Devon Allman says, “my best move is to go with what I know, which is based on feel, and let them shine.”
The humble Allman is actually quite adept at taking a tuneful turn, or ripping up a lead break in a rough-and-tumble way. As his father, Gregg, stated in his autobiography, My Cross to Bear, “My son Devon…he can play the fuckin’ blues.”
But the younger Allman is also speaking truth, as his bandmates Duane Betts and Johnny Stachela are indeed stellar guitar slingers. Betts is a melodic blues rocker who cites the three Kings —B.B., Albert and Freddie — and Mick Taylor’s Rolling Stones output as major influences. And, of course, he picked up loads of lyrical licks playing alongside his father, Dickey Betts, in Great Southern. “Some aspects of my playing come from listening to that music a lot, but I also believe that certain rhythmic and melodic elements are genetic attributes,” he says.
Stachela, for his part, largely plays the role of slide ace and is well versed in the southern-rock style innovated by Duane Allman. Interestingly, Stachela transfers classic-sounding open-tuned licks into standard tuning and proceeds to slink them out on an old Coricidin bottle, just as Duane did.
The three guitarists’ playing comes together on Down to the River (BMG), the Allman Betts Band’s debut album. The disc was produced by Matt Ross- Spang, whose engineering and mixing credits include the Marcus King Band, Jason Isbell and Elvis Presley. “What you hear on this record is the birth of a band,” Allman says. “This lineup had never played together in the same room until these sessions.”
Allman is speaking truth again, but there is a backstory. His father’s passing on May 27, 2017, inspired him to indulge in some soul searching. Devon invited his longtime friend Duane to participate in a star-studded celebration of Gregg’s 70th birthday on December 8, 2017, at the Fillmore in San Francisco, with guitar guests that included Robert Randolph and Luther Dickinson. That show was so moving that Allman’s and Betts’ bands toured as a double bill the following year, with the versatile Stachela playing a utilitarian role. The acts eventually merged and added another Allman Brothers Band legacy player, bassist Berry Oakley Jr. The players then documented their new music the old-fashioned way, recording it to tape at the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama, on the hallowed ground where the Rolling Stones laid down “Brown Sugar” and Bob Seger cut “Old Time Rock and Roll.”
Down to the River essentially is old time rock and roll, but steeped in southern accents. The kickoff track, “All Night,” features three guitar solos that set the scene for each player’s style and sound. Betts takes the sweet-sounding first turn. Allman immediately answers with a bit more grit, while Stachela slides home safely on the outro with a cry and a smile. Allman’s self-described “janky, kind of Curtis Mayfield-style” Strat-o-castic solo on the R&B-tinged title track is a standout. Betts, meanwhile, knocks a dinger out of the park on “Autumn Breeze” during the album’s most extended jam, while Allman simply sits back and enjoys it from the bench.
The Fillmore show honoring Gregg’s birthday has become an annual event called the Allman Family Revival. GP attended both of the past two years’ celebrations, and it’s clear that Devon has as much fun managing a supremely talented lineup as he does taking his own cuts at the plate on guitar. The Allman Betts Band kicked off its maiden world tour on March 26, precisely five decades after the Allman Brothers Band’s first jam.
How did the first Fillmore tribute show inspire the two of you to move forward?
Duane Betts I was promoting an EP [Sketches of American Music] when our bands went on tour together in the spring of 2018, and Devon was going to make another solo album after the tour, but then we starting writing together on the road.
Devon Allman I was working on tunes that were more in the Tom Petty style, with an acoustic and a Telecaster kind of sound, but once we started collaborating, that was clearly our future. So we played the hot hand and wrote some cool songs.
What guitars served as the primary songwriting tools?
Betts Mine was a Gibson Blues King acoustic that Devon had out with us and eventually gave to me as a gift.
Allman My dad left me over 40 guitars, which was insane. I never thought he even had that many. Duane had started writing a lot for our record on that Gibson. I figured it would be kind of special. He had clearly taken to it, and I certainly had enough guitars. [laughs]
My main songwriting guitar is an Art & Lutherie Roadhouse parlor guitar. It’s been my go-to travel instrument, and it’s gotten a lot of love, meaning it’s beat up pretty good.
Do you have any other legacy treasures in play at the moment?
Betts I’ve got a 1961 ES-335 that I’d never played outside of my dad’s house, but it’s such a fantastic-sounding guitar that I brought it out for this. He made one little modification, switching the neck pickup’s volume knob with the toggle switch so you can grab the knob with your pinkie for volume swells. My main guitar that I’ve been playing for quite a while now is the prototype of my dad’s signature Les Paul, from around 2001, which is modeled after a ’57 Les Paul goldtop. I’ve also got a ’55 or ’56 hardtail Strat. Those were my main electrics on the record, and I played them through my go-to amp, which is always a mid-’60s blackface Fender Super Reverb. My primary pedal is the Analogman King of Tone, and I also use an MXR Carbon Copy delay onstage. I used an atypical Martin acoustic on the record, and our producer, Matt Ross- Spang, played it as well. It’s a post-war guitar from the late ’40s that was given to my dad by the country singer Gary Stewart. It was broken during a bar fight and repaired using herringbone, which makes it unique because herringbone wasn’t used on Martins of that time period. That was a pre-war design element.
