Now Spinning: The Allman Brothers Band – Cream Of The Crop 2003

Often times my favorite Record Store Day releases are the ones that I’m able to pick up after the ‘holiday’ at a discount. That was the case with this year’s Allman Brothers Band release, which turned up at my local used record store just days after Record Store Day, and still looks to be available for quite cheap six months later. The prospect of purchasing an opened album that had been immediately resold, most certainly at a financial loss, within days of its release rightly raised some mental red flags, but my curiosity won out once a visual inspection showed no signs of damage. As someone who saw their first Allman Brothers Band show in 2007, this era of the band with Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes was the lineup that I’d grown up with, and I was excited to hear this version of the band captured on wax.

Immediately, two things are apparent about this release. One, and most importantly, a decent amount of care was put into assembling this release as a legacy set of sorts for that era of the band, living up to the Cream Of The Crop title. And two, despite the above being the case, perhaps a couple of corners were cut in the name of cost. I thought I had stumbled into a great deal with my used copy of this 3 LP release for $25, but Discogs would suggest that I overpaid, if anything, with an average sold price of $20 and several new for sale below that price currently. Not a bad deal for a triple LP set in today’s world, where a single LP Record Store Day release can often top $30! The set is only available in color vinyl, featuring pretty, dulled gold and silver LPs and an utterly bizarre ‘bronze’ somewhere between salmon and hot pink. Each LP is graciously packaged in anti-static poly-lined inner sleeves, and the liner notes offer appreciated details, despite their brevity.

So why is it so cheap? When looking at the tracklist, things start to look a tad concerning… for example, side C featuring the 13-minute ‘In Memory of Elizabeth Reed’ (part one) also includes… not one, but two other songs! Generally, an LP side should be capped at around 18 minutes to achieve optimal sound quality, and with a band like The Allman Brothers Band with layers and layers of sound (two hyperactive guitars and three drummers on top of bass, organ and vocals), there’s the risk of simply too much information crammed onto these grooves, resulting in a lack of instrument separation and a general muddiness. I’m pleased to report that that is by and large not the case on this one, as I’ll continue to detail. Having said that, this is not exactly an audiophile recording either. I believe that’s likely due to the quality of the source tapes, but I do have to wonder if pushing the envelope with 20-25 minute sides affected the sound quality ceiling.

Now that we’ve gotten that negative out of the way, let’s look into what this release offers. For a band that has issued virtually every Duane Allman performance with listenable sound quality, all of which feature nearly identical setlists, and tries to ignore the fact that Dickey Betts led the band for another peak decade by refusing to revisit that archival material, this release finally offers something NEW. And with Warren Haynes as Supervising Producer, the tracklist really is expertly crafted to offer the experience of hearing this era of the band live in concert, including a healthy dose of tunes written by and solely associated with this era of the band.

The tracklist appears to very much mirror an Allman Brothers Band concert setlist in its construction, and nearly in length. Starting with popular show opener and 1969 debut album nugget, ‘Don’t Want You No More -> It’s Not My Cross To Bear’, the band mixes old, familiar fare with three songs written by the current unit over the first two LPs here. Things take a turn towards a second set vibe on side 3, as the band launches into a version of ‘In Memory of Elizabeth Reed’ that takes up nearly all of both sides. I’ll leave it up to you whether we really need ten minutes of drums and bass solos on a vinyl release, but if the goal was the capture the feelings and sounds of attending an Allman Brothers Band concert, well then, ten minute drum solos come with the territory.

Performances are taken from a series of five shows spread that summer tour, and the levels of both performance and sound quality are strong throughout, with minor variances, and assembled with a fluidity that could feel like a single complete concert. Gregg Allman’s vocals sound a touch harsh and buried during ‘Midnight Rider’ but powerfully snarling and front and center on the ‘Statesboro Blues’ and ‘Don’t Keep Me Wonderin” recorded a week later. Sound quality is good, with Derek Trucks’ slide guitar weaving it’s way through the left channel and Warren Haynes wailing on the right, and the percussive freight train of Butch Trucks with textures from Jaimoe and Marc Quinones come through with particular effectiveness. While the sound quality is even very good, it doesn’t wow- it just doesn’t seem to jump with the powerful presence, warmth and clarity of the best live recordings. And it’s just a touch… quiet? I like my Allmans loud, and have found myself cranking the volume up, but it just doeesn’t have the powerful headroom of other recordings, perhaps because of the side lengths. Pressing quality is fine for the price but certainly nothing to brag about – two of my three LPs have minor warps that don’t affect playback, too much of a given with new vinyl production these days, and there is an annoying patch of audible non-fill during the release’s lone quiet song, ‘Melissa’. But when the cost is $25 for this level of musical quality and quantity, these issues hardly detract.

Ultimately, this release reminds us that this lineup was more of a final chapter of The Allman Brothers Band than a tribute to, and they deliver material both old and new here with a burning vitality. Sure, some highlights are familiar, with plenty of instrumental histronics during ‘Liz Reed’ and a particularly fiery ‘Whipping Post’ featuring Branford Marsalis on saxophone. But newer tunes ‘Rockin’ Horse’, ‘Desdemona’ and ‘The High Cost of Low Living’ all find the band in an exploratory mode, and Trucks and Haynes respectively inject new life into ‘Don’t Keep Me Wonderin” and ‘Melissa’ with their solos. Haynes shines on ‘Soulshine’ both in delivering an electrifying vocal duet with Allman, and trading solos with Trucks on some of their finest interplay. While the characters have changed, that guitar interplay which was at the heart of The Allman Brothers Band from the start is a constant here. Derek Trucks was 24 at the time of these concerts – the same age Duane Allman was when he died – and here proves not only the ability to adequately fill those shoes, but hints at the creative directions his playing would continue to take in the years since. A worthwhile addition to the catalog.

Turntable: Thorens TD 160
Cartridge/Style: Shure V15 III w/ Pfanstiehl Japanese Elliptical Stylus
Amplifier: Marantz 2230
Speakers: KLH Model Six

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