Every March since 1989, the Allman Brothers Band have converged upon New York City for an extended residency at their unofficial Manhattan abode, the historic Beacon Theatre (with the exception of 2010 when a Cirque de Soleil booking at the Beacon forced the shows to move to the United Palace Theatre). It hearkens back to their beginnings when they often took up similar runs at the immortal and since closed Fillmore East. A few former band members might come and go over the years, but every March all the fans that descended upon the residency at Broadway and 74th Street knew Gregg Allman and the rest of the band he started with his late brother Duane in 1969 would keep the good music and good times flowing. In 2008, however, the music stopped. The band was forced to cancel their coveted Beacon shows while Greg Allman dealt with complications from his battle with Hepatitis C.
The band came back stronger than ever in March of 2009, celebrating their 40th anniversary with another unforgettable run at the Beacon. Then, in 2010, his struggle with Hepatitis required Allman to receive a liver transplant. Coupled with the cancellation of the 2008 Beacon run, these were harsh reminders of what the debilitating disease can do, even to a seemingly indestructible rock legend.
Recently Allman began advocating for Hepatitis C awareness, and on Wednesday night, a lucky few of the legions of Allman Brothers fans got a rare summer appearance by the band at the Beacon for the charity concert "Tune In To Hep C." This was a one night only event, organized by the American Liver Foundation and Merck, made possible by this band of brothers who were backing up one of their own. Fans immediately took note of this rare opportunity for an Allman Brothers summer show at the Beacon as it sold out quickly. However, soon after entering the theatre, they realized the warm weather outside wouldn't be the only difference between this and their usual March nights in the venue.
Following brief speeches about the "Tune In To Hep C" campaign, a video played of Gregg Allman in a rare unguarded and non-musical moment with the fans. The front man usually remains humble and focused on the music on stage, and in between songs often limits his social interaction with the crowd to graciously thanking them between songs. But here was Greg Allman up close and personal, telling his story of how he got sick, and how there are millions out there living with this same often stigmatized and ignored disease.
Then, the music took hold of the rest of the evening. The first 3 songs were as fitting as any on this night. First, the instrumental "Don't Want You No More" segued into "It's Not My Cross To Bear," poignant choices as close to Gregg Allman's heart as any 2 songs could get at a show to benefit hepatitis C awareness. Next up was "I Walk On Gilded Splinters," another track that hit close to home, highlighted by a rugged assault on the beat by drummers Butch Trucks and Jaimoe Johanson, also founding members of the band, and accentuated by percussionist Marc Quinones. The midpoint of the song also showcased the first of many magical moments between guitarists Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes. "One Way Out," a classic from their days at the Fillmore, was played at a slower pace, now taking the form of a classic blues number, and more fitting to the desperate tone of the lyrics and Allman's distinct vocals.
Haynes sang a beautiful cover of the Van Morrison classic "Into The Mystic," in which Haynes and Trucks replaced the famous horn section of the original with the soulful picking of an Allmans signature, the Gibson Les Paul and SG Standard. Their Fillmore and Beacon regular, "Statesboro Blues," never gets old with the organized chaos of the slide work by Trucks, who at a significantly younger age than the rest of the band has undoubtedly extended the band's reputation as an epic live band still significant in their sixth decade of performing.
The first of several guests was announced toward the end of the first set, as Gregg introduced Natalie Cole, also an advocate for Tune In To Hep C and who also once suffered from the disease as well. Cole came out to a friendly welcome, but by the end of her electrifying rendition of the Sam Cooke classic "Change Is Gonna Come," she had been fully embraced by the Beacon faithful as one of their own. Any portion of the crowd that wasn't already on their feet at that point rose for a standing ovation by the song's end. Aretha Franklin's take on "The Weight" which featured Duane Allman's incomparable slide work in 1969 was reprised by Cole and Trucks in their respective roles, probably the only duo of performers around today that could recreate the classic rendition properly. The crowd didn't even care that Cole admittedly missed part of the last verse of the song, she already won them over. Another Beacon theme song, "In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed" closed out the first set, but the night was only just beginning.