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Where It All Begins (Epic)
Allman Brothers Band
By Bob Bahr
There are reasons not to call the new Allman Brothers Band release a derivative piece of fluff. First off, any pilfering of blues rock history will eventually bring the thief to the treasure lode of Allman Brothers albums. And Where It All Begins appropriately steals the most from the band's own past music. Not only is the Allman Brothers Band stealing from itself, it is stealing from some of the best when it steals from itself.
Secondly, this band has a distinctive style that make even the worst drivel exciting. Guitarists Warren Haynes and Dickey Betts never get boring, even eight minutes into a basic blues chord progression. The band that brought you the marathon "Whipping Post" still has a wild, improvising spirit.
Third and most basic, the Allman Brothers Band plays blues, the genre most dependent on plagiarized licks, lyrical themes and melodies. While certainly — absolutely — never breaking new stylistic ground, the Allmans still dose their blues with a pleasant squirt of rock attitude and jazzy freedom. What more do you want?
Well, perhaps a few better songs. The title track is a wonderfully long exercise in trippy blues jamming, the kind that puts you in a pleasant, groovy trance and wakes you up now and then with a peculiar lick or some brief stroke of musical genius. "Change My Way of Living" sounds like vintage Allman Brothers, and that's a sure compliment. And "Mean Woman Blues" is a driving bit of piercing blues that meets the listener at the crossroads then jumps into a Dodge Viper for a hi-tech streak to Big Time rock.
Past that, a little patience is needed. "What's Done Is Done" shuffles by amiably enough — thanks to some nice keyboard work from Gregg Allman, and "Temptation Is a Gun" and "Sailin' 'Cross the Devil's Sea" have a bit of a bite, but a discouraging trend emerges from the remaining tracks.
Perhaps it was traveling on that H.O.R.D.E. tour last year. Making all that money, playing in front of all those Deadheads, staying cleaner than they've been in years . . . the Allman Brothers Band has gotten mellow. And songs such as "All Night Train," "No One to Run With," "Soulshine" and especially "Everybody's Got a Mountain to Climb" have a positively bubbly bounce that makes for good, mindless dancing, but seems a bit like putting Sonny Boy Williamson into a Mountain Dew commercial. The Allman Brothers have always had joyful songs ("Revival," "Melissa"), but they were based on monstrous melodies that made any undue sweetness seem a merely interesting distraction. Here, the songs remind you of thirty famous songs and offer nothing fresh, and the tweaking in the studio helps them not one bit. The reverb on the vocals of "Everybody's" takes you further out of the gritty-blues mindset. A foundation from the Hammond organ offers a touch of gospel to "Soulshine," and it doesn't particularly work.
These may be the anthems of the Allman Brothers Band future, but they rest uneasy next to the classics of old. Do you have to suffer to play the blues? Probably not, but the Allmans' recent resurgence seems to have taken some of the teeth out of their blues bite. Where It All Begins has few songs that will make this reviewer's compilation tapes. It also has a few songs that could serve as good example of how a band (hear me, Grateful Dead) can become a pablum-serving dinosaur.