In a guest piece marking one year since The Brothers celebrated half a century of the Allman Brothers Band at Madison Square Garden—the last concert at the World’s Most Famous Arena before the world shut down—best-selling Allman Brothers Band biographer Alan Paul reflects on a year without live music. You can also read Alan Paul’s initial review of The Brothers performance on 3/10/20 and listen to his “Playlist To Keep You Moving” here.
A year ago I was at the last concert ever—or that’s how it’s felt for the last 12 months.
March 10, 2020, the Brothers at Madison Square Garden celebrating the music of the Allman Brothers Band. It was already quite clear that COVID-19 was a real problem in the US and plenty of people who had tickets decided not to go. My date dropped out and no one else wanted to be my Plus One. [My wife] Rebecca came over and joined me for the second set after covering the Michigan election; it’s also the one-year anniversary of Joe Biden effectively locking up the nomination. It’s clear in the review I wrote for Billboard that I knew we were at a turning point and that we wouldn’t be back in a venue for along time. I had already done a major grocery shop emphasizing dry goods and toilet paper, and I probably wouldn’t have attended anything else in such a large venue—but this was too close, too important to miss. I had to be there, after 30 years of writing about the Allman Brothers Band and six years—since the 2014 publication of my book, One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band—as an insider, a member of the extended family.
[Photo: Dino Perucci – Alan Paul backstage at the Beacon, 2014]
It wasn’t just an anticipated concert, but a family reunion. Thousands of us missed the annual pilgrimages to the Beacon Theatre, where the Allman Brothers played over 230 shows from 1989 to 2014, for not just the concert but the gathering, the meals, the drinks, the before- and after-show parties. So I spent the better part of the week before the show in the city, with growing anticipation. I was at the band’s rehearsal space before their first get together to interview founding drummer Jaimoe for a feature in The Wall Street Journal—a story I had long wanted to write, to bring this incredible man’s story to a larger audience. I spent hours at the band’s pop-up shop at Live Nation’s West Side headquarters, signing books, shaking hands and taking photos with fans.
[Photo: Josh Wool – Alan Paul and Jaimoe, 3/4/20]
Before the concert, my Friends of the Brothers band played an official pre-party at a packed The Cutting Room, 400 people packed elbow to elbow, front to back. After the show, I was at the Trucks’ Brothers after show party, another crowded bar, having close, face-to-face conversations until 3 a.m.
When the sh*t hit the fan the next few days, I wasn’t just thinking about the inherent risks of attending a sold-out arena concert; I had days of serious exposure. The concert was perfect—laid out in the review here—and the feeling in the room was incredible. Despite all my anxiety to come, I never regretted being there.
Two days later, the star-studded Love Rocks NYC concert at the Beacon became a friends- and family-only live-streamed event. I was honored to be invited to be part of that special, small crowd, but I couldn’t do it. I was too freaked out by then.
The concern only grew as I started to hear to about COVID cases seemingly stemming from the concert—especially when Kirk and Kristen West returned home to Macon, GA and got ill. Kirk is a master rock photographer and the Allman Brothers’ longtime “Tour Mystic” and over the past 20 years he’s become one of my very best friends, someone whose friendship and counsel I greatly value. I was happy to have him and Kirsten spend the night after the show at our house, as we all decompressed and traded notes, just as we did after the last Allman Brothers show in 2014. We dined at our little kitchen table with my wife and daughter and enjoyed each other’s company—the last time we’d share a meal with a non-family member for a year.
The next morning they drove home and within days, Kirk was hospitalized with COVID. They both got sick, but he was really ill. Luckily, he recovered, but a year later he’s still struggling with “long hauler” symptoms. I was worried about my friend, freaked out by deaths I was starting to hear about—the virus ripped through New York like a hurricane—terrified that I had exposed myself and my family to this thing, and counting down the days until March 24, which would be 14 days after the concert, seemingly putting me in the clear.
That’s the stuff I was worried about in the first weeks. I wasn’t thinking much about the concerts I wasn’t attending, or the Friends of the Brothers shows we had to cancel in New York, Philadelphia, Atlantic City and Portchester. One of the first people I knew to die was Homeboy Steve, a friendly, funky guitarist who primarily an online friend. Then on March 29, I heard about the death of Ron Louie, a hardcore music fan whose wife Janine is an Allman Brothers fanatic, who’s attended virtually every greater Friends of the Brothers show in New York— including on March 10.
