The last concert ever, one year ago today.
Or that's how it felt when the Brothers played Madison Square Garden on 3/10/20. Some thoughts on a year without live music. Plus, a Playlist to keep you moving, and my Billboard review of the show.
A year ago I was at the last concert ever - or that’s how it’s felt for the last 12 months.
March 10, 2020, the Brothers at Madison Square Garden celebrating the music of the Allman Brothers Band. It was already quite clear that COVID-19 was a real problem in the US and plenty of people who had tickets decided not to go. My date dropped out and no one else wanted to be my Plus One. Rebecca came over and joined me for the second set after covering the Michigan election; it’s also the one-year anniversary of Joe Biden effectively locking up the nomination. It’s clear in the review I wrote for Billboard, shared below that I knew we were at a turning point and that we wouldn’t be back in a venue for along time. I had already done a major grocery shop emphasizing dry goods and toilet paper, and I probably wouldn’t have attended anything else in such a large venue - but this was too close, too important to miss. I had to be there, after 30 years of writing about the Allman Brothers Band and six years – since the 2014 publication of my book One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band - as an insider, a member of the extended family.
It wasn’t just an anticipated concert, but a family reunion. Thousands of us missed the annual pilgrimages to the Beacon Theater, where the Allman Brothers played over 230 shows from 1989 to 2014 – for not just the concert but the gathering, the meals, the drinks, the before and after-show parties. So I spent the better part of the week before the show in the city, with growing anticipation. I was at the band’s rehearsal space before their first get together to interview founding drummer Jaimoe for a feature in The Wall Street Journal – a story I had long wanted to write, to bring this incredible man’s story to a larger audience. I spent hours at the band’s popup shop at Live Nation’s West Side headquarters, signing books, shaking hands and taking photos with fans.
Before the concert, my Friends of the Brothers band played an official pre-party at a packed The Cutting Room, 400 people packed elbow to elbow, front to back.
After the show, I was at the Trucks’ Brothers after show party, another crowded bar, having close, face-to-face conversations until 3 am.
When the shit hit the fan the next few days, I wasn’t just thinking about the inherent risks of attending a sold out arena concert; I had days of serious exposure. The concert was perfect - laid out in the review below - and the feeling in the room was incredible. Despite all my anxiety to come, I never regretted being there. Watch the beginning of the show here and you’ll understand.
Two days later, the star-studded Love Rocks NYC concert at the Beacon became a friends and family only live-streamed event. I was honored to be invited to be part of that special, small crowd, but I couldn’t do it. I was too freaked out by then.
The concern only grew as I started to hear to about COVID cases seemingly stemming from the concert – especially when Kirk and Kristen West returned home to Macon, GA and got ill. Kirk is a master rock photographer and the Allman Brothers’ longtime “Tour Mystic” and over the past 20 years he’s become one of my very best friends, someone whose friendship and counsel I greatly value. I was happy to have him and Kirsten spend the night after the show at our house, as we all decompressed and traded notes, just as we did after the last Allman Brothers show in 2014. We dined at our little kitchen table with my wife and daughter and enjoyed each other’s company -the last time we’d share a meal with a non family member for a year.
The next morning they drove home and within days, Kirk was hospitalized with COVID. They both got sick, but he was really ill. Luckily, he recovered, but a year later he’s still struggling with “long hauler” symptoms. I was worried about my friend, freaked out by deaths I was starting to hear about – the virus ripped through New York like a hurricane – terrified that I had exposed myself and my family to this thing, and counting down the days until March 24, which would be 14 days after the concert, seemingly putting me in the clear.
