THE ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND’S 1971 double album At Fillmore East is often and rightly proclaimed rock’s greatest live release. Fifty years on, it still sounds fresh, inspired and utterly original. It is the gold standard of blues-based rock and roll, but it’s easy to lose sight of what a radical album At Fillmore East really was.
It took a lot of guts for the Allmans and their record label to release a two-LP live album as their third release. After all, when it came out in July 1971, the band was something of a commercial flop.
Although they drew raves for their marathon live shows that combined the Grateful Dead’s go-anywhere jam ethos with a far superior musical precision, their first two releases caused barely a ripple in the marketplace. The band’s self-titled 1969 debut sold fewer than 35,000 copies, and the following year’s Idlewild South did only marginally better despite two singles, “Midnight Rider” and “Revival.” The band struggled to understand why.
“When the first record came out at number 200 with an anchor and dropped off the face of the earth, my brother and I did not get discouraged,” Gregg Allman recalled, a few years before his death in 2017. “But I thought Idlewild South was a much better record, and when that died on the vine, I thought, Damn, maybe we were wrong about this group.”
But the lackluster sales didn’t match the increasingly large and rabid crowds the band drew on its relentlessly paced tours. Fans loved the Allman Brothers’ rare combination of blues, jazz, rock and country, and their willingness to play until somebody pulled the plug. Finally, it dawned on the band and its management that a live album was the only way to capture the group’s real essence.
What resulted was a recording of two shows at New York City’s famed Fillmore East, an album that still stands as a testament to a great band at the peak of its power. Sadly, it would prove to be the final record completed by guitarist Duane Allman, who died shortly after its release. As such, it has become an epitaph for both him and the Allman Brothers Band Mach 1.
“That album captured the band in all their glory,” producer Tom Dowd said in a 1998 interview. Dowd, who died in 2002, was behind the boards for nearly a dozen Allman Brothers albums, including At Fillmore East, and worked with everyone from John Coltrane and Ray Charles to Cream and Lynyrd Skynyrd. “The Allmans have always had a perpetual swing sensation that is unique in rock. They swing like they’re playing jazz when they playthings that are tangential to the blues, and even when they play heavy rock. They’re never vertical but always going forward, and it’s always a groove.”
Certainly, the improvisation and length of the tunes on At Fillmore East was more similar to jazz than rock, with just seven songs spread over four vinyl sides, capturing the Allmans in all their bluesy, sonic fury. “You Don’t Love Me” and “Whipping Post” both occupied full album sides, while “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” clocked in at 13 minutes. Still, from the clarion slide guitar of “Statesboro Blues” that opens the album to the booming timpani roll of “Whipping Post” that closes it, there is nary a wasted note in the 78 minutes of Fillmore’s music.
Propelled upward and onward by bassist Berry Oakley, whose free-range style uniquely roamed the middle of the band’s sound, and the rhythmic onslaught of double drummers Jaimoe and the late Butch Trucks, the group seemed ready to blast off in any direction at any time. Dickey Betts and Duane Allman spurred each other on to new heights of fretboard ferocity and creativity while pioneering guitar harmonies. Gregg Allman’s authentic blues singing and surging organ vamps kept even the most ambitious jams firmly rooted to terra firma.
“There’s nothing too complicated about what makes Fillmore a great album,” Betts offers. “The thing is, we were a hell of a band and we just got a good recording that captured what we sounded like.”
Adds Jaimoe, “Fillmore was both a particularly great performance and a typical night.”
To truly understand the album, it helps to recognize just how hungry and desperate the band was at the time of its release. Then-manager and Capricorn Records president Phil Walden readily admitted he had begun to consider cashing in his chips and cutting his losses.
“It seemed like I had just been wrong and that they were never going to catch on,” Walden, who died in 2006, said in a 1990 interview. “People just didn’t grasp what the Allmans were all about musically or any other way. But they kept touring, state by state, city by city, going across the country, establishing themselves as the best live band around, and building a base.”
