Gregg Allman shakes the blues

Gregg Allman

Gregg Allman may be 64, but he’s feeling younger than he has in decades.

“I’ve got a new lease on life,” he exclaims, chatting on the phone from his home in Richmond Hill, Ga. “I got a new liver, and I’ve been off all the drugs and alcohol for 18 years now, and I feel good every day. And man, I’m writing more and creating more stuff, and I just love it.”

After our chat, Allman said he planned to ‘take a nice little putt on one of my motorcycles,’ adding, “I just have a good time, every day.”

Some might argue that Allman wrote the book on having a good time.

As the de facto front man for the Allman Brothers Band after the death of his brother, Duane, in 1971, Allman grew from a shy blond kid from Daytona, Fla., into the consummate rock star, complete with a heroin addiction and five children born from five different women (none of whom have Southern accents, he laments).

The picture Allman paints in his autobiography, “My Cross to Bear,”which came out earlier this year, however, reveals the underlying pain that the incessant rambling caused him, emotionally and physically.

Contracting hepatitis C (likely from a dirty tattoo needle, he hypothesizes) led to tumors on his liver that required a transplant and a total of five surgeries in 2010 and 2011.

Although his doctors recommended that Allman stay off the road, he’s continued to tour and play, both as a solo act and with the Allman Brothers.

“I pace myself and gets lots of sleep. Even on the road, I try to get at least 10 hours, every day, and after that, I’m good,” Allman said. “I’m starting to heal up from all these ... surgeries.”

Allman went into his liver transplant knowing that he had a special album in his back pocket to help him along with his recovery.

Before undergoing the surgery, he partnered with producer T-Bone Burnett to record an album of semi-obscure yet classic blues songs. Burnett pulled together a studio band that included Dr. John on piano and Doyle Bramhall II on guitar.

Dubbing the album “Low Country Blues,” Allman let the disc, his first new solo recording since 1997, fuel his re-emergence as a new, healthy man.

After that Grammy-nominated effort, Allman capitalized on the new attention with his book release, offering fans an intimate, honest portrait of his relationships with his brother, his third wife, Cher, and former bandmate Dickey Betts.

During his spring book promotion appearances, he announced his engagement to Shannon Williams. The 24-year-old will be his seventh wife, and he said it’s not unthinkable that a little Allman with a Southern accent could come along one day.

“If I’ve got any left in me, there’s a chance,” he laughs. “I could have another kid, even at this age, because with my other endeavors, I never got to spend much time with them when they were little puppies. When they’re babies, that’s when they’re the cutest.”

New babies of the musical variety also may be on the horizon.

“I’ve been writing my butt off lately,” Allman reveals. “I’ve always wanted to do a record where it says at the bottom, ‘All songs written by ...’

“Throughout my career, I haven’t really been considered by the public to be a singer/songwriter, even though I wrote probably 80 percent of the Allman Brothers stuff. I haven’t fulfilled my whole writer thing yet, so hopefully that’s going to happen But if not, the next order of business will probably be the Allman Brothers, because God knows they’re past due for an in-studio record.”

Although the Allman Brothers have continued to tour, including an annual string of shows at the Beacon Theatre in New York and their own Wanee Festival each spring in Live Oak, Fla., their last studio album was 2003’s “Hittin’ the Note.” In addition to Allman, the band still includes original drummers Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson.

“By now, everybody’s standards are so high and they’re so picky that you know the next effort should be a real good one,” Allman said. “I don’t see how it couldn’t be.”

On his current run of six shows in October, bandmate Johanson joins Allman on tour, leading his ensemble, Jaimoe’s Jasssz Band. The two groups even share a piano player, Bruce Katz.

Back when the Allman Brothers were still touring in a van out of Macon, Ga., the band would set up in the afternoons before a gig in the park of whatever city they were playing in, putting on a free show just for the sake of playing.

That same music for the sake of music motivation is evident in Allman and Johanson.

Just as Allman can’t help but perform despite doctors’ recommendations otherwise, Johanson has put together his Jasssz Band solely for an excuse to jam when the Allman Brothers weren’t on the road. He booked the group its first gig in 2006, offering to play for free as long as the club owner didn’t mind if they repeated songs and used the stage as a practice space. That performance (again, the first ever) was ultimately released as an album, “Live at the Double Down Grill.”

“We just wanted a place to play and needed people to play to,” recalls Johanson, speaking from his adopted home in Connecticut. “None of us had played together before, but the groove was on.”

In late 2011, the Jasssz Band released its first studio album, “Renaissance Man.” The group’s most prominent member is guitarist and singer Junior Mack, whose smooth vocals and soulful touch on the guitar are reminiscent of Taj Mahal on songs like “Leaving Trunk.” Opening track “Dilemma,” on the other hand, takes cues from the Allman Brothers, a la “Les Brers in A Minor,” taking advantage of the band’s powerful horn section and Johanson’s intricate percussive touch to control the mood through several shifts in tempo and melody.

“Jazz is about improvisation,” said Johanson, who toured with Otis Redding before joining the Allman Brothers. “It was a word they stuck on black people back in the day, but I don’t care if it’s hillbilly or what — all music is jazz. I used to watch Hank Williams Sr. on TV when I was a kid. (Johanson sings “Jambalaya” into the phone.) They say the Allman Brothers invented Southern rock, but if Hank ain’t Southern rock, I don’t know what is. And it’s jazz, man.”

“Renaissance Man” includes a bossa nova arrangement of “Melissa,” one of the first songs Gregg Allman ever wrote.

Johanson said he considers Allman to be family; in his book, Allman states very clearly that Johanson is his favorite member of the Allman Brothers.

“We were tight, we were a brotherhood, and we all changed each other’s lives in a great way,” Johanson said. “That’s the kind of stuff that happens with families, and the Allman Brothers were a real family.”

On the phone, Allman’s voice lit up when he talked about performing with Johanson.

During a few shows together in January, the pair joined each other on stage, a possibility in Charleston, “right up the street” from Allman’s home outside Savannah.

The performance also marks Allman’s third appearance in town in five years, almost to the date. He performed at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center in October 2007 with his solo band, returning in August 2011 with the Steve Miller Band.

Reflecting on a long career, Allman said he’s just happy to still be singing and performing, hinting that there’s plenty of new music left to come.

On “Low Country Blues,” Allman sings the repeated chorus “I believe I’ll go back home, I believe I’ll go back home, acknowledge that I’ve done wrong.”

With “My Cross to Bear,” Allman put those misgivings out on the table, but they don’t define the book.

Underneath it all, there’s a joy behind Allman’s music that drove him and the band to continually reunite and record so many times since forming in 1969, remaining pioneers even in 2012.

“There are a lot of sad memories in my life,” admitted Allman. “Somehow though, when I think about the past, what always seems to come up is, well — I remember the happy stuff.”

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