Warp + Weft: The Allman Brothers Band – In Memory of Elizabeth Reed’

The Allman Brothers Band
“In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”
At Filmore East
Polygram/Capricorn
1971

Poor Dickey Betts. At the height of the Allman Brothers’ considerable musical powers in 1971, you could have placed him in virtually any band with almost any other guitarist, and he’d be the best guitarist in the band. His keen melodic ear and seamless blending of country, blues, and jazz into one signature style was almost without equal. Unfortunately for him, he was in a band with Duane Allman.

Let’s begin from the premise that guitar solos are not inherently evil. Let’s also try to forget the 35 years or so since Duane Allman died in a motorcycle accident during the recording of the the album that would become Eat A Peach. In March of 1971, when The Allman Brothers Band recorded a live concert at New York’s Fillmore East, Betts was 27 and Duane Allman was 24. They were two hungry young guitarists in a band that was just beginning to break (their second album, Idlewild South, had managed to crack Billboard’s charts). A peculiar relationship exists between guitarists in two-guitar bands that place a premium on improvisation, and it’s not at all a stretch to call it its own kind of brotherhood. They support each other and work together for the benefit of the band, but there’s also a spark of competition, even if it’s never discussed—a desire to get the better of the other guy. That competition is fundamental to the success of the band, because it drives them ever harder to reach higher. While they may marvel at the other guy’s solo, they’re planning how to top it.

At Fillmore East, then, documents a kind of battle royale between Betts and Allman. Some nights, somebody’s clearly going to come out on top—some nights, one guy’s going to not have what it takes to push. But on March 12 and 13 of 1971, Betts and Allman were both in peak form. Throughout, they’re tussling back and forth on blues standards like “Stormy Monday” and “You Don’t Love Me.” But on Betts’ own “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” things get heated.

Stream “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” below:

The original studio version, which appeared on Idlewild South, departs from the live version in a number of ways. The Allmans were notable for having two drummers, but on the studio version, Jai Johanny Johanson (no, I’m not making that name up) plays percussion while Butch Trucks plays kit. It opens with a vamp on the A section of the tune before Allman and Betts lay into the song’s melody, playing in unison before splitting into the kind of harmony guitar The Allman Brothers made famous. In comparison to what you hear from a lot of jam and/or bar bands, this is an instrumental with very clearly demarcated sections and a beautiful and lyrical melody. Once the solos begin, the song’s minor key provides a solid and modal (that is, it’s basically one chord, so the soloists are able to push and pull the song around more easily with their solos than if there were a complex set of chords underpinning their improvisations) platform for first Betts, then Gregg Allman (on organ), and then Duane Allman to build. All in all, a solid instrumental that shows off the band’s advanced harmonic sensibilities. But it sounds kind of tepid when compared to the live version from At Fillmore East.

But there’s even some controversy over exactly what the definitive live version of the song is. The original 1971 release presented the song as played at the first show on March 13 (the band played multiple sets each night). When the original record was re-mastered and re-packaged with additional material in 1992 to produce The Fillmore Concerts, original producer Tom Dowd engaged in some revisionist history, choosing a different take for the song up until Duane’s solo, which was retained from the original. “I came to the conclusion that in the first half of the song,” he says in the liner notes to the 1992 release, “up to Duane’s solo, I had a better band performance and Dickey Betts solo on the version that we had not used before. Starting with Duane’s solo, though, it’s the original version. Twenty-one years later, I know ‘Liz Reed’ as well as I know any song, certainly more than I did in that time of instant decisions. Putting the two versions together showed off the song best. Listen to it! Listen to the togetherness of Dickey, Duane, and Gregg on the theme lines, and how Butch and Jaimoe adjust to the changes up front. There’s much more exciting interplay now, more like the band sounded those nights.”

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Duane Allman

I have the utmost respect for Dowd, who’s a legend in music production, but the assertion that some kind of composite take sounds “more like the band sounded those nights” than a single uninterrupted take seems problematic. I can understand his assertion, though, in a way. Live performance isn’t about note-for-note perfection; it’s about being carried away in the moment. And so there’s some merit to the idea of presenting a kind of fictional live performance that’s an analog of a visceral experience you don’t have access to once the concert’s done. Still, it makes for problems: At least one critic (Dave Lynch of All Music Guide) has asserted that Duane’s solo in this re-cut version is mixed lower relative to the first section of the song, and so some of the fire is bled from his performance.

I didn’t know any of this before I started writing this article. The majority of my experience with the song was via the initial CD re-issue, before the re-cutting by Dowd on The Fillmore Concerts, so we’ll keep our discussion to the version that comes from the 1971 initial re-issue, the first CD re-issue, and the 2003 single-disc CD remaster.

