Gregg Allman - Southern Blood Album Review
In 2012, Gregg Allman, rock icon and founding member of the Allman Brothers Band, was hit with the news that he had just a year or two left to live. He had a reoccurrence of liver cancer and would need treatment if he wanted to reach his 70s. Allman, wary that the radiation from chemotherapy might damage his vocal chords, decided he didn’t want to live in a world where he couldn’t make music. Instead, he chose to spend his last days doing what he loved. The result was Southern Blood, a 10-track compilation which released just four months after the singer/songwriter’s death. Friends say Allman intended to put out new music for his posthumous album, but ultimately was constrained by the terminality of his illness. After council with producer Don Was, and manager Michael Lehman, it was decided that instead of original compilations, Southern Blood would consist mostly of renditions of songs that “held deepest meaning” for Allman and that would tell a story.
While the album’s lack of new content might be disappointing for some, having a plethora of covers means there are really no throwaway songs that can often find their way lodged in the track list of a typical album, especially a rushed one like Southern Blood. Considering the haste in which this album had to be made, their decision was probably for the best. The album’s opener, My Only True Friend, is the record’s sole original song, but thanks to the raw emotion and energy of Allman’s voice and superior producing on the part of Was, the LP comes across as a brand new work of music and does its job in properly telling Allman’s final tale.
Utilizing a large studio band, Southern Blood contains a full arsenal of classic southern rock and blues instruments. Acoustic guitars and tickled ivories help set the eerie mood Allman wants you to feel, while French horns and saxophone solos like the one on “My Only True Friend” provide the at time lonely appearing Allman with a sense of company and cheeriness. Sometimes it’s like he and the instruments are in the midst of a dueling duet, back and forth, both fighting on until someone gives. This is especially apparent in the end of “Going Going Gone” and all throughout “Blind Bats and Swamp Rats” where Allman pops in and out, letting the instruments take command as he takes turn either harmonizing with them or just letting them play out.
The variety of instruments really helps the album morph back and forth between lonely “death is approaching” road songs like his rendition of Jackson Browne’s “Song for Adam,” to soulful, loud southern rock ballads like his cover of Muddy Waters’ “I Love the Life I live,” where Allman reflects on the joys of his life, music, friends and southern culture. It can be tricky releasing an album with such contrasting themes, but what really helps tie together the album’s two types of songs - the ones dwelling on inevitable death and the ones rejoicing in the prides of life - is that they all center around some type of self-reflection. It’s fitting that these dual perspectives on death come as the thesis of an album titled Southern Blood. It’s almost like a soundtrack to a New Orleans jazz funeral, where life is both mourned and celebrated, and it’s clear that that is what Allman was going for in his last few months.
It’s a little unfair to compare Allman’s final batch of mostly cover songs to any of the late star’s previous works, either solo or as the other half of his family band, considering the circumstances. However, what does stand out is Allman’s engulfing presence on each track and his ability to rise above background noise and dominate the emotion of a song himself. This is obviously aided by Allman being able to sing from beyond the grave; it does its job in setting his final piece of music terrifically apart from anything he had ever done before. Reinvention of traditional classics can be almost impossible. Through his final pieces of music, Allman, his band and probably most importantly Don Was defy the impossible as Southern Blood gives listeners a unique take on an abundance of blues, soul and southern rock classics, by telling their tales through the perspective of a dead man.
If this were a normal album, most reviewers rate it around a 6. It’s a solid album, but only hardcore Allman fans will find exurbanite value in its replay-ability. The themes of life and death are flushed out to the point that Southern Blood risks teetering on redundancy, although Allman’s final project was never intended to stray from that path. Songs like his versions of “Song for Adam” and “Going Going Gone,” which belong on anyone’s saddest playlist, are so good they rival some of Allman’s older works. Listen to the album all the way through and you’ll get a scary perspective on life from a man with one foot in the grave. If you’re looking for more classics from one of the best to ever grace the genre of southern rock, you’ll be disappointed.
At the end of his life, Allman’s vocals are as strong as ever. Coupled with the undeniable emotion of his passing, those who listen to Southern Blood will be left feeling exactly the way Allman and his team intended, with a heavy heart, but a sense of inspired clarity.
Sam McQuillan is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.