Sunday, October 16, 2016

Les Brers: A Band of Brothers Back in New York

Les Brers at Brooklyn Bowl 10/12/2016

When I was telling people that I was going to see Les Brers at Brooklyn Bowl last Wednesday, I found it a little tricky to briefly describe the act I was going to see. Are they an Allman Brothers spin-off? Are they a tribute act? Are they a continuation? All of the above?

Les Brers, named after the Eat a Peach instrumental, "Les Brers in A Minor," and which is apparently a French/Cajun/Southern mutant translation of "The Brothers," was founded last year by Butch Trucks, drummer and founding member of the Allman Brothers, who invited some other Brothers and extended "family" (both literally and figuratively) to perform music from that band's original line-up. Obviously, this is no "tribute act." The fact that Les Brers includes more than half of the final line-up of the Allman Brothers, including two founding members, should put that notion to bed immediately.

Still, though I was outwardly excited for the show, inside I was only cautiously optimistic. The Allman Brothers Band broke up in 2014 after guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks (Butch's nephew) announced their intentions to leave the band. The final line-up of the Allman Brothers Band was its most stable, with no changes since Haynes rejoined the band in 2001 following founding member Dickey Betts' departure. In that decade, the band had reestablished themselves with classic rock fans, while finding a new fan base with younger music aficionados in the improvisational (or "jam band") rock scene. Meanwhile, Haynes and the younger Trucks also established themselves as bona fide "guitar gods." So how would this new band fare?

Quite well, in fact. Or to put it in other words, risking sounding like a sycophantic Peach-Head (the designated term for hard-core Allman Brothers fans, of which I am one), Les Brers kicked some serious ass.

As soon as the band kicked into Hot 'Lanta, their Fillmore East era barn-burner, it became clear that this band was a formidable beast. The thundering rhythm section of original Allman Brothers drummers Jaimoe and Trucks along with longtime percussionist Marc QuiƱones and bassist Oteil Burbridge immediately displayed that propulsive, muscular drive that has been the backbone of the band for decades. The fact that they were seasoned and well oiled came as no surprise, given that this rhythm section has remained unchanged since Oteil joined the Allmans in 1997.

The band powered through a set of Allman Brothers classics the way the old band did for decades: With reverence for the past, but keeping the music fresh through intense, in -the-moment playing, with all band members in deep communication.

Pearson and Williams
Early on in the set, guitarist Jack Pearson established himself as the focal point of the band, playing a blistering solo on the old Dickey Betts composition, "Blue Sky." Pearson's unique style and use of harmonics added a new dimension to the music. An obvious choice for the gig, Pearson was member of the Allmans from 1997 to 1999 and would frequently play with Gregg Allman's solo band. Indeed, In his memoir, My Cross to Bear, Gregg wrote that "Jack Pearson is tops--he can do it all. There's no question that he's one of the most accomplished cats I've ever played with[.]" That says a lot, but not nearly as much as Pearson said with his tasty, imaginative, and virtuosic playing.

Pearson was joined on guitar and harmonica by Nashville session man Pat Bergeson. While he never really stole the spotlight from Pearson, he nailed his parts like a true pro, and the two guitarists expertly matched each other to execute the dazzling guitar harmony lines that were the Allmans' trademark.

Playing Gregg Allman's keyboard parts was Bruce Katz, sideman for such performers as John P. Hammond and Delbert McClinton. With more finely honed chops, and greater capacity for improvisation (Gregg Allman himself confessed that he was the least accomplished instrumentalist in the ABB, unless you counted his voice as an instrument), Katz' playing was the one aspect of the show that actually surpassed the original band.

Gregg's vocal parts were handled by Lamar Williams Jr. The son of Lamar Williams, the bass player for the Allman Brothers between 1972 and 1976 (the peak years in terms of the band's popularity) and ABB spin-off Sea Level, Williams had a tough role to fill. Allman had always been possession of one of the finest, blues/soul voices, and even in his advanced age, when his higher range diminished in favor of a deeper growl, his voice always had a breadth and richness that was mournfully expressive, while cutting through the arrangement perfectly. For his part, Williams did an admirable job throwing himself into the music and doing the songs his own way. While his singing didn't have the same weight to it, he displayed an easy charisma and had a fine voice for the material, shining most on the soulful ballad "Please Call Home."

For the song "Dreams" (notably, the first song that Gregg brought to the newly formed ABB in 1969) the band was joined by Scott Sharrard, guitarist for Gregg Allman and Friends, who contributed a solo that was nuanced and propulsive (though a bit low in the mix from where I was). The band then finished with a potent, albeit truncated, medley of "Mountain Jam" and "Whipping Post."

Would I have liked a longer set? Sure (it was a relatively short show by ABB standards). Did I wish that Oteil was showcased a bit more? Of course (his solos in the early 2000s were always a highlight for me). Still, I would be an ingrate to complain. Les Brers put on a great show and I would be content to see a dozen more like it. Hopefully they'll come around again. I would like to see Les Brers shows become as much a New York tradition as the Allman Brothers Beacon runs were. I would be eager to see how the band would expand its repertoire, and hear how they would  get deep into the groove that comes with time playing together. Perhaps that is a lot to hope for.

In the end, the band succeeded in making classics sound fresh and immediate in a way that I did not think I would hear again after the Allman Brothers Band disbanded. This group of expert musicians were certainly the right guys for the job. They had the chops, the passion, and the inventiveness to pull it off. They also had the pedigree and credibility. And even if there were no one named Allman on the stage, they had definitely kept the music in the family.

No comments: