It felt like he was dying. On March 25, the Allman Brothers ended their annual spring residency at New York's Beacon Theater. "Were you there?" Gregg Allman asks, over the phone from his home in Savannah, Ga. I answer him no; he says, "Well, neither was I." It seems an unlikely thing – an Allman Brothers' concert without an Allman brother. It's happened occasionally in the past, here and there, because of illness. But could it happen in the future, if Gregg were to perish or otherwise leave the band permanently?
Allman had left the Beacon stage the night before, suffering from excruciating back pain and an abdominal hernia – lingering after-effects from his liver transplant surgery in 2010, an ordeal detailed in his recent biography, My Cross to Bear. "I've had a great life," he drawls laconically, slipping part-way into a past tense. "Kind of a hard one, I guess, in places, with ups and downs and what have you."
In his book, the 64-year-old Come and Go Blues singer chronicles those ups and downs, his relationship with Cher being one of the former, and the death of his guitarist brother Duane Allman being the heaviest of the latter.
Duane, outstanding and legendary with an electric Gibson and a bottle-neck slide, died in 1971, the result of a motorcycle accident at age 24. The Allman Brothers continued without their namesake guitarist, earning induction in 1995 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This year marks the 40th anniversary of their Eat a Peach, a double album with three sides of music with Duane and one side without.
In his 1972 review of that album, Rolling Stone's Tony Glover wrote about voids aching to be filled, and that music could fill so much because it was able to express elements of sorrow, celebration, anger and love. That same year, the band's bassist Berry Oakley died, also from a motorcycle accident. The Allmans played on, and perhaps they never really had a choice.
With his new book, brother Gregg is a man of 378 pages. Over the phone, he is a man of much fewer words. To my central question – can the Allman Brothers outlive the Allmans – he replies, "I'd like to think so." Could you elaborate on that? Can the band go on without you? "I'd really like to think so."
If the band can continue sans Allmans, they'll do so with a blend of old and new. Original drummers Butch Trucks and Jaimoe Johanson remain. Guitarist-vocalist Warren Haynes has been with the group, off and on, since 1989. The most intriguing figure involved with the band's future is Derek Trucks, a young, stunning guitarist whom Allman, in his book, puts forward as Duane reincarnate. He's the nephew of Butch, with a lyrical guitar style and tone often compared to Duane.
Derek Trucks, when he's not playing with the Allmans, currently records and tours with Tedeschi Trucks Band, an inspired 11-piece southern soul-rock collective he co-fronts with his wife Susan Tedeschi, a Grammy-nominated singer-guitarist.
Having won the best-blues prize this year for its debut album Revelator, Tedeschi Trucks has its own Grammy recognition. The deeply talented outfit, which includes Allman Brothers' bassist Oteil Burbridge, is presently touring Canada for the first time.
The band shares a musical and sprawling aesthetic with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, Sly and the Family Stone, Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen and, yes, the Allman Brothers.
Given that the family ethos is strong within all those collectives, with or without the blood connections, I ask Trucks if the Allmans can continue without Gregg. "Well, I don't know if I can see it rolling forward without G.A. behind the B-3," he says, referring to Allman's preferred make of Hammond organ. "Having said that, the music and the seeds they planted will be carried on. I think it's very much alive."
Adds Tedeschi, on the line with her husband from the pair's home in Jacksonville, Fla.: "I always thought that Derek and Oteil and Warren and all those guys contribute so much to the Allman Brothers. The music of the Allman offshoots continues to be very true, and they really are continuing the legacy of that group."
About the Allman legacy, Allman himself points to the band's endurance over tragedy. "I feel great about us staying together, after the loss of two members," he says. "I'm really proud of that."
In his Eat a Peach review, Glover wrote that he hoped the Allmans would never stop: "How many groups can you think of who really make you believe they're playing for the joy of it?"
The group was never the same without Duane; neither would it be the same without Gregg. But it could still be the Allman Brothers, even if played by Tedeschi Trucks Band. Either way, long live the joyful noise.
Tedeschi Trucks Band plays Toronto Jazz, June 29; Winnipeg Folk, July 6; Thunder Bay Blues, July 7; Ottawa Blues, July 10; Quebec City, July 11.