by Jane Roser
“It’s the middle of winter, there’s three inches of ice on the highway, we’re in our tour buses and semis were off the road left and right.” Several days after the Blizzard of 2016 furiously dumped over two feet of snow on the East Coast, Allman Brothers Band drummer Butch Trucks is preparing for a short tour with his Freight Train Band and is telling me about the last time the Allman Brothers did a winter tour, making me glad I never had a hankering to want to drive anything larger than a Mini Cooper.
“I just crawled into my bunk and thought, well, I guess this is my coffin. We had a gig to play, so we kept rollin’ and somehow made it to the next show and when we got there, we all looked at each other and said, ‘you know, we’ve got all summer long when we can be out on the road touring, we don’t have to do this.’ We made a pact then and there- no more winter touring.” Trucks chuckles and says, “so this is going to be the first time since then, that’s why I’m really quite nervous about it.”
Trucks is not only a founding member of one of the most iconic rock bands in American history, but he is one of the few to remain with the group during their entire existence. When The Allman Brothers Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, they were lauded as being one of “the principal architects of Southern rock” and “their kind of jamming required a level of technical virtuosity and musical literacy that was relatively new to rock and roll, which had theretofore largely been a song-oriented medium.”
Over 40 years and several gold and platinum albums later, The Allman Brothers Band finally called it quits and Trucks formed the Freight Train Band whose current members include his son Vaylor on guitar, Berry Oakley Jr. (son of Allman Brothers bassist Berry Oakley) on bass, Damon Fowler on lead vocals and second guitar, Tad Isch on drums (for songs where two drums are needed), Bruce Katz (formerly with the Gregg Allman Band) on keyboard and Heather Gillis on guitar and vocals.
While the band hasn’t had enough rehearsal time to develop much new material, Trucks says since they’ll be spending so much time together traveling, they’ll be able to write some songs on the road. “I figure I’ll stick our best songwriters in the back of the car so we can get one to two damn good songs out of this trip.”
“We’ll play three to five Allman Brothers songs,” explains Trucks, “we’ll also play a John Scofield and a Jeff Beck tune, a song by The Band, some old blues and fusion jazz; it’ll be different every night. We start out every show with “Hot ‘Lanta” just ‘cause that’s one of the few songs I actually got songwriter credit for and it’s a really good opening song; it’s short, up-tempo and wakes everybody up, then we can get into the meat of the set. Our encore is always “Whipping Post” and Heather sings the hell out of it.”
Trucks especially enjoys playing shows with his son, who also happens to be the towheaded kid on the Allman Brothers Band fourth studio album Brothers and Sisters (which went gold within 48 hours of its release and contains the hit song “Ramblin’ Man”).
“He’s not anywhere near as cute as he was then,” jokes Trucks, “but damn can he play guitar. Man, I love it. We’ll play Elizabeth Reed, but I’ll be damned if you can recognize it. He’s a lot closer to John McLaughlin than Dickey Betts or Duane Allman, but that’s what we’re doing [putting our own twist on it], and that’s what we did with the Allman Brothers songs. I think it’s one of the reasons we were able to stay vital for 45 years; it was always changing, we never played “Whipping Post” the same way twice, it would always go someplace different, so now with a completely new cast of characters it’s still improvisation and playing what you’re feeling and these guys are really good at it.”
The Allman Brothers have played several legendary shows in the Philadelphia area over the years and Trucks remembers those days extremely well. When I ask if he has a favorite Philly story, Trucks tells me that several years ago, when the Eagles were set to play the Oakland Raiders in the Super Bowl, the band arrived to a sold out show at the Spectrum to find three Eagles players (and huge Allman Brothers fans) sitting there. Louie Giammona, John Spagnola and John Bunting invited them to the apartment they shared after the show. There was a ping pong table in the middle of the room and Trucks got into a game with Giammona. He noticed the walls were covered with holes and every time Giammona lost a point he would go to the wall and bang his head through it. When asked if he ever hit a board, Giammona said “occasionally”. Trucks pressed, “what happens?”, Giammona replied, “IT HURTS!”
Butch Trucks and The Freight Train Band are playing at Ardmore Music Hall February 3rd.