Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Lefty Williams, guitarist and lead vocalist in the Atlanta-based Allman Brothers tribute Revival, about the group’s origins as a jam session and what they need to nail to satisfy fans.
CP: Looking at the lineup, this is like an all-star experience. How did this tribute get started? When was this?
LW: I host a weekly professional musicians' jam in Atlanta on Mondays. One of the things we do is, once a month, we do a theme night where everyone comes in and plays the music of a certain band. This past Monday, we did one-hit wonders, so everyone picked a one-hit wonder to do and played it.
The Revival gigs stems from an Allman Brothers night. We had a fantastic house band lineup. Actually, the band we're traveling with now is pretty much the same house band we had that night, with one or two exceptions. We had so much fun playing the Allman Brothers that, at the end of the night, Benji and I were standing there saying, “Man, we need to do this more often. This was a lot of fun; we could turn this into a show.” Preston Holcomb, our drummer, said the same thing, “Yeah, man, this is awesome. Let's do it again.”
We got together, decided on a song list, booked a show and packed out Smith's Olde Bar in Atlanta. Then, we about another show in Charleston, S.C., and just about sold out the Poor House in Charleston. We wound up doing a handful more and were having a ball with it.
We're not doing a lot of shows, just six or seven in the last year, because everyone in the band is involved in their own touring projects and out on the road with their own stuff. It's a lot of fun. We just hit it whenever we can.
CP: When was that first jam? The first show?
LW: The first jam was probably a year and a half ago. It was probably six months before we did the first show [as Revival].
CP: Were you surprised by people's reaction to the band when you took the show on the road?
LW: The weekly event does really well, too. The night we did that Allman Brothers' jam, we had 200 people in a tiny club. That was one I knew would do really well. There were a couple of places we played that were kind of surprising, where the turnout was less than I thought it would be. I'm not sure why that was. It could have been poor promotion or the wrong market for that music. For the most part, the shows have been bang up, just packed out. It's been a lot of fun.
There was a radio DJ up in Charlotte that said we're the best Allman Brothers tribute act in the country. I heard through the grapevine that there was a radio DJ out in California who said the same thing. I thought that was crazy cool because we'd only played four shows at the time.
CP: After so many years doing this, what have you learned about what it takes to pull off a convincing Allman Brothers' tribute?
LW: We're doing a tribute but one in the true sense of the word in that we're going after the spirit of what the Allman Brothers do and not trying to replicate them, note for note. All the important licks are there and the important riffs are played, but when it comes to doing the solos and stretching the songs out, we put our own spin on things.
Benji is an amazing slide player, and that guy can do Duane Allman better than anyone in the world. I do the Dickey Betts stuff; I've always been inspired by Dickey.
We try and put ourselves in the head space of these guys. We try and approach it the way they approached it and played the way they might have played. Instead of going in and playing it exactly the same way they played it, we try and go in and approach it the way they approached it and play it the way they would have played it. They never played it the same every night; it was always different. Their solos were improvised, so our solos are improvised.
There is a common thing that was said in the Allman Brothers Band that “When you're playing your instrument, you need to be saying something.” So we always try to say something.
CP: It sounds like that would make the show a lot more rewarding for you, creatively speaking.
LW: Yeah, it's definitely not a verbatim, exactly-like-the record show. We call it an experience because it's more like going to see the Allman Brothers in the '60s and '70s than it is us being a tribute band and playing every note they did and dressing up like them. We don't do all that stuff.
It's really about having the experience of seeing them live or hearing them live. I love the Brothers and I've seen them a bunch of times, but I'm not the kind of guy who can stand still when I play. I tend to move around a lot more than they do, so I get more excited and bounce around. Some of the other guys are the same way. We've got these big smiles, instead of staring at our instruments most of the night. There's nothing wrong with that - I'm certainly not criticizing the Brothers - we just do it our way.
