The Road Rolls On Forever
The Road Rolls On Forever
A Q&A with Rob Wallis of SoulShine
By Geoff Gehman
Rob Wallis helped turn a speedway in upstate New York into a one-day city. On July 28, 1973 he joined nearly 600,000 other listeners at Summer Jam at Watkins Glen, a Guinness record breaker for most crowded pop festival. While the native New Yorker enjoyed the Band and the Grateful Dead he really enjoyed the Allman Brothers Band, which performed a typically whipping, blistering three-hour set starring the likes of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” and “Jessica,” the latter a pedal-to-the-metal barnburner on the then-unreleased “Brothers and Sisters” album. An ardent student of the Allmans’ 1971 LP recorded at the Fillmore East, the young musician immersed himself in the dueling guitars, double-drum powwows and fresh, fertile improvisations that made the Brothers the fathers of Southern classical rock.
The Allmans officially disbanded in 2014 with their 238th consecutive sellout at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan. Wallis, who attended Beacon shows with tickets courtesy of Jaimoe, a founding Allman drummer, continues to compound his emotional investment by drumming in SoulShine, a sextet that specializes in ABB evergreens. Launched after the 2017 death of Butch Trucks, the Allmans’ other original drummer, the group plays high-flying, low-riding versions of such Brotherly perennials as “Ramblin’ Man” and “Whipping Post.”
On Jan. 19 Wallis and his comrades will raise money for Mauch Chunk Opera House renovations while memorializing Bill Morse, a vaunted venue volunteer. In the email conversation below Wallis discusses how ABB drummers have made him a better drummer and how Jimi Hendrix helped convince him not to be a guitarist.
Q: Can you remember the first song you couldn’t forget, the one that turned you inside out and upside down?
A: When I first heard “Jessica,” I couldn’t get that song out of my head.
Q: What was the first Allman Brothers Band album that put the group permanently on your radar?
A: The entire “At Fillmore East” pretty much spun my head around.
Q: Why did you settle on drums as your instrument of expression?
A: Well ….the first record I ever bought was Jimi Hendrix’s: “Are You Experienced” and when I heard him play I figured no sense playing guitar LOL, so I went to drums.
Q: When did you start SoulShine and what were the circumstances that made you want to play Allman Brothers tunes in public for pay?
A: SoulShine was meant as a one-off gig. Six guys playing music they love. Ronnie [Negro, drums], Bob [Goetz, bass] and Norm [Dodge, guitar] have been playing together for 30- plus years in a band called Powderfinger. I didn’t know them at the time and shortly after Butch Trucks passed, they were doing a gig in a local club and asked if I wanted to sit in for a set in tribute to Butch. I was working that night and couldn’t make it. Geoff [Hartwell, guitar] ending up sitting in and another drummer showed up.
I reached out afterwards and asked if they’d consider doing a night of ABB. They said yes and suggested having Geoff do it and all we needed was to find an organ player. Chris [Burke] was the obvious choice since we all knew him and when asked said yes. We booked a date at the same club (Lucy’s Lounge in Pleasantville, N.Y.) the boys had played earlier and circulated a set list that everyone worked on and agreed to do one rehearsal and then the gig. After the first song at that rehearsal everyone was looking around a little stunned–there was a little magic that we all felt. After all of our individual years of playing music, you know when something special is happening and so far we still feel that magic….
Q: Why do you enjoy locking in with Ronnie, your drumming partner in SoulShine? Do you and he switch off the parts of Butch and Jaimoe?
A: I did not know Ronnie until we started SoulShine. We were Facebook friends and ran into each other once in a club in NYC but other than that, we met at that first rehearsal. We have never ever really discussed drum parts or solos etc. It has all been very organic. Stylistically, I think Ronnie is more on the Butch side of playing and I am more Jaimoe LOL….
Q: How has playing ABB grooves stretched/improved/changed your drumming?
A: I had never played with another drummer and it has forced me to listen more carefully to what I am doing so that we complement each other and not step on each other.
Q: What do you understand and/or appreciate about the ABB that you didn’t before you launched SoulShine?
A: Until I had to learn the music for the first gig, as much as I’d listened to their music, I didn’t realize how intricate a lot of it is. Where a lot of music has musical sections of four bars, the Brothers might do it in three, so it keeps you on your toes!!
Q: How deeply have you researched how the ABB operates? Have you, for example, read “One Way Out,” the oral history by Alan Paul, who once appeared at Mauch Chunk?
A: I read Gregg [Allman]’s autobiography and that’s about it. Many years ago I became friendly with Jaimoe and he invited me to an ABB rehearsal in NYC before a Beacon [Theater] run. I got there just as they were finishing up so I didn’t get to hear anything, but I did get to say hello to some of the band.
Q: SoulShine’s tour resume includes Garcia’s at the Capitol in Port Chester, N.Y., a haven for Allman and Dead musicians and fans. What new venues, new markets, would you like your band to infiltrate?
A: We just did a show there two days ago [Jan. 4] that was fantastic. Great crowd, a sellout, and they were singing as loud as we were!! In terms of new markets, we are happy to be expanding where we get to perform and are happy to be planting new flags.
Q: So, Rob, what tops your Bucket List? Musicians have told me everything from touring the world to world peace.
A: My bucket list is to keep trying to bring music to people that makes them happy. Something I do not take for granted.
Q: What do you do when you’re not performing in SoulShine?
A: I own a company that produces instructional drum books and videos called Hudson Music. And I have an app called Drum Guru and Bass Guru that sells lesson packs with very well-known drummers and bass players.
Q: What ABB number do you put on when you need instant inspiration?
A: There are many songs that always inspire me and I think it depends on my mood at the time as to which one rings my bell. Lately I’ve been obsessed with Gregg’s solo album “Laid Back.”I got to speak with Gregg once and we talked about that record [which includes “Midnight Rider” and Jackson Browne’s “These Days”]. I was fortunate to have seen him perform it in Gainesville, Fla. in late 1973 or ’74. One of the best shows I’ve ever seen.
Q: How many times did you see the ABB?
A: I went to the Watkins Glen festival in ’73 with the ABB, the Dead and the Band. Incredible!! And once I became friends with Jaimoe, he invited me to a Beacon show at least once during every run, so I got to see them a number of times there as well as shows in NJ.
Q: And how many times have you listened to “At Fillmore East”?
A: I wore out my first copy!!
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. His Allman evergreens include “Dreams,” “Jessica,” “Melissa,” “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and “Midnight Rider.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.