Words/Photos: Jake Cudek
“Guitarmeggedon!” That is one of the words used by Devon Allman to describe the sheer volume of talent and amplitude displayed at Denver’s Mission Ballroom on December 8. The metropolitan area’s newest venue played host to the Allman Family Revival, a conglomerate of the Allman Betts Band and a rotating stage of support that included 17 faces from the music world, both well-known veterans and some new faces.
The Allman Family Revival has been an annual event for the last three years, but 2019 was the first time it was taken on the road, with dates in San Francisco, Denver, and New York. Not only did Denver get shown the Southern love, but the show also fell on what would have been Gregg Allman’s 72nd birthday, a fact repeatedly referenced throughout the night by both band and guests.
Reinforcing the family revival theme and adding an ethereal component, both Devon Allman and Duane Betts bear a striking resemblance to their fathers, so it was easy to find oneself doing a double take when gazing stage ward. This genetic characteristic also spilled over to the noticeable likenesses that Berry Oakley Jr. and Lamar Williams Jr have to their patriarchs, both of whom filled the Allman Brothers Band bass role consecutively from the band’s inception through to 1976.
The evening got started with a five song set of original Allman Betts Band tunes from their debut album, Down to The River, and closed with the Allman Brotehrs classic “Blue Sky.” This band, fronted by the progeny of greatness, has enlisted equals in every respect. Outside of Allman, Betts, and Oakley, the band is top notch. Johnny Stachela is on slide guitar, a stoic master of the bended note; John Ginty plays keys and the Hammond B3 organ, effortlessly swirling that gospel sound and driving the drone of the undercurrent. Lastly carrying the rhythm are R. Scott Bryan on percussion and John Lum on the kit, both of whom would give Butch or Jaimoe a run for their money.
Following the opening set and without leaving the stage or taking a break, the band continued on, welcoming Eric Krasno and the Dickinson brothers of North Mississippi Allstars fame. The musicians continued the collaborative evening with a 13-minute rendition of the Allman Brothers’s original “Dreams.” Next up was the NMA original from their latest album, “Up and Rolling,” a bluesy number that told the tale of psychedelia through mushroom tea and friendship. “Ain’t Wastin Time No More” and “Trouble No More” followed and saw Lamar Williams Jr. lead the band vocally as Luther Dickinson, Krasno, and Betts alternated guitar leads over the bluesy foundation the rest of the band was laying down.
Following the shred fest, and to great applause from the crowd, Devon Allman let the crowd know that “it was time to bring up some young blood to keep the evening moving.” Allman then welcomed Ally Venable, a Texas spitfire on the guitar with vocals to match, and familiar face Taz Niederauer to the stage. Taking lead on vocals, Venable delivered a version of “The Thrill Is Gone” for the history books, showing off her old soul and honed chops, all the while exchanging with the sonic mastery of Niederauer, who was locked in a skyward gaze and contorted grimace of emotion.
“With A Little Help from My Friends” upped the energy, and another new face was introduced to lead the way – J.D. Simo’s ruff, gruff presentation took the song over the top like a young Joe Cocker, and talented bluesman Jimmy Vivino had now joined the group on stage as well.
The band on stage was joined by guitarist Eric McFadden and Jimmy Hall, long time Gregg Allman collaborator and front man for 70s band Wet to deliver the blues in true “going to church” Sunday form. Earl Hooker’s “Feel So Bad” and “Keep On Smiling,” a Wet Willie Song, were the sermons of choice and Hall held each ear in the room in the palm of his hand, while McFadden showed his talent on the steel hollow body.
Taking the blues to the funk, G. Love was welcomed out next and his fusion tune, “I Like Cold Beverages,” got both the crowd and the players on stage hopping and smiling. Just when it seemed like the joy in the room couldn’t go any higher, the opening notes of “One Way Out” seemed to do the impossible, and the crowd roared in acceptance. The exchanges between Hall and G. Love on harmonicas and McFadden and Vivino on guitars were unrelenting and dispelled any idea that the performance was anything but created in the moment.
Giving everyone a chance to catch their breath, another upbeat blues selection was dialed up with the Allman Brothers original “Come and Go Blues,” led by Charlie Starr of Blackberry Smoke (guitar) and Lamar Williams Jr. on vocals. The gritty number showcased Williams’ talent and emotion, and Starr’s laid back leads were effortlessly pulled off.
