No Stranger to the Dark: The Best Of (Epic/Legacy)
by Brian Varney
For those of you with a bad attitude about Allman Brothers, shut up and listen. Try and erase from your mind, painful and difficult though it may be, the way neo-hippies (nü hippies?) follow them around like they’re the second coming of the goddamned Dead. I haven’t heard one of their newer albums in awhile, but back in the days of Duane Allman (I’m talkin’ Live at Fillmore East and Eat a Peach), they were one of the best bands around, and a good deal of the credit for that greatness is due to Gregg Allman.
One of the great white soul/blues singers, Gregg sang, from the beginning, like the tortured soul that he’s since proven himself to be. Even when he was in his twenties, his voice was full of the timeless soul that marks the true greats. As the cliché goes, he could sing the phone book and make it interesting. And though the classic Allmans lineup didn’t last very long, the band continued, on and off, to slog it out and Gregg also launched a sporadic solo career as a showcase for his mellower side.
Though he’s been making solo albums since 1973, this compilation focuses exclusively on the last 15-20 years of Gregg’s career, starting with 1986’s I’m No Angel. Though his voice is in as good or better shape than ever (anyone who thinks otherwise is directed to his version of best-song-of-all-time contender “The Dark End of the Street,” recorded a mere five years ago), the material itself is frequently not up to snuff. Even when he’s singing the hell out of a good song like FM classic “I’m No Angel,” the playing itself suffers from ’80s studio-band syndrome and its telltale flat, reverb-laden drum sound. Gregg’s vocals are uniformly excellent on every song, but the playing is clearly not that of a band, but rather a group of studio musicians who probably haven’t played together before this session and probably won’t play together again. The playing itself is fine, but there’s no connection between the musicians, which casts a flame-retardant pall over the proceedings. Vocals aside, a lot of this sounds like every other singer/songwriter record made during the late ’80s and played on light-rock radio.
Indeed, the unquestionable highlight of the set is the live version of “Melissa,” recorded in 2002 and featuring Allman’s soaring vocals accompanied only by an acoustic guitar. Without the generic, soulless accompaniment that plagues so many of these recordings, Gregg is able to sing that mournful ballad one more time and remind us all why we thought he was so goddamn great in the first place.