Once the band establishes the basic vamp of the song, Betts enters with some crying lead bends, swelling his volume as he pulls the notes back down. It’s a classic guitar trick, and one that mirrors the sound of instruments like saxes and trumpets. At a time when the idea of jazz-rock fusion hadn’t even had a chance to become the dirty word it would later turn into, The Allman Brothers were incorporating elements of jazz improvisation into their rootsy blues- and country-flecked music, and doing it without seeming pretentious. There’s nothing particularly intellectual about the way they managed to do it. Instead, it was done subtly with things like the aforementioned volume swells, or with Duane Allman’s nods to Coltrane, which we’ll get to later.

Furthermore, the rhythm section is not delicate or precious with the beat. In fact, Johanson’s switch to a full kit for this live version imbues it with even more punch. Berry Oakley’s bass playing is as melodic as ever, and throughout the track he provides ample support without ever stepping on the soloists toes. It’s hard not to sense a real empathic connection between all the members of the group. This was, after all, a band that was road-tested, a band that had built its reputation on live performance. That’s a fact that can seem self-evident about touring bands who improvise, but sometimes one of the effects of all that playing is easily forgotten.

You can’t go for it every night. This is mostly because “it” changes from night to night, and your choice of how to get there inevitably blends a certain amount of foreknowledge (what you’ve played before in a song, what worked) with a certain amount of the unexpected. At the perfect blend, an improvisation keeps the player involved and inventive enough to surprise him or herself, while at the same time bringing the audience along for the ride. This can be very difficult to achieve on any given night. The things that worked in a solo for a while can come off as flat or uninspired, leading to experimentation that might not always deliver you to that seamless frame of mind where everything you play seems to just lock magically in with the song.

Dickey Betts’ solo seems to catch him at one of those moments where he’s prodding the song for possibilities without quite making it effortless. His playing recalls certain motifs from the recorded version while stretching it in other places. As the song’s author, perhaps his relationship to it is a bit more complicated than Allman’s, although that’s impossible to say for sure. As a song, “Elizabeth Reed” breaks down into a couple of sections: an A section with long legato notes in the melody, a B section with a short, punchy harmonized melody, and a brief C section that opens up the rhythm section for a few bars to lead back to the A section. As such, soloists can call on a wide variety of phrasings while still remaining true to its themes.

Betts begins with phrases that recall the B section before pulling them out into longer passages that recall the A section. His solo bounces back and forth between these two modes, but his relationship with the rhythm section is often strained. Perhaps it’s on purpose, perhaps it’s the result of pushing the song in a way he was trying for the first time that night, but even as he reaches his solo’s first crest at the 4:45 mark, his playing feels more structural than fluid. His second peak, at 5:15, seems to land more forcefully before he leads the band back in for Gregg Allman’s organ solo.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with his solo. It’s inventive while still bearing the hallmarks of his style: a loping, cascading feel that links phrases through rounds of accelerating and decelerating patterns. He builds from these tiny pieces well. But then there’s Duane Allman.

Allman’s solo begins kind of wrong-footed, like he’s feeling around for something. It has some of the same woozy relationship to the song’s pulse as Betts’, and like Betts, he builds his solo around alternating sections of sustained notes and short choppy flurries of hammer-ons and pull-offs. But Allman has some longer and overlapping arcs that make his solo hang together. He first builds the range of his solo up from fairly low on the guitar to the middle range, right in the meat of the neck. But then he backs off. Where it seemed like he was ready to race all the way up and grab for higher notes, he’s instead laying back and playing call and response with himself with tiny phrases.

Then he begins to build in again as he climbs the neck in wider intervals until he’s laying in the groundwork for his leap at around the 9:40 mark. He hammers the same riff over and over there, almost like he’s steeling himself for what he’s about to go for, before skipping nimbly up at the 10:02 mark. And then he’s up in the upper register, playing the same game of building tension not through space as through repetition. At the 10:25 mark, he unleashes a positively blazing lick that pretty much sets fire to the whole performance before backing away again.

He pulls the band with him, creating a dynamic gap from which he plays a nimble, Middle Eastern-influenced set of licks. As the band begins to churn behind him again, he’s practically forced to scale the same heights as he did so authoritatively a minute before, but this time he comes back with something a little more gentle, a tiny melodic figure that’s heavily indebted to John Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” approach on the tenor saxophone. Just as Betts began the track emulating a saxophone, Allman ends his improvisation by stepping outside traditional rock guitar techniques to inject something fresh into his solo.

It’s very possible that we’re just catching two master improvisers at two different points on the arc of a player’s relationship to a song he’s soloing over. Perhaps the same song a month earlier would have found Betts riding the wave of the song perfectly, while Allman searched for a way to wring more from it. Perhaps a month later the same would have been true. But on that March night, a scant seven months before Allman’s fatal accident, it’s easy to picture Betts chugging away on rhythm guitar in the second half of the song, smiling to himself at the sheer fluidity and command of Allman’s playing, thinking to himself, ‘Damn. I’ve been outdone on my own song.

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