Duane Allman – Skydog (box set) (review)

Duane Allman – Skydog – the Duane Allman Retrospective (Rounder / Rhino / Concord) review

A box set so good, it will forever change your opinion of this legendary guitarist

Any list of the greatest guitarists of all time should include Duane Allman.  Yet, he’s almost never near the top of the list.  One of the problems is, all too often we site his work with the Allman Brothers and Derek & the Dominos as the only reasons for his greatness.  While those two bands were amazing, equally important, yet often overlooked, is his extensive tenure as a session guitarist, most notably with the Fame Recording Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Skydog, an exhaustive, seven disc box set, not only shows that there was a lot more to Allman that just those two bands, he quite possibly was the most versatile guitarist of all time.

Disc one begins rather humbly, in 1965, with brothers Duane and Gregg’s first band, the Escorts.  These sides are mostly here for historical purposes, as Gregg hadn’t quite found his voice yet, and Duane seems tentative on guitar.  Yet, by 1966  – in just a year, there’s a huge leap.  Now billed as the Allman Joys, with brother Gregg switching from rhythm guitar to what would be his primary instrument from here on out, the organ, these tracks show signs of things to come.  Gregg still doesn’t have the commanding growl that he would soon possess, but he’s getting there.  Same goes for Duane, who’s solos begin to really heat up, especially on their almost note-for-note copy of the Yardbirds’ “Shapes of Things.”

Their next venture, the Hour Glass, was a much more polished affair – these songs are closer to the blue-eyed soul that the Rascals were doing at the time.  It’s odd to hear Greg & Duane handling such commercial-sounding material – there’s very little room for Duane’s patented soloing either.  “The Power of Love” is the best of the bunch.  It’s not that the band was bad, it’s just that their record company didn’t share their vision, evidenced by the stellar demos they laid down for a proposed second album – the blistering “B.B. King Medley” shows that this band had unrealized potential.  But, the label didn’t know what to do with such material and the band eventually broke up.

The Hour Glass demos were recorded at Fame Studios, which was slowly gaining a reputation for its signature gritty, yet soulful sounding recordings. Duane formed a friendship with the guys running the studio that led to a steady stream of session work for the guitarist.  And, this is the part of Duane’s career that doesn’t get enough love.

If there’s one track that sums up Allman’s genius as a sideman – it’s Wilson Pickett’s scorching take on “Hey Jude.”  The vocalist soulfully pleas over an organ-led accompaniment, with Duane adding fills in-between his vocal lines – a perfect conversation between the two men.  Then, at the 2:44 mark, Pickett screams, and everything is notched up full tilt, with Duane tearing off piercing fill after fill – it is pure ecstasy.  Yet, in a little over a minute, it’s over – leaving you wanting more.

Allman had the opportunity to record with an impressive array of legendary performers.  He lent his fretwork to sessions by Clarence Carter, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Arthur Conley, Boz Scaggs, King Curtis, and Lulu, just to name a few. It’s amazing the diversity Duane shows from track to track.  He might be blistering at one moment, as in the slide guitar on Clarence Carter’s slow burning “The Road of Love,” while providing stinging accompaniment to Wilson Pickett’s startling good “Born to Be Wild,”  and adding a back porch earthiness to Aretha’s take of “The Weight.”  His collaborations with King Curtis are especially fun – both musicians were at the top of their game and it’s great to hear the guitar and sax trading licks.

What you realize upon listening to the songs from this period is that the guys in Muscle Shoals were creating a new kind of music – call it “heavy soul.”  What other R&B recordings featured such searing guitar work?   Sadly, only a handful of these tracks became hits, but that doesn’t take away from how great they still sound.

Some of Duane’s session work points to the future – the Soul Survivors’ “Darkness,” with the heavy Hammond organ and Allman’s patented slide guitar, sure sounds like early Allman Brothers.  On Boz Scaggs’ “Finding Her,” Duane discovers how to make his slide guitar mimic a bird cry – something he would use to much greater effect at the tail end of “Layla.”

