From The Vault (2002): Allman Brothers Band, Ray Charles

It’s been awhile since I motivated myself to write an Oreopolis essay about my travels, but rest assured I’ve still been out there covering the trials and travails of the CART series. I’m not driving to as many races this year, but the pairing of Laguna Seca and Portland made for an obvious road trip. Gordon Kirby must have thought so too, since he invited himself along for the ride, and it turned out to be a pleasant run up the coast.

But we had a night out for some entertainment before all that. Thanks to www.pollstar.com, I learned that the The Allman Brothers Band was set to open a three-night run at the Warfield in San Francisco the day after the Laguna Seca race (June 10, 2002). To my surprise, GK immediately said, “Sure, why not?” Within a few minutes, I had confirmed three reserved seats in the balcony for Monday night’s concert – our colleague David Phillips volunteered to join us when he learned what we had planned.

“The last time I saw the Allman Brothers, there were actually two brothers,” remarked DP.

Its funny how aficionados of live rock and roll know many cities by their concert and sports venues. For me, San Francisco brings to mind Winterland, the Cow Palace, the Great American Music Hall, and of course, the Warfield. I don’t carry a DeadBase on the road with me, but I’m sure the Grateful Dead played there, and I know Jerry Garcia did.

We had a quick dinner at John’s Grill (“Since 1908,” and highly recommended) before making the multicultural six-block walk to the show. The Warfield was a neat room, predominantly red with a lot of ornate gold trim. It was beautifully presented, but the seats were very narrow and offered little legroom. The balcony was fairly empty when the band took the stage at around 8:20.

My appreciation of the Allman Brothers came about in a funny way. I was working for PB Tweeks in the late ‘80s when I rode to a scale model show in St. Louis with my boss, a guy named Paul Holeman, in his Dodge Daytona Turbo Z. Halfway there, he suggested playing ‘Live at the Fillmore East.’ I protested; “Ramblin’ Man” was probably the only Allmans tune I knew at the time and I thought they were kind of country. But Paul convinced me to give them a chance.

“Statesboro Blues,” “Done Somebody Wrong” and “Stormy Monday” drew me in, and by the time we rocked out to “You Don’t Love Me” and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” I couldn’t believe what I had been missing. I eventually saw the Allmans three times at the Indianapolis venue formerly known as Deer Creek with the late Greg Watson, and I accumulated a small cache of live recordings, but nothing tops the Fillmore East discs.

The concert we saw at the Warfield was okay. They didn’t play very many songs that I recognized, and I definitely would have enjoyed a few more hits. They opened with “Midnight Rider,” but the rest of the 75-minute first set was pretty much new to me. The second set featured an early “Not My Cross to Bear” and my personal highlight, “Dreams,” though I still prefer Molly Hatchet’s version of that song.

The oddball highlight of the Allmans show was the spectacle of the guy that sat in front of us. He and his girlfriend showed up about five songs in, and I actually had to move back a row because I was technically sitting in his seat in the 1/3-full balcony. All the better – it gave me a superb view of his wacky antics.

He was obviously tripping on something. He was literally bouncing a foot in the air out of his seat for the first couple of songs. Then he kneeled down in the aisle to write down the set list, and a guy coming down the steps promptly tripped over him, sending the poor guy sprawling down another five rows or so.

Our man’s setlist was even more indecipherable than some of my press conference notes, and his girlfriend kind of apologized for his behavior. “He won’t remember any of this in the morning,” she said.

They disappeared during the set break, but reappeared a few songs into the second set. The dude then pulled out what looked like a gallon-size Ziploc bag filled with an amber-colored liquid that I can only imagine was some kind of whiskey. He had slugged about half the bag by the time GK, DP and I took off as the ABB broke into “Mountain Jam.”

Another point worth noting was the guitar work between Allmans returnee Warren Haynes and 22-year old newcomer Derek Trucks, who handled most of the Dickey Betts parts. Of course, Dickey left the band under acrimonious circumstances last year and it was only a couple days later that I realized that the band didn’t play any of his songs. That’s as childish and immature as the Indy Racing League refusing to acknowledge CART’s existence…

Seventeen days after seeing the Allmans at the Warfield, the same trio boarded a Chicago Transit Authority train from Oak Park to the Loop to see Ray Charles at the Chicago Theater (June 27, 2002). This time we were joined by racing photographer Paul Webb, and after a so-so dinner at Guvnor’s Pub, we took our seats in the balcony.

Almost unbelievably, opening act Koko Taylor was pulled from the stage after just three songs, including “Wang Dang Doodle,” which the Chicago Tribune’s review of the show said was her signature song. After remarks from the emcee (this was a benefit show for the Children’s Brittle Bone Foundation), Ray himself was guided on stage to be seated at a Yamaha electric keyboard.

I remarked how fortunate I was a few weeks ago to be granted an audience with a living legend – Mario Andretti. I’d have to say that Ray Charles also falls into that category, though this time I was just a general audience member. It was still special to be in the same room as one of music’s great performers.

Like at the Allmans, I was disappointed to not hear more songs that I recognized. I suppose if I was as familiar with Ray’s material as I am with Pink Floyd I wouldn’t have that problem, but this show was enjoyable anyway – much more so than the Allmans, actually.

The songs I recognized were “Busted,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” and of course, “What’d I Say?” The latter was probably the peak of the show, coming near the end after five Raelettes joined the master himself on the stage. Ray wasn’t by himself before that by any means, because he was backed by a crack 18-piece swing band, who individually walked forward to take solos in the spotlight.

The review in the Tribune chastised the audience for talking throughout the performance and generally behaving in a disrespectful manner. I don’t think that was the case from my vantage point in the balcony, but I did think the overall sound level could have been turned up a bit.

I’m sure lack of decibels won’t be an issue the next time I return to the Chicago Theater. I’ll be there on August 20 to see Oasis, and I’ll be right up front in the third row…