When our favorite bands lose core members, it’s more often than not a very bad thing. While Wilco seems to be doing fine without Jay Bennett, such happily-ever-after cases are far from the norm. Guns N’ Roses pretty much collapsed after Izzy Stradlin left the group in late 1991; and when John Bonham choked to death on his own vomit, Led Zeppelin, the oft-cited greatest rock’n’roll band of all time, didn’t even make an attempt to carry on. The group — along with the dreams of Zoso-inked fanboys everywhere — simply crumbled.
But when Duane Allman was fatally crushed in a motorcycle accident in 1971, the Allman Brothers Band brazenly went on making music. Luckily, the band had a slew of material left over from when Duane was still alive, and they turned this into the now-classic Eat A Peach.
But what really makes the Allman Brothers bad-ass in a way that Guns N’ Roses and Led Zeppelin never were is that they didn’t stop making relevant, era-defining albums after the death of a core member. Wait, scratch that. Two core members. Bassist Berry Oakley died in an eerily similar fashion (a motorcycle accident just blocks away from Duane’s) less than a year later. That, folks, is a little something called resilience.
Brothers and Sisters, the first Allman Brothers’ album that Duane or Oakley had nothing to do with, embodies this element of the band’s awesomeness more than any other release in its catalog. Despite losing one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time in Duane Allman and somewhat of the band’s father figure in Oakley, the newly reshaped Allman Brothers Band issued this gem just two years later. Suck on that, Axl Rose.
Unfortunately, what most people remember about Brothers and Sisters — if they remember it at all — is “Ramblin’ Man.” Sure, it’s the group’s most successful single to date, but its success — especially taken in retrospect — spackles over the fact that maybe this album should’ve never been made.
With Oakley and Duane gone and a grief-stricken Greg Allman still not completely himself, guitarist Dickey Betts took over much of the songwriting and became the de facto leader of the band (he wrote four of seven songs on the album and recorded all guitar parts). On Brothers and Sisters, Betts’s new role marked a shift in sound that would totally reshape the trajectory of the band.
Closer “Pony Boy” is a clear embodiment of the aesthetic change under Betts. It sounds like something a washboard-and-fiddle band from the bayou would record, complete with porch-stomping rhythm and impressive delta-blues guitar from the new frontman. It was unlike anything the Allman Brothers recorded up until then, and it proved that Betts, although no Duane, could keep up a sufficient level of guitar heroics.
“Southbound” finds the band revisiting familiar territory with a 12-bar blues jam. But where the old Allman Brothers might have kept things all grits and guts, rookie member Chuck Leavell’s rousing, virtuosic piano lines added more depth than the band was used to. Plus, Greg Allman’s unusually polished vocal hooks on the track — complements of Betts’s songwriting — pegged the band as a radio force without compromising its best asset: integrity.
Brothers and Sisters fully realized this move toward poppier, hook-based songs, a shift that Betts’s Eat a Peach cut “Blue Sky” hinted at a year earlier. “Ramblin’ Man” is the obvious exemplar here, but Greg Allman’s “Wasted Words” also sounded much cleaner and focused than many of his earlier songs.
This newfound pop gleam even seeped into the band’s instrumentals. The Betts-penned “Jessica” is perhaps still the band’s most beloved jam, fueled by an instantly recognizable guitar line that just begs to be hummed.
Despite the success of “Ramblin Man” and “Jessica,” many people gloss over the fact that Brothers and Sisters came from a badly wounded band swamped in personal turmoil. But maybe this is the reason why the album was such a winner — the band had to press on, and they needed a resounding success to do so. Who knows what would’ve happened if Zeppelin released another album sans Bonham?
On the other hand, we do know what happened to Guns N’ Roses after Stradlin’s departure, and needless to say it wasn’t pretty (ahem, The Spaghetti Incident?). I only iterate this because it sounds so good: Suck on that, Axl Rose.