One Way In, Many Ways Out
One Way In, Many Ways Out
A Q&A with Lou Meresca
Of Live at the Fillmore
By Geoff Gehman
Lou Meresca is connected to the Allman Brothers Band by a cosmic cord, or chord. The singing guitarist fell for the Brothers the first time he heard them, during a 1970 concert in his native New Jersey. The same year the teen formed one of the first ABB tribute bands, Skydog, named for a nickname of Duane Allman, his guitar hero. He swears he would have grown muttonchops like Duane’s, if only he had been able to grow a decent mustache.
The next year Meresca attended two of Duane & Co.’s fabled shows at the fabled Fillmore East, where the Allmans first became fabled. When Duane died in a motorcycle crash in October 1971, he wore a black armband to school. He felt he had lost a musical, spiritual brother.
Meresca settled into a semi-musical career as a dealer/designer of high-end sound systems, recording equipment and customized messages (i.e., simulated noises of Philadelphia Zoo animals). As the years rolled and rocked by, he felt uncomfortably disconnected from his cosmic c(h)ord. In 2008 he filled his “vacancy” by launching the band Live at the Fillmore, which plays extremely, exquisitely faithful versions of tunes played in the early ’70s by the original Allman sextet.
Meresca and his six mates simmer and boil the likes of “Whipping Post,” “Hot ’Lanta” and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” the first ABB tune that tied Meresca to a whipping post. They’ve been known to perform the Allmans’ breakout album, “Live at the Fillmore East,” in its entirety, in chronological order. Sometimes they break out non-ABB tunes like “Layla” and “Bell Bottom Blues,” which were minted by Duane Allman and Eric Clapton in Derek & the Dominos.
On May 2 Meresca & Co. will bring some of the Fillmore East’s grimy glitter to their first gig at the Mauch Chunk Opera House. They’ll be accompanied by special guest Alan Paul, who will answer questions about “One Way Out” (St. Martin’s Press), his brand-new, jam-packed oral history of the ABB. The book is bookended by Gregg Allman’s 2012 memoir “My Cross to Bear” and Galadrielle Allman’s even-newer “Please Be with Me,” a pilgrimage to understand the legacy of Duane Allman, the father she never met.
During a recent conversation from his office-studio in Wynnewood, Pa., Meresca discussed everything from the rock/blues/jazz/classical chops needed to play ABB compositions to his Duane-like, Grade-A(llman) muttonchops.
Q: You attended the Allmans’ show on June 25, 1971, the first part of the band’s legendary weekend-long farewell to the Fillmore East. What do you remember about that epic night?
A: Not much. My memory is a little bit hazy, and not just due to factors beyond music [laughs]. The show went on for so long, from around 11 o’clock at night to around 6 o’clock in the morning, that everybody was exhausted at the end. I drove in from New Jersey with three friends that Friday and it was 9 or 10 o’clock on Saturday morning when we finally got to sleep. We were up straight for a whole day. Well, I guess, “straight” is not the best word to use, I suppose [laughs].
I do remember the Allmans played an amazing show and you were just transfixed–in spite of anything anybody was indulging in at the time. You had to keep your eyes and ears wide open for anything they played–because you didn’t want to miss anything. It was one of those rare times when you really felt the entire audience and the band had a common mind.
Q: Has there been any other time when you felt so close to musicians and fellow listeners?
A: The Doors at the Felt Forum [in Madison Square Garden] in ’69. I’d have to say Jim Morrison was far and away the most charismatic performer I’ve ever seen–hypnotically so. He was in a whole separate league.
Q: What was it about Duane Allman that captivated you, that still captivates you? Obviously, his guitar playing was exceptionally fluid, melodic and inventive, whether he was soloing or locking into call-and-responses with Dickey Betts, or even Eric Clapton in Derek & the Dominos. He disappeared into the music, tunneling into spine-tingling, spiritual territory. He acted, and looked, pretty damn cool, too. His muttonchops belong in the hall of fame, man.
A: My muttonchops are kind of an homage to him, although, when I first heard him play, I could barely grow a mustache or a beard. His guitar playing really penetrated you. He was just completely enveloped in the music; he was in a different realm. His facial expressions, his body language—everything about him expressed what he played on his guitar. Everything was one and the same.
Q: With his eyes closed he seemed lost in a trance.
A: Well, that trance could have been due to other factors. It couldn’t have been just the music [laughs].
The other thing about Duane is that he had a real strong sense of grace and humanity. He had a lack of pretense of any sort. I met him a few times and he was very approachable, very open, very willing to share.
Q: Did his generosity of spirit, onstage and off, influence you as a musician, as a band leader?