Allman I’ve got four of the standouts my dad left me on tour. There’s a ’61 Strat that’s the best I’ve ever played, a really cool ’66 Fender electric 12-string, a Gibson Everly Brothers model acoustic and a Gibson J-200 acoustic from about 2008. My dad played a lot more acoustic guitar than electric, so to play his acoustics on his songs like “Melissa” or “Midnight Rider” is surreal. I try not to think about it too much and simply play the song well.
Can you connect the dots between your stage and studio gear?
Allman I’ve got a few other electrics on the road, including a PRS McCarty hollowbody and a Linhof Special Tele-style electric. In the studio I used a Gibson ES-339, the Linhof and the ’61 Strat. I used a Victoria 1x12 combo for everything, and onstage I use a Victoria Golden Melody 2x12 combo. My main pedal is also the King of Tone.
Playing together as the Allman Betts Band, do you feel a certain license to connect on some guitar harmonies, such as the lick that opens “Shining”?
Betts Sure, why not? Devon and I harmonized on that part. It’s in the key of G. I’m playing the melody with a dirty, nasty tone using the bridge pickup of my 335, with the guitar turned pretty much all the way up.
Allman I played the harmony on my 339 using the right side of the King of Tone pedal, with the guitar’s volume wide open. If you listen carefully, you can tell the overall tone is the sound of two hollowbodies. I like the 339 because it’s got the sonic quality of a 335 but is about 25 percent smaller. I had a 335 that I liked, but it was so dang huge that I sold it and bought the 339 on the same day. I get what I want without it being so cumbersome.
What’s the story behind “Autumn Breeze,” the most jam-out, guitar-centric tune on the album?
Betts A good friend of mine who is no longer with us wrote that track. Chris Williams was the son of Jerry Lynn Williams, who wrote a bunch of Clapton’s stuff [“Forever Man, “No Alibis” “Running on Faith”]. That’s Johnny Stachela and me on the harmonies. He also played the slide parts, and I played the solo. That’s one of those extended solos where you just go for it and try to capture something. The idea is to tell a story and end up in the right place. For something like that, I’ll try to channel some emotion by drawing on an experience, find a melodic theme and build on it.
The culmination has a very fiddle-like vibe that brings the climax of your father’s solo on “Jessica” to mind, but it’s interesting that there are no guitar instrumentals on your album. What gives?
Allman I think it’s safe to say that there will be an instrumental on the next album. I’m a huge fan of guitar instrumentals and have included one on each of my solo albums, except for the latest one, Ride or Die. It’s a big part of what I’m about and, obviously, Duane and his history as well.
Betts “Jessica” and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” are both part of this band’s live repertoire. “Jessica” is a song that grew into so many different versions played with different incarnations of the Allman Brothers Band and then Great Southern. My dad had added lots of layers, nuances and lines that lead into different parts by the time I was playing it with him. For the Allman Betts Band version, I’ve tried to keep the elements that I believe can help it and otherwise leave it closer to what was on the original recording, because if you try to include everything he added, it can be a bit much.
How do you split up the guitar parts?
Betts Johnny and I play “Jessica.”
Allman We rotate four epic instrumentals in and out of the live set, and by epic I mean lengthy. In addition to “Jessica” and “Liz Reed,” we have two of mine, “Mahalo” and “Midnight Lake Michigan.” If “Jessica” or “Liz Reed” is on the menu, I’ll step off stage, because I want the composition and Duane to have their moment in the sun. If one of mine is on the list, then Duane will step off and let me front the band. We have three guitar players, so it gets a little crazy. We’re onstage together the entire rest of the night, so it’s about striking a balance. It’s a testament to this band that each player has an innate understanding of when to step up, or when to lay back or step out when there’s plenty of guitar firepower happening.
We’re going to play a few songs from the Allman Brothers Band every night, because it would be weird if we didn’t. But we’re not the Allman Brothers Band; we’re the Allman Betts Band. We have an amazing lineup of unselfish players, including Berry Oakley Jr. on bass, John Lum on drums, R. Scott Bryan on percussion and John Ginty on keyboards. The difference on the album is that Peter Levin from my dad’s solo band played keys, and on “Good Ol’ Days” he was joined by Chuck Leavell from the Rolling Stones and previously the Allman Brothers Band. But this isn’t about our connections or our relations. We have a hell of a record of our own to go out and play. That’s our best foot forward.