CP: As the band continues, do you see the band continuing to be a side project you visit six or seven times a year or could it amp up and become something closer to full time?
LW: It certainly could. None of us are opposed to that, but we're all involved in our own project, so we're picky about the shows we take. We get a lot of offers, and we've turned down more offers than we've played shows. (Laughs.) It's mostly about timing. If it happens to fit with everyone's schedules and it's a situation where it's the right show and a good deal with everyone, we'll do it.
We're discussing plans to go out West now. We've got friends out in Flagstaff and California who are chomping at the bit to bring us out there. There are plans in the works to see about making that happen. We might do a couple of weeks on the road out that way in the next 6-7 months.
CP: What do you get out of performing the tribute that you don't get out of your own shows?
LW: It's just different. I'm kind of a weird musician. I'm not one of those guys who won't do covers and will only play my own stuff. Honestly, any time I'm holding my guitar, that just makes me happy. I could be playing classical music or sitting in a studio recording a commercial; I just don't care. As long as I'm playing my guitar, that's what I want. I think most of the people in the band feel the same way.
We're not so much hung up on whether it's our music or not; we're just having a good time playing. That's what it's all about for me, and I'll go out on a limb and say I think they feel the same way.
CP: What era of the Allman Brothers' music do you guys cover?
LW: With a couple of exceptions it's all of the Duane Allman-era stuff. There's a good bit of stuff off “Eat a Peach.” We've got some “Live at the Fillmore” stuff and “Idlewild South.” It's a lot of early stuff.
It's not that we're opposed to the later-era stuff. We're talking about incorporating some of the stuff with Warren (Haynes) in, in the near future, but we haven't had time yet. It all comes down to when we have time to get together and work material up.
CP: How many songs do you have in your repertoire now?
LW: Maybe 30 songs. It's definitely more than enough to do two nights. (Laughs.) That was the idea we had in mind. Honestly, there's a whole bunch of material we could do that we've never sat down to do. The Brothers did a lot of straight blues that, realistically, we could hop into and do with no trouble at any time.
CP: How many songs are typically in your sets?
LW: About 20. That's for a three-hour show.
CP: What is the most crucial thing to nail when performing the Allman Brothers' music? What do you feel like Allman Brothers fans expect you to get right?
LW: It's the guitar stuff, for sure. We had a rehearsal not too long ago, and someone dropped in on the rehearsal and was like, “It's all about the guitars.” That band was all about the harmony guitars and the guitarists just being locked in.
Fortunately, Benji and I fit sort of fit really well like that. We've never had any trouble or struggle to lock in the two of us. I can remember the first time we tried to play “Jessica.” We got all the way through the song without any major mistakes. At the end of the song, we looked back and were like, “Wow, I really only missed this one little section here.” Other than that, we were pretty much locked in the whole song. That's saying something because “Jessica' is a really hard song to play.
In fact, it's one of the only songs we hit every time we get together. Even when we're doing soundcheck, we'll do “Jessica” because it's such a hard song to play with so much to it. We hit that one every time we're on stage or in the room together.
CP: The Allman Brothers were a family band. How much of nailing their music is tied up in your personal chemistry with your band mates?
LW: I think chemistry with band mates is everything, but then again, how well we're able to do it is a direct testament to the players in the band. I feel really fortunate that I get to play with these guys.
Ron Roper is a monster keyboardist who was actually the original keyboardist and singer in the Derek Trucks Band. Benji Shanks is an amazing guitar player. Lex Luther is a spectacular bassist; he also tours in my band. Steve Saunders, who also tours in my band, is a killer drummer and Preston (Holcomb) is an amazing drummer.
I'm just lucky to be playing with such a great band. These guys are all monster players, in their own right, so when you get everyone together, it creates something magical.
CP: What are some crowd favorites from your shows?
LW: They always go nuts when we do “Jessica.” All the instrumentals go over very well. “Rambling Man” is a favorite of course, and “Blue Sky” tends to make people go crazy.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...