Early this year came the unexpected news that guitarists Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes will depart their roles as members of Allman Brothers Band at the end of 2014. In a joint statement, the artists cited a desire to focus on their various solo commitments. Trucks has spent the last several years building his own family band with his wife, Susan Tedeschi, in the aptly titled Tedeschi Trucks Band. Haynes fronts the jam-heavy, ever-evolving Gov't Mule. Combined, Haynes and Trucks account for 40 years of Allman Brothers folklore. Haynes was initially tapped to join ABB in 1989 by the eventually ousted Dicky Betts. Haynes left the band in 1997 before rejoining in 2000 after Trucks entered the picture at the age of 19. This means that Trucks has spent nearly the entirety of his adult life admirably filling the sizable shoes of no less than Duane Allman.
In college, Derek Trucks Band was the greatest band that had ever existed. Songlines remains a top 25 album of all time for me, and one of the greatest live records that has ever earned the right of preservation. I was there in 2008 when the band returned to Chicago's Park West to record what would eventually serve as their final release Roadsongs. I had never seen anyone play an instrument like Trucks played the guitar. In every sense, the instrument was an extension not of his body but his mind. That red, Gibson SG bent at his every, inconceivable whim. When he played it looked like he was asleep, meditating unfathomable notes and textures into existence through sheer force of will. He blended Indian ragas and traditional southern-fried rock in ways that George Harrison had only had hash-induced wet dreams about.
In the spring of 2009, I embarked upon my first voyage to the promised land that is New York City. Three friends had reserved a cheap hotel on NYC's upper westside, a few blocks from the Beacon Theatre. I didn't require much convincing before I threw my duffle bag in the trunk and forked over a nominal sum for the hotel. I was an unemployed, recent college graduate with enough cash to get me there and back while keeping my liver sufficiently fed with cheap liquor and my mind enriched with as many museum exhibits as I could muster in a week. The same week I popped my cherry on the Big Apple, Allman Brothers Band was settling into its 40th anniversary run at The Beacon. The monumental milestone had earned its share of notable special guests. With each subsequent show, it seemed the band was attempting to outshine itself. Taj Mahal played one night, which given Trucks' adaptation of "Chevrolet" proved a natural fit. The tickets throughout the week were expensive but attainable. However, rumors were floating around the internet that Clapton would be making an appearance on Friday. As an NYC novice, I naturally decided to hold out for the big shebang.
Wednesday, March 19, 2009
As part of my daily ritual, when my vacation-mates returned to the hotel for some R&R prior to the evening's inevitable debauchery, I would circle The Beacon for whiffs of scalper tickets to Friday's show. It was only a few blocks from Hotel Belleclaire, so I could afford to waste some time on the effort. On the Wednesday before the rumored Clapton appearance, I was walking away from my daily Beacon lap. I was traversing Broadway when I spied a familiar face sitting on a bench in the median. Gazing distantly, with long, disheveled hair sat Derek Trucks' father with an aloof, pleasant disposition. I recognized Chris Trucks from the merch stand at DTB shows. Despite my deep-seated reservations, I timidly approached the bench with an honest question: “Are you Derek Trucks' dad?” I asked. From there, we struck up a conversation. The following is a loose account of the important nuggets of this conversation, as I remember them. As is often the case with the human memory, quotes and actions are subject to reinvention. That said, the event is burned in my memory in such a way as I feel confident in the account.
Trucks' dad loosened up to me in an unexpected fashion. At the time, I was just a college kid with an unabashed adoration for his son's talent. I admitted as much during our introduction. I wouldn't start writing about music until two years later, so I didn't assume I was I deceiving him despite my journalism education. The senior Trucks and I talked about a lot of things. We talked about the accessibility of his son's most recent album, Already Free, and the fact that we both felt he was deliberately reaching for a wider audience. I didn't say it to him at the time, but it felt like a "make or break" moment for the project, and it wound up serving as the latter. We talked about Chris' father, Derek's granddad, and the woman he had been dating since the death of Derek's grandmother. He confirmed the rumors about Friday’s show and told me that while we were sitting on this bench, Derek was in Clapton's apartment rehearsing. They had eaten dinner at Clapton's place the night before. The senior Trucks admitted to finding himself speechless in front of Clapton's wife, Melia McEnery. "She was so smart," he said. I just sat there, as a dozens of New Yorkers wandered by pushing strollers, toting brief cases, vintage cameras, and assorted containers of couscous from the Middle Eastern grocery up the block. He asked me if I had tickets to Friday's show, and I admitted that I was still in search.
"Any other time, I could pull a miracle out of my pocket," Chris said. “Because it's Clapton, Derek told me that we probably wouldn't get any extras."
We talked for a while longer about some of the tourist stuff they had been up to during the Beacon run. Tedeschi was in town with the grandkids, and the family had been doing its share of shopping and sightseeing. "This city is too fast for me," he said. "Sitting on this corner watching the people pass by is all the action I need." He talked about DTB’s plans for an upcoming European tour. Though he often traveled with the band, managing the merch stand, he wouldn’t be making the trip overseas. “Derek said I’d have to pay my own way, so I just told him I’d wait for the next tour.”
