The prolonged ugliness surrounding the breakup of the Allman Brothers Band, which began with Gregg Allman and Cher's tiresome romance and ended with Gregg's former valet receiving a 75-year jail sentence, makes it easy to lose track of the group's musical accomplishments, which were arguably as substantial as any rock 'n' roll band's in the 70s.
The Allman Brothers were pacesetters, the first amalgamators of jazz, blues and heavy rock into a sound that became known as "Southern rock" an apellation that actually had more to do with the band's geographic roots than the music. Their drawls may not have left much doubt about which part of the country they were from, but when the Allmans began to play what emerged was music that often owed as much in texture and feeling to John Coltrane as it did to Sleepy John Estes.
These weren't a bunch of good ol' boys who could play hell out of their git-tars, they were a group of musicians whose talents and sensibilities were acutely attuned, and whose level of musical sophistication surpassed even the better rock bands. Admittedly, in later years, after Duane Allman was killed and Richard Betts took firmer control of the group, their music developed a discernable twang, but even then those earlier influences of jazz and the blues remained strong.
Proof of that can be found in "Wipe the Windows, Check the Oil, Dollar Gas" (Capricorn 2CX0177), probably the last record we'll ever have from the Allman Brothers unless Capricorn discovers yet another way to anthologize them. The material here is all familiar, recorded on the band's tours in '72, '73 and '75, but that doesn't mean there aren't a few surprises. There are, and most of them are pleasant.
By late '72 and '73, the Allman Brothers had settled comfortably into their new lineup featuring Chuck Leavell on piano and Lamar Williams on bass, they seemed to have overcome the shock of two deaths in the group and were launching into what was to be their final creatively fertile period, which culminated in "Brothers and Sisters" - their most commercially successful album - in 1973.
Leavell's piano playing was adding a lighter, ethereal tone, giving some of their songs even more of a jazz flavor. Betts' guitar work lacked some of the fire and intensity that earmarked his duels with Duane Allman, but Leavell's piano fills allowed him to open up more, and the music took on a lyrical flow it had previously lacked.
The Allman's live performances gave off a lot of musical sparks in those days, and few of them were lost on the band's audiences, always vocal and enthusiastic. On "Wipe the Windows," the crowds' responses can literally be felt at the high points, like the graceful, looping interchanges between Betts and Leavell on "Jessica" or the instrumental breaks that accentuate Gregg Allman's raspy vocals on "Come and Go Blues" and "Ain't Wastin' Time No More."
Allman's singing has come in for a lot of criticism over the years, some of it deserved I suppose. He's no Richard Merrill, but on a good night the man cam more than do justice to a blues song and, fortunately, most of the nights represented here were good ones. Only on "Wasted Words," the lone poorly mixed track on the record, does he have pbroblems, and a little engineering dexterity could have helped him there.
The real joys, however, are provided by Betts and Leavell, especially Leavell. Whether he's adding a Floyd Cramer-like lilt to Betts' "Ramblin' Man" or providing the snowballing background that moves "Southbound" on like a rumbling earthquake, Leavell always seems to have the right touch, and he rarely duplicated himself in any two performances.
"Wipe the Windows" lacks the fire and urgency of the Allmans' earlier "Live at the Fillmore East," recorded in '71 before Duane Allman was killed, and it also makes one painfully aware that after "Brothers and Sisters' the group's production of new material was woeful. Ephemerality has always been a trademark of rock bands; most last about two years, this one was six, so it's entirely possible, perhaps even probable, that the seeds for a break-up had been planted before Gregg even heard of Cher. They certainly seemed to have run out of new songs.
Now, of course, Leavell has a new group with Jamio and Lama Williams of the Alismass, Betts has jumped the capricon ship to sign with Arista records, where he presumably will form a band which some of his Nashville sidemen friends. Gregg Allman's future is unleader, but one hopes that - heaven help us - he doesn't make any records with Cer.
Meanwhile, "Wipe the Windows" will do as chronicle of what once was. The pickings in rock 'n' roll are mightly slim these days, and one sould be thankful for enything one can get. This band was better than most, and so is this record.