The Allman Brothers’ annual March run at Gotham’s Beacon Theater has become something of a harbinger of spring, bringing with it a palpable sense of renewal. That vibe has seldom been more vivid than at the first night of this year’s stand, what with the recent revamp of the venue and, more importantly, Gregg Allman’s successful recovery from a bout with hepatitis C.
As a nod to their 40th anniversary, which they’re also commemorating this year, the band announced its intent to pay homage to founder Duane Allman, whose specter often hovers around them anyway. That was evident from the moment they took the stage on Monday night before an oversized screen that carried a slide show dominated by vintage shots of the late guitarist as current axmen Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks traded riffs on the chestnut “Little Martha.”
That sweet interlude soon gave way to a surprisingly fierce, intriguingly dark batch of standards that underscored the fact that the earliest version of the ensemble was called the Allman Brothers Blues Band for a very good reason. “Not My Cross to Bear,” cleaved by an insistent, loamy solo by Haynes, segued into a sinister take on “I Walk on Gilded Splinters” that evoked dueling images of the storefront church and the shadiest juke joint. That duality was highlighted upon the appearance of first-set guest Taj Mahal, who alternated between proffering his usual good-time attitude and channeling the fearsomeness of Howlin’ Wolf on a simmering “.44 Blues.”
Program’s second set is usually home to the band’s more exploratory forays, and this evening was no exception. Levon Helm of the Band took lead vocals on a warm, winning three-pack of songs highlighted by a burnished “Ophelia” and an embracing rendition of his own “The Weight.” While Helm’s presence was certainly affirming, the band hit its most bracing stride upon his departure, delivering an appropriately threatening “Stormy Monday” and a head-turning take on its customary closer “Mountain Jam” that found them dispensing with drums altogether, opening up heretofore impassible paths.
Members of the band have implied that this may be the beginning of an extended last hurrah. If so, it’s going to be one rousing farewell.