser lights like Sam Samudio with his draw-dropping slide work.
If there’s a flaw to Skydog, it’s that most of the best material can be found elsewhere. Obviously, anyone buying this already owns plenty of Allman Brothers discs as well as Layla and can easily track down Duane’s work with Otis Rush, Aretha or even more obscure talents like Laura Lee and Johnny Jenkins with a few clicks. But there is a lot of value in Rounder bringing it all together and combining it with some true rarities in a way that tells a story and traces the arc of a career. Whether that value is worth $140 is something each fan can decide. What’s beyond question is the value of the music itself.