Duane Allman, ‘Skydog’ – Album Review
Before the Allman Brothers Band hit it big, guitarist Duane Allman had played with Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Boz Scaggs and others. After their breakthrough live album ‘At Fillmore East,’ he continued working as a busy session musician, clocking gigs with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, Derek & the Dominos and Laura Nyro. Through it all he established himself as one of rock’s great instrumentalists; a master axman with a show-stopping signature style who’d step out of the spotlight and let others shine.
The seven-disc, 129-track ‘Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective’ documents his short, but surprisingly packed career (Allman died in a motorcycle accident in 1971 at the age of 24). The box is arranged more or less chronologically, so it unspools as Allman’s musical history, from his scrappy early days in garage and R&B cover groups to the groundbreaking southern rock he played with the Allman Brothers Band.
And those early days were a bit rough. The first disc is made up almost entirely of familiar covers like ‘Turn on Your Love Light,’ ‘What’d I Say,’ ‘Crossroads’ and even the Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’ by forgotten groups the Escorts, the Allman Joys and Hour Glass.
But Allman’s distinct playing and burning leads eventually reveal themselves, giving way to his much-heralded session work with ‘60s soul-music giants who recorded at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala. He still played cover songs — ‘Light My Fire’ (Clarence Carter), ‘Hey Jude’ (Pickett), ‘The Weight’ (Franklin) — but his fluid solos, and particularly his searing slide work, give them their own personalities. Allman’s greatest work, though, can be found in the band he co-led with brother Gregg — ‘Skydog’ doesn’t overload on Allman Brothers material; instead, it collects a handful of representative tracks — and in Derek & the Dominos with Eric Clapton (ditto).
As with any project of this size and scope, ‘Skydog’ plods at times. While the early recordings from the pre-Allman Brothers groups he played in with Gregg offer reference points, there’s nothing too remarkable about their covers of ‘60s garage-band staples like ‘Spoonful’ and ‘Shapes of Things.’ And the zigzagging among the disparate artists Allman worked with later in the decade — at one point, ‘Skydog’ tears through Ronnie Hawkins, Lulu and Johnny Jenkins — can seem somewhat unfocused. But Allman’s career was like that: occasionally messy, often brilliant. ‘Skydog’ serves that legacy well.