Gregg Allman said the band played more than 300 nights in 1970, traveling most of the off days, a claim that seems only a slight exaggeration. As they continued to crisscross the country, jammed together in first a Ford Econoline van and then a Winnebago, their sound evolved and deepened. It’s a process well known to the hardcore tape traders who exchange copies of these shows like so many pieces of holy grail. But there was a price to pay. “That kind of schedule puts a lot of wear and tear on your ass,” Allman said.
Recalls booking agent Jonny Podell, “I started booking the band in June 1969. Phil Walden said, ‘Get them dates. I don’t care if it’s Portland, Oregon, on Monday and Portland, Maine, on Tuesday.’ I tried to do a little better, but that’s what we did, and they never complained. This was run like a machine, like a military unit. There were six in the band, and management provided them with first five, then six crew, making maybe $100 a night, which was pretty unusual for the time and really quite extravagant.”
The first two weeks of September 1971, just after At Fillmore East was released, provide a snapshot of the band’s grueling schedule. The Allmans played Montreal on September 3 and Miami the following night. They had five days off, during which they went into Miami’s Criteria Studios with Dowd and laid down the first tracks for Betts’ “Blue Sky,” which would appear on their next studio album, Eat a Peach. They then played September 10 in Passaic, New Jersey, the following night in Clemson, South Carolina, and the night after that in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. The band then had three days off and played September 16 in New Orleans.
“Don’t ask me how we did it, because I don’t know,” the band’s one-time tour manager Willie Perkins offered. “My own naïveté probably helped me, because we just did what was asked and made the gigs that were booked. But God! We used to call them ‘dartboard tours,’ because it seemed like someone had made the bookings by throwing darts at a map. We were zigzagging everywhere.”
With all that hard-touring paying off and their fan base steadily growing by word of mouth, the band decided that it needed to capitalize on its concert success. The solution became apparent: Record a live album.
“We simply realized that we were a better live band than studio outfit because we were always ready to experiment — offstage as well as on, I may add,” Gregg explained. “And the audience was a big part of what we did up there, which is something that couldn’t be duplicated in a studio. A light bulb finally went off: We need to make a live album.”
Once the decision to record live was made — not an obvious choice in 1971, when live rock albums were still in their infancy — the choice of venue was simple. Promoter Bill Graham was an early and important supporter of the band, booking the Allmans repeatedly in his bicoastal rock emporiums, the Fillmores East, in New York, and the Fillmore West, in San Francisco, where they established themselves as an elite band.
The Allman Brothers Band had made their Fillmore debut on December 26, 1969, opening for Blood, Sweat & Tears for three nights. Graham promised he would have them back soon and often, paired with more appropriate acts. Two weeks later, they opened four shows for Buddy Guy and B.B. King at the Fillmore West. The following month they were back in New York for three nights with the Grateful Dead. These shows were crucial in establishing the band and exposing it to a wider and more sympathetic audience.
Something particularly special was happening between the Allman Brothers and fans in New York, which remained their most supportive audience throughout their career (they played their final show there, at the Beacon Theatre, on October 28, 2014). In those dark ages of rock promotion, the Fillmores were a significant step above all other venues.
“The Fillmores were so professionally run, compared to anything else at the time,” Perkins says. “And Graham would gamble on acts, bringing in jazz and blues and the Trinidad/Tripoli String Band, and he had taken a chance on the Brothers, which everyone appreciated and remembered. He never paid anyone top dollar at the Fillmore. A lot of bands went off to other promoters as a result, and Bill would feel like they had turned their back on him. But we loved playing there.”
“New York crowds have always been great,” says Betts, who parted ways with the Allman Brothers in 2000. “But what made the Fillmore a special place was Bill Graham. He was the best promoter rock has ever had, and you could feel his influence in every single little thing at the Fillmore.”
“He called a spade a spade — and not necessarily in a loving way,” Allman added. “Mr. Graham was a stern man, the most tell-it-like-it-is person I have ever met, and at first it was off-putting. But he was the most fair person, too, and after knowing him for while, you realized that this guy, unlike most of the other fuckers out there, was on the straight and narrow.”
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