Staying Right on TRACK

The Allman Brothers Band may be over — at least as an ongoing active band. But Butch Trucks is doing his best to keep the spirit of that long-running and influential group alive with his new group, Butch Trucks & the Freight Train Band.

The Allman Brothers Band (ABB) played its last show in October 2014, but after taking several months to relax at his home in France, Trucks got the itch to play music again.

“I got to thinking about halfway through 2015, ‘I ain’t dead yet,’” Trucks tells Folio Weekly. “So I told my wife, I’m going to head back over [to the United States] and I’m going to put together another band. And we are going to play music like the Allman Brothers did, because nobody else is doing it.”

The band members Trucks (who shared drumming duties in the ABB with Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson) found for his Freight Train band include a pair of musicians with noteworthy résumés. Guitarist/singer Damon Fowler has recorded five blues-centered solo albums and is part of a blues supergroup, Southern Hospitality. Keyboardist Bruce Katz leads his own band and, over the course of a three-decade career, has performed on more than 70 albums by other artists. Joining those core members are guitarist Chris Vitarello (also a member of the Bruce Katz Band), guitarist/singer Heather Gillis and percussionist Garrett Dawson. Locals can check out the band when they open for Donna the Buffalo on Dec. 29 at Ponte Vedra Concert Hall.

The main aspect of the ABB that Trucks wanted to revive was the kind of spontaneous improvisation of that group’s concerts, especially when the original lineup was together from 1969 until original guitarist and band leader Duane Allman’s death in a motorcycle accident on Oct. 29, 1971.

“The one thing I pound into every one of them is to go back and listen to The Allman Brothers At Fillmore East, up until the time that Duane died, because that’s when we were really, really, really innovating,” says Trucks. “That’s when we were playing, you never knew what was going to happen next. Then after Duane died, [guitarist/singer] Dickey [Betts] kind of took us from that jazz direction in a country direction and that spontaneity just kind of went by the wayside. And I hate to say it, but I think the worst thing that ever happened to the Allman Brothers was success.”

The Allman Brothers, in fact, enjoyed their greatest success after the deaths of Duane Allman and bassist Berry Oakley (who, eerily enough, perished in a 1972 motorcycle accident), after a revamped lineup made the 1973 album, Brothers and Sisters. That classic topped the album charts and produced the hit single “Ramblin’ Man” and turned The Allman Brothers into one of the biggest bands going in the mid-’1970s.

But drug use, internal issues and other problems split the band in 1976. The group reunited from 1978 to 1982, split again, and then reformed in 1989, eventually settling into a post-2000 lineup anchored by Gregg Allman and guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks (Trucks’ nephew).

Though the October 2014 shows were billed as the final shows for the group, Gregg Allman, in an interview with me this past summer, said he could see the ABB reuniting for a tour next year or in 2018.

Trucks isn’t ruling out the idea, but said Gregg Allman’s health will be a key factor. If Allman (who had to cancel a run of shows with ZZ Top this past summer) gets his health stabilized, Trucks could see a reunion happening.

“I would love to do one more round,” Trucks said of an ABB reunion tour. “I would absolutely love it.”

As it is, he’s loving what he’s hearing and seeing on stage with his Freight Train Band. In particular, Trucks feels his new group is recapturing some of the spontaneity and adventurous spirit of the original Allman Brothers Band. The band’s live repertoire, which includes several ABB classics, a few covers and songs written by the band members, is suited to the kind of improvisation and unpredictability Trucks treasured in the early ABB concerts.

He noted that Gillis is asserting herself as third guitarist and following the lead of Les Brers, a second new group Trucks started that includes several Allman Brothers alumni. “She [Gillis] started coming to listen to Les Brers, and [guitarists] Jack Pearson and Pat Berguson, they play like Duane and Dickey did back in those early days,” Trucks said. “One of them will be playing, and the other one will hear something and he’ll just step right in and they’ll start trading stuff and they’ll start intertwining stuff and playing melodies and this, that and the other, and it’s different all the damn time. And what Heather has started doing [in the Freight Train Band] is when she hears Chris or Damon doing something, she’ll start doing that. Then before you know it, you’ll have all three of them throwing licks around, and it’s really incredible.”