BY MICHAEL BERICK
Seeing Gregg Allman perform nowadays creates a range of emotions. Considering his serious health problems, there’s a “not-to-be-missed” feeling lingering over his appearances because it might be the last chance you get to see him. His health, however, also affects performances, naturally, so Gregg Allman isn’t the not “Gregg Allman” of rock lore.
My mixed emotions about going to see Allman at his recent, free concert in Los Angeles (at Century City Plaza, July 19) wound up reflecting the show itself, which turned out to be something of a mixed bag. The good news is that Allman delivered a surprisingly sturdy performance, especially considering that he had to cancel shows earlier in July. Freed from the albatross of doing an “Allman Brothers concert,” Allman delivered a nicely diverse set that ranged from the strong rendition of “Stormy Monday” to a new-ish rocker “Love Like Kerosene,” which was one of the potent performances of the night. He included tracks from his solo hit-and-miss solo career (“I’m No Angel,” “Before The Bullets Fly”) and, of course, classic Allman Brothers songs (“Statesboro Blues,” “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More,” “One Way Out,” “Melissa” and “Whipping Post”).
When he was in his twenties, Allman already possessed a voice that sounded like an old bluesman and, now in his sixties, he has certainly grown into his voice. While his singing holds some raspiness now and is fraying around the edges, he certainly knows his way around a song. In particular, his singing on tunes like “Ain’t Wastin’ Time,” “Before The Bullets Fly” and “Stormy Morning” convey a sense of surviving life’s hardship.
His performance overall has a rather subdued quality that might have been due to his still recovering from his most recent health woes. Somewhat hidden behind his keyboard setup, Allman sometimes disappeared in the shadows of his corner of the stage. He also wasn’t especially talkative, which was disappointing considering all he could have said about L.A. and his times there. Allman did, however, deliver several soulful organ solos. His playing on a rather stripped down version of “Melissa” and on the set’s encore “One Way Out” stood out as highlights, but too often solos were doled out to the other bands members and the results, while well done, weren’t particularly memorable.
Allman’s current band favors a bluesy sound that leans as much on horns as guitars and keyboards. While saxman Jay Collins has some solid solos, they created a mellower groove than you expect at an Allman concert. Similarly, his guitarist (and music director) Scott Sharrard is a talented player who can turn out a nifty solo. His playing on “Melissa” and “Whipping Post” would be impressive if you don’t compare them to those who played them before him – this might be an unfair burden but one that is hard to ignore.
One of the problems with this show, in fact, is the ghosts of Allman Brothers performances that loom unavoidably (and unfortunately) over the show. The band’s roadhouse sound was certainly first rate but it lacked the dynamism that made the Allman Brothers’ concerts so fabled – the percussion jams, the keyboard interplay between Gregg Allman and Chuck Leavell and, of course, the guitar battles from the Duane Allman and Dickie Betts days to, more recently, Wayne Haynes and Derek Trucks.
Allman closed his 90-ish minute set (that included him taking a short break about midway through) with a brawny take on “Whipping Post.” When he sang the song’s closing line -“Good Lord, I feel like I’m dying” – the thought undoubtedly crossed more than one fan’s mind that hopefully this line won’t turn out to be prophetic anytime soon for Allman. Happily that line didn’t turn out to be the last one of the night as Allman and his band returned to encore with a rousing rendition of “One Way Out,” which got the audience singing along for the first time that night.
This performance was part of a free, outdoor concert series organized by local public radio station (and national taste-maker) KCRW and the Annenberg Space for Photography, which currently has a wonderful exhibit: “Country: Portraits of an American Sound.” They have put together a dandy series entitled “Country In The City,” which paired well-known headliners with cool up-and-comers (the other concerts featured Shelby Lynne with Jamestown Revival and Wynonna with Nikki Lane). Opening this show was the much buzzed-about singer/songwriter Sturgill Simpson and his Waylon Jennings-inspired hard honky-tonk style fit “County In The City” theme perfectly.
While Simpson’s songs hit upon familiar country topics (alcohol, love, heartache, the open road and trains), Simpson presented them with a freshness that made him feel like performer maintaining country traditions and not just a revivalist. It’s not that Simpson tried to hide from country music history either. During his set, he covered “I Never Go Around Mirrors,” which he acknowledged was written by “one of my heroes” Lefty Frizzell, and later urged the crowd to buy a Stanley Brothers’ album before launching into “Medicine Spring.” The slyly witty Simpson also remarked, before doing “Railroad of Sin,” that his wife urged him to write a train song since he worked for a railroad and was a country singer, additionally introducing his standout original “Living A Dream” as a song “I wish I never wrote.”
Simpson’s 3-piece backing band matched his rugged rootsiness with guitarist, the Estonian-born Laur Joamets particularly memorablewith his nimble guitar playing. They ran through their 40-minute set as if they were trying to squeeze in as much music as possible, which some times resulted in tunes feeling like they ended too quickly. But having the audience want songs to go longer than shorter is a nice problem to have. With his brief but impressive set, Simpson showed the sense of authenticity in both his music and his personality that has made him a rising star on the Americana scene.