When the Allman Brothers Band kicked off their first multi-night run of shows at the Beacon Theatre, the Berlin Wall was still standing, The Simpsons had yet to debut, and Taylor Swift was happily gestating in the womb. It was 1989, and since then, the group’s March residency has become an annual tradition their fans around the globe have flocked to, with more than 200 sold-out shows over the years and dozens of big-name surprise guests who’ve turned up to jam with Gregg and the fellas, including Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Billy Gibbons, Sheryl Crow, and, ahem, Kid Rock and Bruce Willis, too.
Last week, the Allmans kicked off the first of 11 shows at the Beacon between now and St. Patty’s Day. Coincidentally, the paperback version of leader Gregg Allman’s 2012 memoir My Cross to Bear was published this week by HarperCollins. Allman wrote the book with the able assistance of esteemed music scribe Alan Light (Rolling Stone, SPIN, The New York Times, etc.), whom we caught up with this week to talk about the significance of the Allman Brothers Band’s Beacon residency.
Here’s a band that’s so identified with the South, and yet they’ve done these shows in New York City and had a ton of success with it over the years. Can you explain how and why that works?
Well, I don’t know that there’s an explanation, but it’s certainly a phenomenon. And a phenomenon that dates back before the Beacon. I mean, they had that relationship with the Fillmore East as well. Gregg says they’ve always felt welcomed in New York. I think in the book he says that New York audiences, they wanna know that you’re working and that you came to play, to give ’em the best you got, and they’ve always felt embraced by the audiences here. And certainly he draws that parallel to the Fillmore and to feeling a certain level of comfort and a certain reception there, and when they started at the Beacon they started this relationship that they thought was a comparable sort of experience. It’s pretty amazing. It’s hard to think of another ongoing relationship between a band and a venue over decades.
Yeah, I was trying to think of one.
There’s not much to point to. There’s people who have done famous runs at certain places, or have come back to some little place as the “conquering heroes,” and there are bands that have relationships with festivals. But it’s hard to talk about another band that’s done 200 nights in a room far from home. It’s not like the local club where they happen to go and that’s where they practice or whatever. It’s a pretty unique set of circumstances.
They started doing the Beacon shows in 1989, and you could probably make the argument that by then they were well past their heyday.
Yeah, I think that’s right. Gregg says the ’80s were a terrible time for him personally and for the band, trying to find their way in a very changed music world. When their  box set Dreams came out, that really was the thing that moved them into a different category, that sort of placed them in history in a different way. I think the Beacon shows came to be really important for them. I think they’re a marker. I think it gives them a target they’re shooting for each time the calendar goes around.
How many Beacon shows have you been to?
Oh, I don’t know. It’s been sort of scattered over the years. I didn’t go consistently every year, and then I’ve gone the last four years and I was there for the 200th show. But I definitely have friends who are diehards who do multiple shows. I wrote a piece for the Times around the 200th show and talked to some of these people who’ve been to, you know, 180 of those shows, and it’s kind of amazing.
When you’re in that room, what’s the energy like?
It’s a pretty charged atmosphere for sure. It has that “this is not a regular show” thing. You’re certainly aware of being a part of this chain that the Allmans at the Beacon represents a special thing. Whether that’s because of the shirts and the merch and everything is very specific and it’s not the regular tour stuff…[laughs]. I imagine at many Allmans shows at many places there’s that sorta communal audience thing, but there’s definitely…you’re aware that a lot of people have traveled far for these shows, these are people who’ve seen a lot of shows before, there’s much more comparing notes and histories in the audience and that sort of feeling. And I think for the band, they know that they gotta bring the best that they’re capable of. People are going to evaluate the state of how they’re playing these days based on how they do at the Beacon. It’s not how did they do at some show in Kansas City [laughs]. This is a marker of where they are right now, and they’re very aware of that. Now you see that they do two nights on, one night off, or two nights off. They definitely pace themselves and sort of think through what energy they can give to it, because they don’t wanna feel like they’re walking through one of these shows since they know there’s so much at stake.
I guess with new players having come into the band, it keeps it fresh for fans, but do you think the Allmans are still at a level comparable to, say, 20 years ago?
Look, it’s a different thing. For any of these bands that have done this a long time it’s a different experience. Gregg will do a few songs and sit one out, do one song where he’s playing and one where he’s not. Those are all very conscious decisions of how they’re going to assemble not just night-to-night, but the overall thing. And the nature of a band like this that’s as improvisational as they are, there’s nights when the magic is all there, and there’s nights when it’s okay. But I think these shows, there’s a certain consistency to them because they know they can’t just phone it in at any point.
You obviously spent a lot of time with Gregg in writing the book. Did you get a sense from him at this point in his career, how easy or difficult it is for him to get to that place where it’s transcendent not only for the crowd but for him as a performer?
I don’t know…I think it becomes physically more challenging with each year. He says that there’s notes where it gets harder and harder to do, like the end of “One Way Out.” That vocal at the end, it’s harder to do that 20 years later. But you find different things that resonate. Last year they did an acoustic version of “The Needle and the Damage Done,” and especially hearing it last year, in the wake of his hepatitis and when he was very involved in getting his hepatitis charity up and running, that was a different sort of highlight for a show. You know who you’re looking at and you know what you’re hearing, and that was a really powerful thing that 10 years ago would have meant something different. I think for them, you find they’re constantly looking for the stuff that’s going to connect, that’s going to be exciting and interesting for them to play and it’s gonna mean something to that audience. And they know this is an informed group that knows their catalog and responds to deep cuts. Not that they don’t want to hear the hits. But they want a different thing from a show, and there’s a sort of freedom that that allows but a different pressure as well.
Do you think the band still has the capacity to surprise?
Yeah, I think they still have the capacity for it for sure. That’s one reason why they bring guests in and look to mix things up and light a different spark. Any band or anybody doing anything, it’s not going to be all revelation every single time when you’re doing 10, 11 shows. You see what it is from night to night, but obviously they still have the capacity at their best to find stuff to do with this material or find other challenges that they can get inside.
How much time did you spend with Gregg writing the book?
It was kind of done at a sprint, probably about nine months. We were working against the clock.
Did you become pretty tight with him?
Well, it was a working relationship. I’ve seen him since, when he’s come through. He’s not a hangin’ out kinda guy [laughs], so I didn’t have any sense that that’s what it would be. I know he was happy with the book and happy with the reception. Going into it, I really needed to be convinced that he wanted to do it. He’s not a natural life-of-the-party kinda guy. He’s very private, doesn’t like doing interviews. I’d interviewed him before and it obviously went well. I know it’s not his favorite thing to do, and so I really needed to be convinced that he was committed to what was necessary to do this, and he was very good and focused and worked really hard when we were doing it and it all shows. I think that for whatever reason it was important for him to get it all out, and he did a lot of work to support it. And his health is an ongoing concern, so I think he gave everything he could give to it and that made a difference. And again, the response, especially from the fans — we know they have obsessive fans, and you’re waiting to hear what you did wrong or what you missed, and overwhelmingly people felt like it was his voice, that it was clear and thorough. It was all very gratifying. People do these kinds of books and say it was a nightmare and they’d never do it again. With this, I think everybody walked away feeling good about it.
The Allman Brothers play the Beacon Theatre tonight and March 6th, 8th, 9th, 12th, 13th, 15th, 16th and 17th. Tickets are $50.99 – $150.99.