Allman Brothers Band – Fillmore East, February 1970 (review)

Allman Brothers Band – Fillmore East, February 1970 – Bear’s Sonic Journals (Owsley Stanley Foundation / Allman Brothers Band Recording Co)

Early Allmans – young, hungry and third on the bill!

The Allman Brothers Band are considered one of the greatest live acts in the history of rock.  Yet, there was a time when they were just another group of musicians starting out. Bear’s Sonic Journals – Fillmore East, February 1970 is rare opportunity to hear this great band on their way up.

Yes, February 1970, 13 months prior to their now-legendary performance at the famed club owned by Bill Graham, which would be used for At Fillmore East, widely-considered one of the greatest live albums of all time.  But here, these recordings find the sextet after only together for a year, and just a few months removed from the disappointing sales of their debut album.  The band is less refined for sure.  They were third on the bill, behind the Grateful Dead and the psychedelic band, Love.  

“In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” is the first documented live performance of this Dickey Betts’ instrumental.  Drummer Butch Trucks is playing a cowbell and the song seems to lumber at a tentative pace.  Betts comes in at the wrong time to signal the transition out of his solo, and Gregg comes in too early for his organ solo on one of the takes.  The track begins in mono before falling into stereo – Bear was probably just getting the sound right, as he had never mixed the Allman Brothers before. 

Duane Allman does most of the between song banter, introducing bassist Berry Oakley as “the band’s sex symbol” before launching into a furious version of “Hoochie Coochie Man.”

It’s cool to hear them tune down before going into an early version of “Statesboro Blues.”  The drums are not as tight as their version from 13 months later, but Duane is fiery on slide, while Betts provides the stinging counterpoint.  “Trouble No More” is played at a breakneck pace and it seems like everything could come unhinged at any time – this, and other songs, would get more nuanced after a year of non-stop touring.  

On the 14th show, right before “Whipping Post,” I swear Dickey Betts is playing the beginning of what would eventually be his “Blue Sky.”

Owsley Stanley, known as “Bear,” was arguably the finest live soundman of his era and his “sonic journals’ have become legendary – he had a somewhat unorthodox way of mixing – the percussion is panned wide, and even the vocals are often only out of one speaker.  But, this is exactly the way the Fillmore audience heard these performances.

The package is made up of three discs.  Discs two and three are true “sonic journals” – exactly as the music happened on February 11th, 13th, and 14th of 1970.  Mistakes left in, no fixes.  Also, at some point, tapes would run out and Bear had to change them.  This means that some songs are incomplete.  

That’s where disc one comes in – it’s a compilation of all three nights’ shows – taking the best of everything available.  So, a song might start from one night’s performance, and end with another.  For instance, because of the extended length of “Mountain Jam,” Bear wasn’t able to capture a complete performance of the song on any of the three nights.  However, they spliced the beginning of the 14th show and ended with the 13th and you get a “complete” performance of the song.

In these concerts, the Allmans are hungry, they’ve got everything to prove and they’re going for broke.  There are times when the performances are full of aggression.  After a year of touring and just being around each other, these rough edges would smooth out and congeal into a well-oiled machine.  Here, you can still hear some of the working parts.

The biggest takeaway from Fillmore East 1970 is just how phenomenally talented the original lineup of the Allman Brothers Band truly were.  Out of all the Allman archival releases, this is one of the most revelatory.  —Tony Peters