Closing out the set, the group delivered the Roy Orbison classic “You Got It” with none other than Alex Orbison, son of the late great and a proficient talent in his own right, carrying the tempo on the kit, no doubt making his dad proud. With the final notes of the tune, Devon Allman announced – after nearly two and a half hours of consecutive music – that the band was going to take a break and get ready for round two.
Thirty minutes after the stage went barren – a seemingly short span following a multiple hour first set – the house music went silent and the lights dropped. With so much material left on the table, the second set opener was anyone’s call and quickly became everyone’s joy when the Allman Betts Band, backed by Luther Dickinson and Robert Randolph, laid out an 18-minute version of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” With its psychedelic twists, jazzy flares, and thundering drive, this interpretation brought as much ecstasy to the stage as it did the floor as players played under closed eye and then reconnected with goose bump grins and hearty laughs.
The revolving door continued and the group was joined by Niederauer and Cody Dickinson (drums),and Randolph played bandleader, leading the group through his original “The March,” a powerful instrumental with a number of break beats and changes that reflected the prowess on the stage. Hall and Vivino were then brought back to deliver on the Elmore James tune made famous by the Allmans, “Done Somebody Wrong.” Again, Hall’s expression on the harmonica had the house stomping and getting down while the licks traded between Niederauer, Randolph, and Vivino reached the point where joyful laughter was involuntary, and no one could control their inner child which danced the night away.
Although it seemed that all the talent in the house had already been brought to the stage, there, of course, was Mohr. Todd Mohr, of the renowned Big Head Todd and The Monsters, came front and center and delivered on his original “Circle”, which displaced any thoughts that this man was a one hit wonder or a pigeon-holed talent, as his playing and vocals came through with such verve that anyone who was unfamiliar sat up and took notice. He then continued his contribution leading the band through a well-executed version of “Melissa,”
Having given the band and audience a chance to reflect in the softness that was yet another side to the Allman Brothers legacy, the evening’s energy was far from waning and was taken up a notch with the introduction of Cheap Trick’s Robin Zander who closed out the set with “I Want You To Want Me” and a rousing version of “Ramblin’ Man,” both of which were presented with the expected rock-and-roll flare that Zander embodies in his guitar playing, vocal command, and sheer stage presence.
The stage quickly cleared, and the audience began its customary chant for more as the clock ticked past midnight. It only took a few minutes for the crowd’s call to be answered as the stage filled once again to close out the evening and send the faithful out into the night. With Zander once again at the center, the band now consisted of everyone who had played throughout the night. They began the 1978 Cheap Trick original “Surrender,” with Zander offering up the opportunity for the audience to sing the chorus without musical accompaniment, lifting the spirts of the crowd through a singular unified voice. This dynamic continued with the second encore choice in Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman.” The song gave Todd Mohr the chance to do his best Orbison impression, bringing more grins to both sides of the stage. Finally, and appropriately referencing both the time and notion of hitting the road, the group drove a jammed-out rendition of “Midnight Rider” to send everyone home with a final tip to the Southern comfort of the Allman Brothers heritage.
In the end the Allman Betts Band and the revolving cast of contributors delivered a night to remember, playing four hours of music and honoring not only the memory of The Allman Brothers Band, but also the spirit of live music itself and the community and camaraderie that it spawns.
This night was not about one person, one band, or one time.
It was about the timeless dynamic and ineffable language that melody and lyric bring.
It was about how those components connect family, friends, and strangers, reminding us that we are more alike than not, and we are truly in this life together.
Allman Betts Set
All Night, Shinin’, Autumn Breeze, Multi-Colored Lady, Blue Sky
Allman Family Revival Set I
Dreams, Up and Rolling, Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More, Trouble No More, Thrill Is Gone, With A Little Help From My Friends, Ballgame On A Rainy Day, Keep On Smiling, I Like Cold Beverages, One Way Out, Come and Go Blues, You Got It
Allman Family Revival Set II
In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, The March, Done Somebody Wrong, Circle, Melissa, I Want You to Want Me, Ramblin’ Man
Surrender, Pretty Woman, Midnight Rider