A: Unquestionably. Unfortunately, I don’t see that sharing, that commitment to the music, as much today. There is less willingness to help somebody else come up. The willingness to help is more self-serving, which is disturbing.
Q: How hard did Duane’s death hit you?
A: I cried. That day I went to school wearing a pair of jeans embroidered by my girlfriend at the time, with a sort of starburst in a hole on one leg. I remember distinctly I had a blue denim Levi’s shirt and a black armband on my left sleeve. Classmates were all coming up to me in the halls expressing condolences, as if Duane was a member of my family.
Q: Did you keep close tabs on the Allmans after Duane died?
A: To be really honest, I didn’t follow them much after [original bassist] Berry Oakley died in ’72 [after a motorcycle accident eerily similar to Allman’s]. The band had its own troubles through that period and my interests waned somewhat after [the 1973 album] “Brothers and Sisters,” when they had Chuck Leavell on piano. And I was extremely busy with my businesses.
I did see [original ABB guitarist] Dickey [Betts] a number of times in the Dickey Betts Band and Great Southern. In fact, I just played with Andy Aledort, his guitarist in Great Southern, in Alan Paul’s band after an event for Alan’s book [“One Way Out”]. We played “Statesboro Blues” and “One Way Out.”
Q: What was happening in your life in 2008 that compelled you to form Live at the Fillmore, your second Allman tribute band, 38 years after you formed your first one?
A: Well, I had been pretty consumed with work, dealing with everyone from the Philadelphia Orchestra to the Grateful Dead to the CIA. I really wasn’t doing much playing; I just sat in. Some fairly prominent people who heard me play said, hey, you don’t just fool around, you really are a player, why don’t you play more? At the time my rationale was, hey, I can’t because I have this day job. But I began to realize more and more that not playing was really affecting me, physically and emotionally, that there was definitely a vacancy.
I had always been involved deeply with the Allman Brothers Band, even when I wasn’t playing their music. [An Allman tribute] band in my area contacted me about joining them and I rehearsed with them for a few weeks. In all fairness it was not what I was looking for, not the level of what I wanted. So I took leave and formed the band I wanted, and needed.
Q: You advertise Live at the Fillmore as the “definitive” tribute to the original ABB. How definitive is definitive? Do you and co-guitarist Rick Baldassari, for example, play the guitar models played by Duane and Dickey Betts?
A: We play Gibson Les Pauls, which they played. Mine is a custom historic show issue from 1958. We play through Marshall amplifiers, which they played through. They’re not the identical amps used by the Allmans; we’d be deaf by now if they were. Back then Duane played through 50-watt amps and Dickey played through 100-watt amps. Dickey has a long-standing reputation for playing incredibly loud. I know because when we play the venues he’s played we’re often asked: “You’re not as loud as Dickey, are you?”
Q: Speaking of definitive, have you played a “Mountain Jam” that clocks in around 33 minutes, the same length as the one the Allmans sometimes played at the Fillmore?
A: We’ve played versions that are close to that length of time. We really try to perform the music of the original band exactly as it was performed during the period they were all together, note for note. We call it “hittin’ the note.” You have to drop the “g”; we’re talkin’ about people from Georgia, remember [laughs].
Now, there’s a misconception among a lot of people as regards the Allman Brothers Band being a jam band. In an interview I heard Gregg say that the Allman Brothers Band is not a jam band; it’s a band that jams. The band to me, and to the members of the band, was not really a jam band in the classic sense. A jam band on any given night plays very spontaneously. That was not the case with the Allmans. They allowed sections to stretch, but their music was very structured, very worked out, very arranged. It was the result of musicians who ate, breathed and lived everything together 24/7.
All the Allman songs have mileposts and we will always reach those mileposts. I know those mileposts by heart, being someone who saw the original band many times [50-plus gigs in ’70-’71], and even many times during the same week. We play much like an orchestra would play a Beethoven piece. You wouldn’t change the intro of the “1812 Overture.” You wouldn’t change any of it, for that matter. It stands on its own merit.
I’ll tell you how authentic we aim to be. I remember the first time I ever played with Dennis Barth, one of our two drummers. I went to his place and we put on [“Live from the] Fillmore East” and he took out his charts. We started playing [along with the album] and it was as if there was a slight delay in his playing. And I looked at his charts and he had written out the most detailed drum parts I had ever seen. That’s the level of detail our band has gone to, to capture the sound of the original Allman Brothers Band. And that’s why I believe that’s why we’ve earned the title “the definitive tribute to the original Allman Brothers Band.”
