Clouds don’t have teeth or claws, but the black pillows of doom that surrounded the grandstand at the State Fair last night could not have looked more menacing even if they did. The drizzle came and went during the hour-long set of pedal-steel guitar whiz Robert Randolph and his Family Band. And when the Allman Brothers finally took the stage at 8:30 p.m., opening with the chorus, “People, can you feel it? Love is in the air,” I can’t have been the only one thinking, No, in these parts we call that the dew point.
The seemingly inevitable deluge never came, though. Half-way through the first soaring guitar solo, as the projection screens on each side of the stage zoomed in on the magic hands of guitarist Derek Trucks and the screen behind the band displayed a giant spinning mushroom, it became possible to believe that the evening may not end in tragedy after all. By the time Greg Allman growled the opening lyrics to “Midnight Rider,” it even looked likely that this was going to be a fairly decent show, not one of those half-hearted phone-in concerts that plague the grandstand stage so often this time of year.
Fortunately, the Allman Brothers Band isn’t some has-been casino act trying to cash in on its nostalgia; it’s more like a corporation that makes sure its customers receive a quality product, and which guarantees a certain amount of unrefundable satisfaction every time. The Allman Brothers isn't a band anymore—it's a brand. What makes it more Mercedes than Mercury is that even when its members are just going about their everyday business, the Allman Brothers is still one of the most musically interesting and adventurous rock acts in existence. When lead guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks are trading sinuous guitar licks, chasing the ghost of Duane Allman, they at least do Duane the justice of playing like they mean it.
The other invigorating aspect of the band’s current incarnation is that even though there’s a lot of gray hair on the Allman stage—and in a few cases, no hair at all—it’s the youngest member of the band, twenty-eight-year-old Derek Trucks, who is clearly keeping the franchise alive. Sure, the frizzy-haired, pot-bellied Haynes can still coax his Gibson to deliver the Allman’s signature sustain, but whenever the band wants to kick a song up a notch or three, it hands the reins over to Trucks, who routinely sends a plume of slides and bends and wails into the stratosphere. It’s sacrilege to say it, I know, but technically speaking Trucks is probably a better guitarist than Duane Allman ever was—and, like a restless jazz musician, his improvisations simultaneously echo the Allman sound of old and marry it to an edgier, more sophisticated brand of blues that all but shouts “new and improved!”
The other aspect of Trucks’ playing that’s hard not to marvel at is his preternaturally calm demeanor at the helm of this great institution of rock. Trucks doesn’t jump around onstage or squeeze and grimace like he’s trying to pass a kidney stone. On the contrary, when Trucks is up there laying his claim as the most amazing guitar hero of his generation, and the camera zooms in to capture the expression on his pallid, boyish face, he could just as well be reading the paper or sewing a button on a shirt. If the camera and screens weren’t there, one could at least imagine he was breaking a sweat. But he’s not. Trucks is the thinking man’s guitar hero, and when it’s his turn to solo, he’s definitely the smartest guy in the room—or in the grandstand.
Historically speaking, last night’s overall performance didn’t have the aura of greatness. Greg Allman stayed in the background most of the time, presiding over the show like a proud grandpa. He came forward, acoustic guitar in hand, to play “Melissa” for the first encore, but wisely let the youngsters do most of the heavy lifting. They played some favorites—"Revival," "Midnight Rider," "Let It Rain," "One Way Out," "Jessica"—mixed things up with a few mid-listers—"Woman Across the Water," "The Same Thing"—and even played a couple of songs I’d never heard before. All I can say about those tunes is that they sounded like worthwhile extensions of the Allman brand, which is a distinctively American blend of progressive, Southern-grown blues rock that’s been gently aging for more than thirty years and is tasting quite smooth now.
It’s a quality product, after all, packaged to perfection, satisfaction guaranteed.