Musical gypsies find their home
Allman Betts Band performs at The Clyde
The guitarist who convinced Devon Allman to pick up the guitar was not his late father, Gregg Allman.
It was Rick Nielson of Cheap Trick.
“I never was anti-Southern rock,” Devon said in a phone interview. “But since I didn’t grow up with my dad, I was exposed to ’70s and ’80s rock radio. So I grew up loving Wings and, obviously, Cheap Trick.”
Devon attended a Cheap Trick concert in his teens and came away infused with the rock energy, and inspired by the rock traditions, of … Rockford, Illinois.
“It was that excitement,” he said. “It was seeing them share energy with a crowd. And I was just like, ‘I want to be a part of that.’ Oh and, ‘Side note: It just so happens, that’s what my father does.’”
Now it’s what Devon does. He will perform with the Allman Betts Band at the Clyde Theatre on Feb. 7.
Meeting as teens
The co-leader of the band is Duane Betts, the son of Allman Brothers guitarist and composer, Dickey Betts.
Devon and Duane met on an Allman Brothers tour bus when the former was 17 and the latter was 12. Devon had only known his dad for a year at that point.
“I got on the tour bus and I saw this young kid with a Sony Walkman and long hair, listening to thrash metal,” Devon said. “And I thought, ‘Oh, yeah. I like this kid already.’”
The age difference was too daunting in that moment for the boys to become close, but they stayed in touch. As the years passed, that five-year gap meant less and less.
It was Devon who first reached out to Gregg and the two established a rapport.
It wasn’t a traditional father-son relationship but the two grew fond of each other.
“I was one of the few people in his life who would tell him to (expletive) off,” Devon recalled. “You know, if he was being a jerk or whatever. We had some tumultuous times. But there was always respect. There was always love.”
There was also a lot of advice-giving, but it didn’t go in the direction one might expect.
“He came to me for life advice a lot of times,” Devon said, “about siblings or ladies he was with. He’d say, ‘You’re more like the dad.’ That always cracked me up. But it was true. I really cared about him and cared about him making decisions that, maybe, weren’t so selfish and took other people’s interests in mind.”
Devon knew early on that he wanted to be a more traditional sort of father to his own offspring than his dad was to him. Devon actually broke up one of his early bands, Honeytribe, because it was keeping him away from a young son.
Devon said he doesn’t blame his dad for anything. Gregg Allman grew up without a father or any viable father figures and, therefore, didn’t know how someone in that position should behave.
Combining their talents
Devon released nine albums in various configurations before he and Duane got to talking about combining their famous last names in a musical venture that would inevitably link them to their fathers’ legendary band.
Devon said he would never do anything that cynically exploited his last name. He went into the music business vowing to make his own mark, something he has since accomplished.
“I don’t need to prove anything,” he said. “I’ve got nine records out. I won a blues music award. I’ve been around the world a dozen, two dozen times. I know my place. I’m obviously not selling a million records like John Mayer. But I’ve had a very healthy career. I didn’t need to do this. I never sat down and plotted what the pros and cons would be.”
Everything he does has to seem worth doing.
“I approach every project with that age-old question: Is this real? Is this effortless?” Devon said.
If Devon and Duane hadn’t had chemistry together, if they weren’t able to write songs together, there wouldn’t be an Allman Betts Band, he said.
“We really lucked out,” Devon said. “As it turned out, we had chemistry, just as our fathers had chemistry. Our fathers wrote great music together.”
Honoring their legacy
The Allman Betts Band plays some of that music in concert along with other covers and many originals.
Devon said the band has “five bags” to pull from: His originals, Duane’s originals, songs the two wrote together, Allman Brothers hits plus Gregg Allman solo material, and cover tunes from other acts.
When they pull from those bags, he said, they try to maintain a certain balance that upholds integrity.
“If we went on stage and played nothing of our fathers’, that would be a little rude,” Devon said. “But if we went on stage and devoted three-quarters to Allman Brothers material, that would be rude, too. It’s not our band.”
Devon has spent much of his career wondering where he fits into his family’s musical legacy or if his legacy should even be, in any sense, a continuation of his father’s.
Now, he said, he feels like he can honor his father while being true to himself.
“It’s a very fortunate and humbling place to be able to keep a vibe alive, a spirit alive,” Devon said. “A spirit of music that is really an amalgam of our loves.”
Up to now, Devon has been something of a musical gypsy, making frequent leaps between solo stints, full-fledged bands and guest shots on friends’ projects.
He has always admired Eric Clapton for doing something similar early in his career.
But he thinks the Allman Betts Band is built to last.
“I’ve got to say: It feels like, for 20 years, I was couch surfing with friends and I have finally bought a home,” Devon said. “My home is the Allman Betts Band. “