Sunday, January 16, 2011

Whipping Post, Allman Brothers Band (1969)

The Allmans were without question the first great jam band, and they took the jam to heights that it had not previously reached. They played traditional blues mixed with their own unique brand of rock & roll, and there was nothing but strength in that group. - ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, in his write-up for Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

Today's New York Times has a piece on "Low Country Blues," a new Gregg Allman project with - who else? - T-Bone Burnett (and Dr. John!) which prompted me to open up an Allman Brothers station on Pandora. Which in turn served up the song that Gibbons went on to describe as his "all-time end-all" song, Whipping Post.

Gibbons was referring to the legendary extended live version performed at the Fillmore East in 1971 that would forever endure on vinyl and its successive formats, not the 5-plus-minute studio version from 1969, but I don't think that really matters. Live or not, Whipping Post is one of the best examples of the way in which great music provides a channel for the expression of emotion so intense that those who listen to it are likely to have their own catharsis.

The song also led me to reminisce about a very specific time in my history of listening to music on the radio. Although I graduated from Ohio State in Columbus, I spent my first two years at Hiram College, located in the Cleveland radio market. I didn't realize it then, but the station I tuned into in 1971-72, WNCR-FM, was breaking ground in the way FM stations were being programmed. (In the early days of FM, stations simply simulcast what their sister AM stations were broadcasting, but the FCC changed that in the late '60s.) What I was hearing was amazing long-form music, often entire album sides, and certainly many more individual songs that lasted longer than 3 minutes.

Whipping Post was typical of the kind of song that received that airplay. In the early days FM stations weren't selling many commercials - although once the AOR format took off, and it did, commercials started to intrude. The NCR DJs had great laid-back voices, a far cry from the hyper AM style, and they prided themselves on seamless segues from one song to another if they weren't doing album sides.

It made for a most pleasant listening experience, with one disadvantage - unless you happened to be present on those rare occasions when the DJ would chime in with the names of the artists and songs you'd been listening to for the past 20 or 30 minutes, you might have no idea of the playlist you'd just been treated to.

I believe a consequence of that was I did not appreciate artists like the Allman Brothers when they were at their peak. In those days you couldn't go online and get the playlist as you can now with stations that stream their audio. So the songs would vanish into thin air and that would be that. I knew a lot about certain music, but I also knew next to nothing about other music - this blog project has taught me that, if it's taught me nothing else.

Some years later I realized, after he was already dead and gone, what a virtuoso Duane Allman was as a guitarist, and that there was a powerful blues-infused rock sound that had its roots in the South. Thanks to all of the resources we have today I can bone up on the entire Allman Brothers Band oeuvre. Maybe even catch them on a tour, since they're still out there four decades later doing what they love.

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