Stepping out of the shadow of legendary parentage can't be easy, but Devon Allman and Duane Betts are keeping the flame alive for Southern rock, and that includes the legacy of their fathers' discography as the Allman Brothers Band.
Allman, Betts and Berry Oakley Jr., the offspring of Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts and Berry Oakley respectively, are now touring as members of the Allman Betts Band. The newly formed band isn't shy about continuing the dance, within reason. There is no desire to simply trade on the Allman Brothers' namesake. The Allman Betts Band features rocking blues with long jams, tunes sung with Southern soul, similar enough to mix covers of their dads' songs into the shows of their fledgling world tour.
Just how much Allman Brothers material the Allman Betts Band plays depends on the night for singer/songwriter/guitarist Allman, songwriter/guitarist Betts and bassist Oakley Jr., who early this year joined a dexterous outfit also including guitarist Johnny Stachela, drummers/percussionists John Lum and R. Scott Bryan, and keyboardist John Ginty.
Allman isn't saying how much Allman Brothers' material they cover.
"Magicians don't give up the secrets to their tricks," he says, but their shows do include some songs in honor of the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Allman Brothers Band. They also sprinkle in covers of Dire Straits and Tom Petty songs. In addition to their own material, it's working.
"It has been amazing, 10 times better than anyone thought," Allman says, caught during the first East Coast leg of an ambitious world tour which will take them to Europe, Australia and more. "Fifteen of the first 18 shows were sold out. The love is real. The crowds are real ... fans of our fathers have not walked far away from the kingdom."
According to Betts during a recent interview, "A lot of work is going into it." But on stepping on the toes of their parents' careers, he says, "I have my identity, too. I love that my dad was in a great band, but, you know."
Both Allman and Betts have their own proven careers as they move beyond their famous names.
Allman has produced several albums with his own band, as well as a band called Honeytribe. He also was one of the original members of the Royal Southern Brotherhood. Betts started out playing music as a drummer, later moving on to session guitarist and then releasing his own album, Sketches of American Music, which is steeped in the Americana tradition.
For several years, Allman and Betts have been performing together among a large family of musicians who grew up close to the Allman Brothers legacy. But calling this onstage output an actual band has happened only recently, pulled together in large part by a new album between the two songwriters, Down to the River, which will be released in June. And what Allman and Betts found was the new material mixed in easily with some of the soulful canons of classic Southern rock.
"We have been friends for a long time and he's been doing records and recording a lot," Betts says. "I was with a band called Dawes, out of Los Angeles, as a touring guitarist. Those guys are really talented and I learned a lot from them." But in terms of working with the son of a member of his father's band, "It just came at the right time and it just happened organically."
It was not a forced union made out of convenience of name alone. In fact, both say if they had not worked so well together, they would have never formed the new band.
"The whole reason we are here [as a band] is we decided it's time," Allman says. "When we started writing songs together they sounded like classic songs."
Though the new Allman/Betts album won't be available until early this summer, they have been playing songs from the record regularly during radio show gigs available on Youtube, including "Melodies Are Memories."
"When we got together," Allman says, "we had ideas that we talked about, some of the things we wanted to say, and built a story arc about some of the things we wanted to hit on, and one of the things was how a lot of our own memories are infused with melodies."
Of "Melodies Are Memories," he says, "I don't remember by what year it was or by who the president was. But I can remember by the feelings I felt when I was listening to Metallica's Black Album for the first time. What kind of shoes I was wearing, what girl I was with, what kind of car I was driving, and the melodies are what brings you back to that."
Another song, "Down to the River," has a get-back-to-nature theme.
"In the modern world, we don't seem to embrace [nature] anymore," Allman says. "[This song is] about how we always need to get out in some form of nature. I'm not able to get out to it as much when I'm on tour, but I do my best."
Allman says the entire record was recorded in analog—as opposed to digital—to perfect the ambiance of remembrance, and to give it a live sound.
"It's a lost art, but the interest in recording and listening in analog has boomeranged," he says. "There's a depth and I think people are coming around to that. There's a renewed interest in recording with that classic treatment."
Adding to the retrograde feel, the album was made at the famed Muscle Shoals recording studio in Alabama.
"That's hallowed ground," Allman says. "'Brown Sugar,' 'Wild Horses' (by the Rolling Stones), some of the great songs in music history were recorded there, and it was great to be able to go in and play tunes there. It's only a 50-foot by 20-foot single room, and it's a museum now, so we had to make special arrangements in advance to play there. We were the first band to make a record there in five years."
Allman is reticent to say much about the Allman Brothers Band, but he does talk about his experience in the 1980s when he played on stage for the first time with his father's band.
"I was 17 years old and I was scared shitless," he recalls. "It was the final night of the tour, and Dickey Betts came over to me when I was standing near the stage and told me I was going to come out and sing 'Midnight Rider.' Here I am 30 years later and I'm not scared shitless anymore."
The Allman Betts Band plays at the Orpheum Theater, 15 W. Aspen Ave., Friday, May 17, with opening act J.D. Simo. Tickets are $30 for general admission, $40 for reserved floor seats, $48 for reserved orchestra seats, plus fees. Doors for this all-ages show open at 7 p.m., show at 8 p.m. Visit www.allmanbettsband.com for more information.