That’s the stuff I was worried about in the first weeks. I wasn’t thinking much about the concerts I wasn’t attending, or the Friends of the Brothers shows we had to cancel in New York, Philadelphia, Atlantic City and Portchester. One of the first people I knew to die was Homeboy Steve, a friendly, funky guitarist who primarily an online friend. The in March 29, I heard about the death of Ron Louie, a hardcore music fan whose wife Janine is an Allman Brothers fanatic, who’s attended virtually every greater Friends of the Brothers show in New York - including on March 10. Then, suddenly, a musician I loved or admired was dying every day. On March 31, brilliant trumpeter Wallace Roney. On April 1, pianist and musical patriarch Ellis Marsalis and jazz guitar giant Bucky Pizzarelli. They were 85 and 94 respectively, and I got mad at hearing some people rationalize the death of our elders. The same day we shockingly lost Adam Schlesinger, the Fountains of Wayne bassist who at 52 was a year younger than me. And then on April 7 came the news that John Prine, the big-hearted singer-songwriter I always liked but had become fairly obsessed with after seeing him in 2017; I wrote this appreciation of him then. His music was so full of life and wisdom that losing him to this plague just felt like a horrible metaphor.
It was Prine’s death, almost a month into the lockdown, that knocked my legs out from under me. Rebecca and I had strived to stay optimistic and upbeat to set a good example for Anna, a high school junior then, and Eli, who fled from college and was home finishing up the semester online. But I couldn’t fake good cheer. I collapsed on the couch, angry and sad, crying a little. I dialed up a Prine playlist, cranked it up and poured myself a whiskey. Rebecca asked me what was wrong and I snapped. “I’m fucking sad!” Then I apologized and explained and asked them to please give me space and/or listen to John with me. Anna loved the music and has had him in heavy rotation ever since; I smile every time I hear her listening to “In Spite Of Ourselves” or “All the Best.”
As the months dragged on, we settled into some twisted new normal. The warming weather brought us out of our cocoons into distanced, small outside get-togethers. But we couldn’t gather in crowds – and we couldn’t really play or attend live music. And what a hole that left in our lives. Since my first concert – Supertramp at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena, June 4, 1979 - going to shows has been central to my life. Big arena shows, tiny holes in the wall, street musicians, packed rock and blues clubs. Dripping sweat on everyone around me. Shivering when the sun dropped down and the wind picked up. Learning to use drugs and learning to not use drugs. Live music has been all of that to me and a lot more. Rebecca and I were friends for two years and probably would have stayed that way if David Kann hadn’t dragged us out late night to see Billy Price perform. The great Pittsburgh soul singer lit into OV Wright’s “Precious Precious,” and we gulped our beers and danced. We looked into one another’s eyes and we knew, Without that show, our lives take a completely different path. Just one of a million examples of how live music is a powerful thing!
Since 2007 when I formed Woodie Alan in Beijing with my brilliant Chinese partner Woodie Wu, I’ve performed hundreds of shows. I’ve taken every gig, every chance to play music with people and for people as a sort of holy moment – a chance to make the connections that I had experienced so many times from the other side of the stage. I’ve never taken any of it casually. It’s incredibly fun but also profoundly serious.
Losing all this was a wallop. I tuned in to livestreams and dropped digital coins in digital cups, hoping to ease the pain of my friends and admired musicians who suddenly had their livelihoods stripped away. I did live chats and raised money to distribute to my Friends of the Brothers bandmates. The financial hit of this cessation didn’t crush me. I have other sources of income and a wife with a well-compensated job – one which has allowed me the freedom to explore this artistic life, but that’s a subject for another day. I know countless musicians and crew members who have been laid low by this and I’m doing my best to help as many as I can, and so are great organizations like MusicCares. Some of my favorite venues, like The Acoustic in Bridgeport, CT, have closed and I worry about all the others, though the Save Our Stages funding will be a huge help.
I’m sticking my toes back in the water. Big in China has played a couple of times on the back patio of Suzy Que’s BBQ in W. Orange NJ and we’ll be back there April 24, masked and distanced, doing our little part to make music together for anyone who joins us in the backyard. Because we all need it, now and going forward. As Bob Marley sang, “One good thing about music – when it hits you feel no pain.”
A PLAYLIST TO KEEP YOU MOVING
Here’s one Spotify playlist I put together and have listened to over and over during the last year. Hit shuffle and enjoy. It’s one of many and I’ll keep sharing them. Let me know what you think.
