In Perspective: Ramblin’ Men

In Perspective

Ramblin’ Men

Gregg Allman

Laid Back

The Gregg Allman Tour

Playin’ Up a Storm

Polydor/Universal

Richard Betts

Highway Call

Polydor/Universal

Out of print for years, Polydor reissues these first solo stabs from The Allman Brothers Band with no extra tracks, additional liner notes, beefed up graphics, or even the consent of the artists, both of whom are currently embroiled in legal wrangling with Universal, the owner of the old Capricorn label catalog. Regardless of the obviously meager time, energy, and funds that went into reissuing these discs (the Allman Tour doesn’t even note songwriting credits), the music holds up extraordinarily well nearly a quarter decade after it was originally recorded.

As de facto leader after his brother Duane’s untimely death, Gregg took a sharp turn away from the homey country stylings of 1972’s Brothers And Sisters album. In the appropriately titled Laid Back, released in 1973, Allman dug into his folk and (especially) R&B roots. Not a prolific songwriter, his debut featured only two new tunes mixed with covers of traditional gospel (“Will the Circle Be Unbroken”), R&B (“Don’t Mess Up a Good Thing”), and rearranged Brothers’ tracks (“Midnight Rider,” “Please Call Home”), all embellished with new arrangements, and often ornate instrumentation. Only the rollicking version of Fontella Bass’ “Good Thing” could be considered upbeat, and even though two tunes had already been given the full Brothers treatment, the album was a successful departure from the more aggressive side of the ABB.

The subsequent elaborate tour • complete with strings, horns, and backing vocalists — that followed the Laid Back release was captured on the appropriately titled Gregg Allman Tour double album (now combined onto a single disc). Except for the addition of two unspectacular songs from then Capricorn band Cowboy, which only interrupt the flow, it effectively conveys the sound of the large scale production. Although it seems a bit tentative, Allman gives the full orchestral treatment to “Dreams,” adds a heartfelt solo “Oncoming Traffic” (a song that doesn’t appear on any other Gregg album), dusts off some R&B classics including a set closing ten-minute spin on Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Turn On Your Lovelight,” and generally sounds a little uneasy with the whole shebang. There are plenty of highlights, and the disc is a fascinating look into Allman’s influences, but it all feels rather stiff in retrospect.

Moderately better was 1977’s Playin’ Up a Storm, another frustratingly short 35 minute disc. Although it suffers from sterile, middle-of-the road sound that was common at the time (think Linda Ronstadt), Allman turns up the heat on Clarence Carter’s “Sweet Feelin’,” a few nifty originals, and R&B nuggets like Ray Charles’ classic “Brightest Smile in Town.” A toothless jazz-fusion instrumental, “Matthew’s Arrival,” is a time-waster on an already too brief album, but there are enough strong moments here to entice any fan of Allman’s introspective side. Gregg’s in terrific voice throughout, goosing even the limper material with his soulful vocals.

Not to be left in the Gregg dust, Dickie — then dubbed the more formal Richard • Betts’ 1974 solo Highway Call project is a moderately inviting detour down his country and even bluegrass side roads. The songs sound suspiciously like “Ramblin’ Man” outtakes, but the 14-minute jaunty instrumental “Hand Picked,” featuring the legendary Vassar Clements on fiddle and Chuck Leavell’s always inventive piano, is alone worth the admission.

These albums sport improved, but not startling remastered sound, and adequate but far from elaborate packages, likely due to the non-involvement with the artists who currently have no input in their release. Longtime Allman Brothers fans will welcome their arrival, and even curious onlookers will find plenty of keepers here, making them well worth their budget-line price.

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