Midway through our conversation another passer-by had wandered up and introduced himself, sheepishly asking, as I had, whether my benchmate was Derek's father. The man had traveled with his girlfriend from Switzerland or Finland or some other land where the people were as white as the mountains. The three of us chatted idly before I thanked the elder Trucks for his time and wandered back to my hotel to unload my bag of stories on my fellow travelers.
Friday, March 20, 2009
A few hours prior to the show, I headed through the doors of Hotel Belleclaire, gave the doorman a knowing nod and strolled toward the general vicinity of the Beacon. As dusk settled over Broadway, action around the theater was already beginning to buzz. Hailing from the scalper's paradise of Indiana, I would consider myself well-versed in the world of the street bargain, but the ticket brokers working the Beacon that night had taken their craft to a higher art-form. In Indy the average (to generalize) scalper tends to hail from the lower income levels, fitting the description of the typical street hustler type (of every shape, size and ethnicity). There were certainly a handful of men who fit this description circling the Beacon, but there was another echelon of scalper. Well-dressed men in expensive sweaters, silk slacks and gaudy jewelry. Men that looked to be in their late 50s who approached the corner with the steely-eyed gaze of a veteran. I remember one overweight guy in a wheel chair, smoking a fat cigar with designer frames sitting atop his swollen nose. The younger scalpers all made a point to stop by and chat with this guy. He commanded his court from his wheeled throne. When the show was minutes from beginning and the night's best hustles in the rearview, I saw him hang-up his cell phone as a Lincoln limousine pulled up in front of the theater. He calmly stood from the chair and entered the vehicle while a driver jumped out and threw his chair in the trunk.
I didn’t hear a price for a ticket beneath 500 bucks that night. At the time, that would have meant the bulk of my net worth. I saw bad burns. Men the age of my father shuffling their feet forlornly as ill-advised cash purchases through Craigslist turned up phony. There were tickets to be had, but they were the hottest stubs in Manhattan on one of those breezy, Friday nights in mid-March when everyone in town seems eager to shake loose the last of winter’s frost. Needless to say, I didn’t get a ticket, but the bustle had my juices flowing. Realizing I wasn’t going to gain entry, I ran back to the hotel for a couple of sips of cheap bourbon. By the time I walked back across Broadway the show was underway and the crowd in front of the theater had dissipated. The VIP entrance was on the side of the Beacon on W 75th St. A gauntlet of eager fans stood belly up to the security guards and red, velvet rope, clutching cheap digital cameras and Clapton memorabilia. I passed by that scene and wandered toward the rear of the theater. Given the commotion of Broadway, the back porch of Amsterdam Ave. was relatively sedated.
Just around the corner from the VIP area, a group of fans stood with their ears pressed against a utility entrance to the Beacon off of Amsterdam Ave. Given the clarity with which the music poured through the closed doorway, we couldn't have been standing more than a couple dozen feet from the stage. The occasional security guard would wander past and ask us to refrain from leaning against the door, but no one really seemed to give a shit - a fact that seems insane in post-9/11 New York. A fireman from New Jersey and his friend, a father and his young daughter, myself, and the occasional, intrigued passer-by listened intently as The Brothers galloped through a tight first set book-ended by the endless boogie of "Mountain Jam."
Clapton took the stage to raucous applause halfway through the second set, getting his feet wet with a short and tight (by Allman Brothers standards) rendition of "Key to the Highway." We shared cigarettes, bottles of booze sheathed in brown paper bags, and stories of previous live experiences with the various incarnations of ABB. I remember backing nervously out of a debate with the fireman over the unavoidable Duane vs. Derek argument, choosing to preserve the structure of my nasal cavity over the defense of my personal guitar god. The band ran through the requisite Derek & The Dominoes numbers, which sounded as good or better than the originals: "Why Does Love Have to be So Sad?", "Little Wing" and "Layla." It was a concert experience unlike any other. While the view left something to be desired, I wouldn't trade my spot in the alley for a front row seat.
Tonight, Allman Brothers Band kicks off what could be its final run at The Beacon. Once again the tickets are the hottest in Manhattan. A Wall Street Journal story from earlier this week claimed scalpers were seeking upwards of $6,000 per ticket. The current count of Allman Brothers appearances at The Beacon sits at 222. Given the fanaticism of the band's multi-generational fan base, I wouldn't be surprised if someone broke out that kind of bread. I haven't been following the chatter over potential special guests. It has been a couple of years since I've been back to NYC, but if that utility entrance at the corner of W. 75th and Amsterdam still sits unoccupied, I recommend setting up shop. It's the best obstructed view "in" the house, and the price is reasonable. (Grab your copy of the aforementioned Beacon Theatre set with Clapton via Hittin' The Note.)