My Billboard Review of The Brothers, 3/10/20, Madison Square Garden
The Brothers’ Madison Square Garden reunion show to celebrate the Allman Brothers Band’s 50th anniversary on Tuesday, March 10 was, in a word, superb. From the first note to the last in the four plus hour performance, the band played with urgency, intensity and creativity, breathing fire into one of rock’s greatest catalogs.
The group was centered around the five surviving members of the Allman Brothers’ last and longest lasting lineup, which played together from 2000 until their final show, at New York’s Beacon Theater, on October 28, 2014: guitarists Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes, bassist Oteil Burbridge, percussionist Marc Quinones, and drummer Jaimoe, the only founding member on stage. (Dickey Betts is the only other survivor and he has not played with the band since 2000 and was not in New York.)
The 2017 deaths of drummer Butch Trucks and organist/singer/namesake Gregg Allman left gaping holes, which were filled by Duane Trucks, Butch’s nephew and Derek’s brother; organist Reese Wynans; and pianist Chuck Leavell, the Rolling Stones’ musical director for the last 30 years who made his first mark with the Allman Brothers from 1973-76. Wynans is best known for his work with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, but played in the nascent Allman Brothers before Gregg arrived in Florida in 1969. //NOTE: Reese’s role in both the Allman Brothers’ formation and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s career makes him a special person to me. He is one of a handful of people to appear in both One /way Out and Texas Flood.//
The eight musicians welcomed no other guests, with Leavell playing about half of each set. With virtually no interruptions even for guitar changes and few words said, they played marvelously well together, veering effortlessly into modern jazz, deep blues and Indian ragas before falling right back onto the riff every time. It was exactly the type of tight but loose musical focus that made the Allman Brothers the best, hardest hitting improvisational rock band of all time
They started the night with the first two songs on the Allman Brothers’ 1969 debut, “Don’t Want You No More” and “It’s Not My Cross to Bear” and stayed focused on the classic material from the band’s first four albums for much of the night. The first 90s era song was Haynes’ “Soulshine” late in the first set, which kicked off with a gospel-y piano and organ duet. The first set ended with “Jessica,” with Leavell playing his signature licks on a grand piano sent the garden crowd into a frenzy. Quinones turned from his percussion kit to play the timpani, one of Butch Trucks’ signature moves, and bring the first set to a thunderous close.
The second set started with the timpani again, as the familiar refrains of “Mountain Jam” rang across a dark stage. Like most of the night, the song was played at the original, faster tempo. Leavell sang a great version of “Blue Sky,” the only song Haynes did not sing and the only Betts vocal of the night. “Desdemona,” the only song they played from 2005’s Hittin the Note album had a beautiful jazz interlude, and the third and last late-era song, “Nobody Left To Run With” led into a set-ending “One Way Out.”
Coming back for the encores, Jaimoe took the microphone and said a few words of thanks, before they closed out with “Midnight Rider” and “Whipping Post.”
Throughout the night, the center focus was on Haynes and Trucks’ guitar partnership, which was in perfect sync, but really it was all about tight ensemble playing, with the musicians locked and loaded and playing all night as if their lives depended on it. It was impossible to know what to expect of this lineup, or the decision to play at MSG instead of the band’s familiar and most cozier confines of the Beacon – and it was almost immediately impossible to doubt any of it.
The specter of COVID-19 hung over the show, with most attendees questioning their choice in the hours before, and word of a flood of cheap tickets online. But the arena was packed and it was rocking. If this is the last concert we attend for a while, no one who was in the house is going to complain.
As Reese Wynans said after the show, “That felt historic and beautiful.”
Alan Paul’s last two books – Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan and One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band – debuted in the New York Times Non Fiction Hardcover Best Seller’s List. His first book was Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues and Becoming a Star in Beijing, about his experiences raising a family in Beijing and touring China with a popular original blues band. It was optioned for a movie by Ivan Reitman’s Montecito Productions. He is also a guitarist and singer who fronts two bands, Big in China and Friends of the Brothers, the premier celebration of the Allman Brothers Band.