It’s 11:45 p.m. at the Beacon Theatre in New York and members of the Allman Brothers Band are winding up a luxury-length version of “Whipping Post.”
Twenty minutes earlier, the audience of 2,800 went wild as Gregg Allman opened his group’s most-requested song -- it’s not played every night -- with the doomy words “I’ve been run down, I’ve been lied to.” He’s in laid-back mode at the keyboards, letting guitarist Warren Haynes build the tune via crazed solos before the sign-off, “good lord, I feel like I’m dyin’.”
Allman manages to look convincingly pained at this sad tale of love gone bad. Despite -- or perhaps because of the fact -- that he has performed it thousands of times. Many in the audience have heard it almost as often after decades of watching the group through hippiedom to stardom. Some look happily spaced out as a haze of smoke hangs over their heads.
“The crowd’s as special as the musicians,” says Arnold Kelms, a retired professor from Florida. “Like a big family, we get together each year for this March madness.” Kelms, 72, his gray hair in a ponytail, swigs from a Bud Light and proudly shows off his faded Allman Miami T-shirt from 1982. “This is almost as antique as I am, man.”
The group has been doing extended residencies in New York almost every year since 1989, usually at the Beacon, where it has staged more than 200 sellout shows. Fans mutter about tickets being snapped up and sold on the Internet for as much as $1,000. Official prices start at $59.99.
Yet the spending never ends. Commercials are crammed onto a video screen during the concert intermission. There are instant CDs of each performance, DVDs, magazines, books and a vacation visit to the Allman museum in Macon, Georgia: I soon lose count of how many hundreds of dollars of merchandise.
Kevin Umberger, a 43-year-old TV cameraman from Knoxville, Tennessee, went to 75 Grateful Dead shows before turning to the Allmans. He has attended more than 70 of their concerts.
“The level of musicianship on stage every night can be kinda insane,” he says.
It’s hard to disagree. The blissed-out guitar duels are played against a video backdrop that aptly shows magic mushrooms growing and psychedelic images swirling.
After the show, I ask for comments via Twitter and the Allman Brothers website. I get deluged with replies: bankers, doctors, lawyers, many in their fifties, a few as young as 25.
Some remark that it’s a miracle the band still exists.
The death of slide-guitar ace Duane Allman in 1971 could have finished them. Gregg, 64 (whose memoir “My Cross to Bear” is out in May) was distracted by drink and drug addictions; a succession of romances, including a brief marriage to Cher. After suffering hepatitis C and cirrhosis, he needed a life-saving liver transplant. It adds to the irony of the “feel like I’m dyin’” sign-off to “Whipping Post,” as well as the cover attempted this year of Neil Young’s substance-abuse anthem “The Needle and the Damage Done.”
They also do a version of Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic.” It sits nicely alongside material off the album “Eat a Peach.” That recording, as long-term fans note, was released a mere 40 years ago.
What the Stars Mean: ***** Exceptional **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
The Allman Brothers Band “March Madness” shows continue through March 25 at the Beacon Theatre, 2124 Broadway (between West 74th and 75th Streets), New York.
The Allmans headline the eighth annual Wanee Festival in Live Oak, Florida, on April 19-21. Information: http://www.waneefestival.com/
The band also headlines the Peach Music Festival on August 10-12 at Montage Mountain in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Information: http://thepeachmusicfestival.com/
(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)