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Blues from a Recent Liver Recipient

Let’s stipulate a few things here:

  1. Gregg Allman is one of the great white blues singers of his era, despite the fact that he’s usually overshadowed by the guys in his band not named Allman.
  2. Compared to his output with the Allman Brothers Band, his solo material (the last entry coming about 15 years ago) has been largely forgettable, its high points being the reworking of an ABB song (“Midnight Rider”) and the overproduced country-pop tune “I’m No Angel.”
  3. Covers albums are often the last refuge of aging legends who have run out of ideas. Even a rather enjoyable listen like Clapton’s Me and Mr. Johnson suffered from overproduction, with too many of Robert Johnson’s edges filed down to nothingness.

That all said, it doesn’t matter much. Allman’s latest, Low Country Blues, has several things working in its favor, chief among them the reinvigorated sound of his gravelly singing (chalk it up, if you like, to his recent liver transplant after living with hepatitis for decades).

His other advantage is one that, by now, every artist must wish they had: the Midas touch of T-Bone Burnett. T-Bone’s production style has become so distinct, and it’s so ever-present on this disc, that he probably deserves top billing with Allman. Here, he strikes a perfect balance between the often hushed tones of Raising Sand and the layered, propulsive roots rock of his work with the Wallflowers on Bringing Down the Horse.

The material here is selected smartly, too. Only the most devoted blues fans will recognize more than a couple tunes (Muddy Waters’s “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and Skip James’s “Devil Got My Woman”) and Robert Johnson and Willie Dixon songs are nowhere to be found. The result is that the disc sounds fresh, despite the age of the songs. Most of the material he draws on, in fact, sounds like the blues of riverside revivals, rather than back-porch laments. (He even throws in some early, walking-bass-line rock and roll for good measure.) This is also a credit to the musicians, assembled from a roots-rock all-star team including Doyle Bramhall II, Dr. John and drummer Jay Bellerose, who’s been touring with Ray Lamontagne.

The year is young, but I’ll be shocked if this doesn’t make my 2011 top ten list.

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