Some of the most revelatory tracks are the few that are credited simply to Duane Allman – an early attempt to front his own band.  Here, we see his vision of what was to come.  With Berry Oakley already entrenched on bass, he tears through the slow blues “Goin Down Slow.”  Duane as the session man always had to keep himself in check, so as not to overshadow the primary artist. On these solo recordings – his guitar is like an unbridled bronco – most of the nine minutes of “Goin’ Down” is searing soloing.  And, he shows himself a capable, if affable, lead singer on Chuck Berry’s “No Money Down.”  He also wrote the biting, Stones’ rocker “Happily Married Man.”  These three tracks give us the rare opportunity to hear him sing – once his brother joined, the younger Allman was clearly the superior vocalist.

The Allman Brothers finally enter the picture at the end of disc three – and it’s stunning how unique their music is.  The twin guitars, twin drums, pounding bass and crying organ all jump out of the speakers on the instrumental “Don’t Want You No More,” with Duane trading lick for lick with Dicky Betts.  The cascading jazz chords coupled with the gritty slide guitar soaked in southern twang signaled a completely new form of music.  By the time the song segues into the slow burner “It’s Not My Cross to Bear,” you’re hooked.

The entire first Allman Brothers’ album is featured here – and at least some of tracks are in a remixed form.  For instance, “Whipping Post” has the guitars ramped up a lot louder in the mix.  Disc four highlights include a session with rockabilly legend Ronnie Hawkins that borders between country and rock, and Lulu, who adds her own brand of grit to the proceedings.  She does a very strange cover of an early Bee Gees’ song called “Marley Purt Drive” that has a Dixieland feel to it.

There are two tracks culled from the hard-to-find Live at Ludlow Garage concert, which finds the Allmans actually before their legendary stand at the Fillmore.  Duane gets a rare turn on lead vocals for the John Lee Hooker nugget “Dimples.”  Then, there’s Derek & the Dominos – the dream pairing of Allman with Eric Clapton.  The Layla sessions live up to every bit of hype that’s been heaped on them, standing as a high-water mark for both guitarists.

The featured tracks from Live at Fillmore East and the concert recordings that made it on Eat a Peach, show Duane in absolute peak performance.  The double slide attack between him and Betts on “One Way Out” is unbelievable – they’re pushing each other to dizzying heights and we’re lucky enough to be taken along for the ride.

The guitarist showed off his versatility once more with his collaboration with flautist Herbie Mann, especially on the funk groove of “Push Push.”  This infectious instrumental jam session was edited down from its almost ten-minute length and became a surprise hit single.

The final disc is highlighted by a rare radio performance featuring some very long songs – his friend King Curtis had recently been murdered and Duane puts all his pain into an extended, emotional solo for “Soul Serenade.” The set ends with “Little Martha,” a simple, yet beautiful acoustic piece that Allman wrote for his girlfriend, Dixie Meadows.

There are two essays in the accompanying booklet which further shed light on Allman’s life and recording career, the first one from rock journalist Scott Schinder.  The second one is from his daughter, Galadrielle, who was far too young when her father passed away to have remembered him.  She talks of trying to piece together grainy photos and any known recordings to try and get closer to her dad.  There’s also a treasure trove of never-before seen photos.  Especially stunning is a picture of the young Allman Brothers in the studio laying down a demo, with manager Phil Walden standing by in the background.  You can see just how focused the entire band is on the task at hand.

Rarely does so much love go into a box set.  Skydog comes housed in a replica of Allman’s guitar case, complete with crushed velvet inside. The individual discs are housed in sleeves that look like a packet of guitar strings (a very clever addition).  There’s even a guitar pick and bumper sticker thrown in for good measure.

Duane Allman passed away at the criminally young age of 24 from a motorcycle accident.  Skydog paints the most vivid picture ever of this amazing guitarist, showing off the many facets of his all-too-brief career.  With all this evidence, it’s impossible not to consider Allman even higher on the list of the greatest guitarists of all time.  –Tony Peters