Album Review: Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective

Seven CDs represents quite a lot of music. And all of the music on Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective was recorded in the space of six and half year years. The earliest tracks date from spring 1965, and the latest cuts were recorded in fall 1971. But the 129 tracks span an impressively wide stylistic range, making the case (if such a case really needed making) that Duane Allman was one of the great guitarists of his generation. As a band leader, jam/collaborator and/or session player, Allman never failed to bring a fresh and unique approach to the song at hand.

While Allman developed a signature style – especially on slide guitar – he was adept and bending his style in the direction other artists’s projects needed. The result (as showcased mostly on discs 2-5) was that Duane Allman seemed always to improve a session, but he could do so in a way that didn’t necessarily call attention to him. It’s dangerous to project ideas of personalty upon an artist who’s no longer with us, but there’s plenty of evidence on Skydog that Allman was not an egocentric player.

On some of the tracks, Allman’s just there doing his part, and he’s sometimes buried in the mix. But if one listens closely, there’s always something interesting to hear coming out of the man’s guitar.

Some of the earliest material Allman recorded has circulated among collectors, and some has seen official release before. But The Escorts (one of his earliest bands) are shown to be a pretty tight little unit. The Allman Joys leaned heavily in a Yardbirds-centric direction, but they did it convincingly: somehow the band manages to sound like they wrote the songs, as opposed to coming off like one of those awful “not the original artist” acts on so many cheap compilation LPs of the era. And the Hour Glass tracks show that Allman’s band belongs on any list of important Nuggets-era garage/psych bands.

As Allman moved into session work – he was a regular and popular fixture at the Muscle Shoals studios – his playing ability advanced, and the sheer breadth of his stylistic palette expanded in many directions. His work on covers (Clarence Carter‘s reading of The Doors‘ “Light My Fire,” Wilson Pickett‘s “Hey Jude” and Aretha Franklin‘s “The Weight” to name but three of many ace cuts) shows that be brought his sensibility to bear on these unique interpretations of well-known songs.

Equally at home on soulful blues numbers (Otis Rush, King Curtis), odd, near-novelty tunes (“Hand Jive” by The Duck and the Bear) and art-pop (Laura Nyro‘s “Beads of Sweat”), Allman was a man for all seasons.

Skydog isn’t a cheap set: it lists for well over $100. But for anyone who has more than a passing interest in Allman’s music and musicianship, there are countless reasons to justify the purchase. There’s a healthy amount of previously-unreleased material here. And because Duane played on so many disparate sessions, the odds are good that you won’t have large chunks of this material in your collection already. Moreover, there’s a minimum of crushingly-obvious selections here, even though somes song simply had to be included (Derek & the Dominos‘ “Layla,” Boz Scaggs‘ epic barnburner “Loan Me a Dime”). There’s also less Allman Brothers Band music than one might expect (less than twenty songs), and when it is there, it’s especially tasty.

And the packaging is nothing short of stunning. Housed in a sturdy box made to look like a guitar case (right down to the furry gold lining inside), the package uses no plastic (except the discs themselves, of course), instead protecting the CDs in printed paper sleeves. A lovely booklet (color covers, duotones inside) is filled with discographical information, photos and thoughtful essays. A “Skydog” decal and commemorative guitar pick are also nice little touches. But none of that would matter if the music wasn’t wonderful. And it most certainly is. After working one’s way through the exhaustive musical history that is Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective, listeners will surely come away with a couple of enduring thoughts. One, Allman sure did a lot of good work in the space of a short six years or so. And two, had he not lost his life, he doubtless would have gone on to do even more of similarly enduring quality.

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