Album Review : The Allman Betts Band – Bless Your Heart

Review by Peter Coates –

BLESS YOUR HEART – release date 28th August 2020 (BMG Records)

Greg Allman and Dickey Betts were founding members of the great American country rock band The Allman Brothers, and  two of the next generation, Devon Allman and Duane Betts joined forces in 2019 to launch a new album, and tour on the back of that and some of the Allman Brothers greatest hits, being the 50th anniversary of that seminal band.

Devon is also well known for his Royal Southern Brotherhood project with Cyril Neville (Neville Brothers) and Blues Guitar virtuoso Mike Zito.

When The Allman Betts Band released Down to the River in June of 2019, the debut album represented not only the first time the group had recorded together, but, in fact, the first time the seven-piece ensemble had ever played together.  If Down to the River was the sound of the band’s combustible sparks igniting, then Bless Your Heart is their bonfire, built for the summer of 2020 and beyond; a double-album follow-up fuelled by road-forged camaraderie and telepathic musical intensity, vibrantly reflecting the individual and collective experiences of these seven, all drawing inspiration from the band’s symbolic hometown- a place Devon Allman calls “the United States of Americana.”

The album, recorded at the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio on 2-inch tape, is a melting pot of southern blues, country rock, jazz rock and west coast Americana, all featuring stacks of guitars, acoustic, electric and slide, lots of electric piano and keyboards, and a terrific and percussive rhythm section featuring Berry Duane Oakley on Bass, John Lum on Drums and R Scott Bryan on all the other percussion.  There are 13 songs on the double album, including the 13-minute instrumental feature Savannah’s Dream which brings some great jazz rock beats to a real southern rock guitar anthem

There is a real air of desert mystery and atmosphere to the album opener, Pale Horse Rider, which features the emotive baritone voice of Devon Allman and some magnificent interplay between the two (or three) guitarists throughout the track while the backing rumbles smoothly along with the menace of a desert rainstorm.  Next up is the rambling blues ballad of Carolina Song, with the Hammond Organ taking centre stage, and some hugely warm gospel vocals in the chorus that pull the whole thing further South, and a couple of ‘earworm’ guitar breaks that keep appearing, before the incendiary solo that has a special tone too it.

Straight to the Roadhouse stage on a wild Friday night for King Crawler, which is a straight-up southern rocker, given an extra dimension from the Saxophone, and some tasty gritty slide guitar, and just drives the listener to stamp feet and nod head as the good times keep rolling.   Spaghetti Western soundtracks spring to mind with the Latin percussion, vocal drawl, and opening sparse guitars of Ashes of My Lovers, which is reminiscent of old school Springsteen, and has more layers to the track as it develops – with the Harmonica holding a constant melodic presence through the song.

Savannah’s Dream opens up with the band appearing to be tuning up into a jam session, and the electric piano and drum and bass kick off the track proper with a shuffling syncopation beat that allows the guitars to just weave their magic over the backing.  There is no question that the band totally delivers a masterpiece here, and while 13-minute instrumentals would be considered totally unfashionable today, this one is testament to the enduring legacy of The Allman Brothers.  The guitars are delicate with the purest tones at times, and then gritty southern rock fuzz at others, and the electric piano really enhances the overall sound.  I’d love to know which of the three guitars takes their turns are where, as the third slinger, Johnny Stachela is also a real slide and blues talent.

A dirtier rock guitar sound opens up Airboats and Cocaine, and the riffs really set the scene and allow the vocals to tear loose, before a loose and low-slung solo rips through the speakers.  While the backing is as simple as can be, the way the band mixes all the different textures and sounds from three guitarists and the expansive keyboards, the overall result is much more complex.  Southern Rain has an easy groove to it driven by the bassline and the organ, while the guitar-hooks just keep punching their way between the verse and chorus.  The vocals are almost poppy with a real West Coast feel.

Rivers Run is a gentle acoustic country workout, with the electric guitar sliding in like something from The Outlaws with a clean harmonic progression, and leads into the new single Magnolia Road, which mixes southern rock with real soul with a capital “S”, and a dazzling slide guitar riff that gives the song a really different and vintage feel.   Then Should We Ever Part sashays into view, part Big Band swing, part Nick Cave melancholy ballad, with a fantastic passion to the chorus given a religious tone by the Hammond organ.  The guitar breaks are insistent and clean through to the fuzzed-out grunge of the blistering solo.  This is the slow-burning surprise from the record – a masterpiece!

A piano intro to The Doctor’s Daughter leads into a very Nick Mason guitar line, and the voice here belongs to bassist Berry Oakley and brings a smooth feel to the track, which comes in at over 8 minutes without seeming to lose any momentum, and with a variety of guitar sounds from flamenco to piercing lead lines as the second half of the song wanders around the eclectic melody through to the fade.  A total contrast is Devon Allman’s Johnny Cash vocal of Much Obliged which has a simple slide guitar lead line and a bouncy beat that would not be out of place in a Tarantino movie.

The double album finishes up with the spine-tingling ballad Congratulations which is a beautiful way to bring the album to a heartfelt and warm close – short and oh so sweet!

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