Gregg Allman: “Low Country Blues”
A new year, a new T-Bone Burnett joint– and this one with no dearth of truth in advertising. This one is what is says it is, and if you’ve ever heard a blues album, there’s nothing here that will surprise: It’s one of the great singers in classic rock, performing a bunch of old blues stalwarts, the man behind O, Brother and B.B. King’s One Kind Favor at the board and an ace band, including Dr. John, cooking behind him. Yes indeed: You can guess at what this one sounds like. But the element of surprise, as it turns out, isn’t always necessary for true revelation: Low Country Blues is a truly fine record, and, in fact, a high watermark for all parties involved.
I’ll give T-Bone credit for this above all else– he knows how important the sound of a recording is, and I’d argue that that’s never truer than when dealing with the blues. Happily, this is one of my favorite-sounding Burnett productions, as it largely eschews the sort of analog approximation that makes some of his work sound rather affected. This one is loose, clean, simple, and open, and recalls nothing so much as the B.B. King album mentioned above. If there are also some trace hints of his work with, say, John Mellencamp, that probably has more to do with the players assembled than with the production itself, like the way Jay Bellerose’s percussion rattles through the background of “Floating Bridge” like a train of ghosts. The thing is simply unobtrusive, though; when you’re recording a group of blues songs that are pretty well-known to most fans of the genre, the album lives or dies by how hot the performances are and how vividly their energy is captured on tape, and this one bottles every last bit of the heat.
The musicians, meanwhile, play like their lives depend on it– which might actually be sort of close to the truth, at least as far as Allman is concerned. The sessions for this album took place after he underwent a liver transplant, but if death is on his mind, it only rears its head in roundabout ways– like the fact that the album begins with “Floating Bridge,” a song about a near-death experience throwing everything into a new light, or the way in which the Allman original “Just Another Rider” is sort of an existential road song, reflective but not ponderous. And indeed, there’s nothing ponderous about any of this; as with the B.B. King album, any morbidity or introspection the singer might feel takes a back seat to the kick of the music and the awesome, simmering grooves of the band. “Floating Bridge” transitions, with the playful sound of an organ, into the driving jump blues of “Little by Little,” a nasty little heartbreak number with a terrifically powerful, snarling vocal from the singer– as if to say that this is the work that still seems worth doing, the stuff that still matters on some basic level.
So that’s the refreshing thing about all this: It’s an album from a veteran rocker that stands not as a genre exercise, not as a near-death reflection, not as a comeback or even a last will and testament, simply, wonderfully, a smokin’-hot blues album. Neither singer nor producer needs to lend the proceedings any sort of artificial importance, because that’s not what makes this music stick; it’s all about being deeply felt, and played with vigor, which, to be sure, everything here is. It’s a celebration of the blues, really– which may sound a bit paradoxical at first, but there’s real joy to this music, even though it’s all about deceitful women and broken hearts, about life’s weary road and the admission of sin.
Standout songs? Well, pick one. I love the brassy, tough-as-nails but still swingin’ strut of “Blind Man,” a high point not just for Allman as a singer but also for Dr. John, who does indeed swing throughout this album, his piano bringing energy and physicality to everything here– yes, in much the same we it did on One Kind Favor. I love the playfulness of “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” with its tight piano, guitar, and percussion interplay. I love how “Please Accept My Love” blurs the line between blues and old-timey rock ballad, how it shimmers and sways. I love the little dash of New Orleans flavoring on “Floating Bridge”– naturally, a Dr. John innovation.
All to say, this is one of those records that could prove to be a perfect career capstone, even if it never presents itself as one. My hope, though, is that it’s more like a new beginning. There are a lot of great songs in the blues canon, and even if we’ve heard ’em all before, the triumph of Low Country Blues is that it reminds us of how smashing they still sound once re-invigorated with the right amount of heat. I’d be more than glad to get a second helping.