Q: This winter I interviewed Willie Forte, founder of the B Street Band, which started in 1980, which makes it the longest-running Springsteen tribute group. “I think that sometimes tribute bands miss the point,” he told me. “They’re trying to get the artist down so well that they forget the artist’s original spirit.” Do you ever feel the danger of being too faithful to the original ABB, of being slavishly devoted?
A: No, that’s never been an issue for me. It has been an issue with other people. It’s kept certain players from becoming members of Live at the Fillmore. It’s caused other members to leave, of their accord or ours, because they didn’t want to adhere to the concept of the band.
I think the hallmark of a tribute band is that you have to be true to yourself while being considerate of the audience. Being true to yourself means giving the most authentic performance you can to the band you’re tributing. I mean, we’re not a Beatles tribute band; we don’t wear “Sgt. Pepper” costumes. Yeah, I wear muttonchops, but it’s more my homage to Duane Allman than it is trying to look like him, or be like him. Anyway, the music of the Allman Brothers Band speaks louder to anything we could do visually or dramatically.
I’ve been in the presence of tribute band members when they’re always in character, when they’re always a Beatle. It’s like that school of acting in New York—Method Acting. It’s almost frightening because you feel they have multiple personalities. I even know of one person who goes into the deep depressions of the person he’s imitating, almost to the point of being suicidal. In my mind that’s a little too far.
You can’t be so mechanical about playing the music of someone else that you lose the intensity, the fire. Our goal is to play with respect, and reverence. And that goes back to the beautiful simplicity of the original Allman Brothers Band. They walked onstage, they tuned up their instruments, they played the first song, and it was magic for the rest of the night.
Q: Can you identify three things that you understand and/or appreciate about Duane’s playing, and about the original ABB, that you didn’t before launching Live at the Fillmore?
A: The first word that comes to mind is selflessness. Duane didn’t need to be out front. It wasn’t about him; it was about the band as a whole, as an organic entity. I feel the same way. I enjoy backing up and accompanying the other players as much as I enjoy soloing—sometimes more, in fact. I love getting all wrapped up in all that cosmic energy.
The second word that comes to mind is work—just the hard work that has to be put into an organization to have it reach any significant level of accomplishment. I guess the third word would just be commitment. If you want to accomplish something really significant, you have to jump in headfirst and try to eliminate distractions. You always have to focus on moving the band forward, musically and otherwise.
Q: What do you have in store for the band in the near future? Are there any plans to venture onto turf outside the early ’70s Allmans? Do you think you’ll get more gigs, and more attention, now that guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks have said they plan to leave the ABB at the end of this year?
A: There’s still some uncertainty about the future of the Allman Brothers Band. Gregg [Allman] said that 2014 was going to be the band’s last year to tour; then he said, no, that’s not what he meant. There have also been rumors that only one guitarist will be replaced, that the band will have only one lead guitar. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll know more next month, when I get back from the Big House [the ABB’s museum in their former group home in Macon, Ga.]
I can tell you that in the past month or two, since the announcements, my phone has been ringing a lot. That makes me very happy.
I can also say that we’re going to encompass more of the music of the Allman Brothers Band members, as well as our own music. I can’t share too much, but we’ll perform songs not necessarily in the rock idiom with Allman Brothers Band-style arrangements.
Q: You mean in the spirit of, say, Emerson, Lake & Palmer rocking up classics like Aaron Copland’s “Rodeo” and “Fanfare for the Common Man”?
A: That’s what I mean. Hey, Keith Emerson stole a lot from Copland, didn’t he?
Lou Meresca: The Scoop
His first unforgettable song was “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” which his father’s co-worker taught him when he was a budding guitarist. He really dug the opening staccato riff.
His first unforgettable Allman Brothers Band tune was “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” which he first heard during his first ABB concert in 1970 at a theater in Passaic, N.J. “I fell for the band straight away; there wasn’t any hesitation at all.”
He can’t find the reel-to-reel tape he made of a radio broadcast of the Allmans’ March 13, 1971 show at the Fillmore East, a gig recorded officially for the album “Live at the Fillmore East.” Then again, he’s never been much of an ABB archivist. “I never really bothered with bootlegs,” he says, “because I was going to shows, hearing everything live.”
He manages Live at the Fillmore and sings lead on songs originally led by Gregg Allman. “At first I wasn’t certain my vocals would be good enough. But early on I received compliments, to my very pleasant surprise–and relief.”
He’s scheduled to perform with Live at the Fillmore on May 10 during a festival in Columbus, Ga., the Allmans’ home state.
He bought a guitar amp from Bruce Springsteen, a fellow New Jersey native and a former client.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He envies anyone who attended any rock show at the Fillmore East. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.