Then, suddenly, a musician I loved or admired was dying every day. On March 31, brilliant trumpeter Wallace Roney. On April 1, pianist and musical patriarch Ellis Marsalis and jazz guitar giant Bucky Pizzarelli. They were 85 and 94 respectively, and I got mad at hearing some people rationalize the death of our elders. The same day we shockingly lost Adam Schlesinger, the Fountains of Wayne bassist who, at 52, was a year younger than me.
And then on April 7 came the news that John Prine, the big-hearted singer-songwriter I always liked but had become fairly obsessed with after seeing him in 2017; I wrote this appreciation of him then. His music was so full of life and wisdom that losing him to this plague just felt like a horrible metaphor.
It was Prine’s death, almost a month into the lockdown, that knocked my legs out from under me. Rebecca and I had strived to stay optimistic and upbeat to set a good example for [our kids] Anna, a high school junior then, and Eli, who fled from college and was home finishing up the semester online.
But I couldn’t fake good cheer. I collapsed on the couch, angry and sad, crying a little. I dialed up a Prine playlist, cranked it up and poured myself a whiskey. Rebecca asked me what was wrong and I snapped. “I’m f*cking sad!” Then I apologized and explained and asked them to please give me space and/or listen to John with me. Anna loved the music and has had him in heavy rotation ever since; I smile every time I hear her listening to “In Spite Of Ourselves” or “All the Best”.
As the months dragged on, we settled into some twisted new normal. The warming weather brought us out of our cocoons into distanced, small outside get-togethers. But we couldn’t gather in crowds—and we couldn’t really play or attend live music. And what a hole that left in our lives. Since my first concert—Supertramp at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena, June 4, 1979—going to shows has been central to my life. Big arena shows, tiny holes in the wall, street musicians, packed rock and blues clubs. Dripping sweat on everyone around me. Shivering when the sun dropped down and the wind picked up. Learning to use drugs and learning to not use drugs.
Live music has been all of that to me and a lot more. Rebecca and I were friends for two years and probably would have stayed that way if David Kann hadn’t dragged us out late night to see Billy Price perform. The great Pittsburgh soul singer lit into OV Wright’s “Precious Precious”, and we gulped our beers and danced. We looked into one another’s eyes and we knew. Without that show, our lives take a completely different path. Just one of a million examples of how live music is a powerful thing!
Since 2007 when I formed Woodie Alan in Beijing with my brilliant Chinese partner Woodie Wu, I’ve performed hundreds of shows. I’ve taken every gig, every chance to play music with people and for people as a sort of holy moment —a chance to make the connections that I had experienced so many times from the other side of the stage. I’ve never taken any of it casually. It’s incredibly fun but also profoundly serious.
Losing all this was a wallop. I tuned in to livestreams and dropped digital coins in digital cups, hoping to ease the pain of my friends and admired musicians who suddenly had their livelihoods stripped away. I did live chats and raised money to distribute to my Friends of the Brothers bandmates. The financial hit of this cessation didn’t crush me. I have other sources of income and a wife with a well-compensated job—one which has allowed me the freedom to explore this artistic life, but that’s a subject for another day. I know countless musicians and crew members who have been laid low by this and I’m doing my best to help as many as I can, and so are great organizations like MusicCares. Some of my favorite venues, like The Acoustic in Bridgeport, CT, have closed and I worry about all the others, though the Save Our Stages funding will be a huge help.
I’m sticking my toes back in the water. Big in China has played a couple of times on the back patio of Suzy Que’s BBQ in W. Orange, NJ and we’ll be back there April 24, masked and distanced, doing our little part to make music together for anyone who joins us in the backyard. Because we all need it, now and going forward. As Bob Marley sang, “One good thing about music – when it hits you feel no pain.”
Revisit Alan Paul’s initial review of The Brothers at MSG on 3/10 20 here and subscribe to his Low Down and Dirty newsletter here. Scroll down to check out a gallery of photos from the performance via photographer Andrew Blackstein.