Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
Interview with Devon Allman
His new CD, Ragged & Dirty, is Allman's love song to Chicago and the blues
by Greg Easterling
Devon Allman was in Chicago recently with Royal Southern Brotherhood as he winds down four years with this acclaimed band. The New Orleans-based group is helmed by singer/percussionist Cyril Neville (Neville Brothers) and anchored by the engine room of drummer Yonrico Scott and bassist Charlie Wooten. Guitarist Mike Zito has exited the band, replaced by newcomer and IBC winner Bart Walker.
Allman plans to spend more time at home with family while concentrating on his solo career. The son of Gregg Allman, Devon began playing music decades ago with bands based in his native St. Louis where he’s a member of the local Blues Foundation.
Allman’s acclaimed new album Ragged and Dirty on Ruf Records is near instant confirmation that it’s the right time for him to make his move. Bluesy and real, his latest effort was a product of a desire to record the blues in Chicago with some very talented players such as Marty Sammon, Giles Corey and Felton Crews. The blues have been a musical influence on Allman for years but Ragged and Dirty is his most overtly blues oriented album, overseen by Buddy Guy’s producer Tom Hambridge.
Allman returns to the Chicago area with his own band to play Wire in Berwyn on January 16th. Before his recent RSB concert at Evanston’s SPACE, Devon sat down backstage with CBG's Greg Easterling and discussed a variety of topics including his impressive new album, plans for the future and his sometimes complicated relationship with his famous father and the legendary Allman legacy.
Q: We were honored to have you come to Chicago to record the new album, Ragged and Dirty. What was it about Chicago that attracted you?
Devon: I really kind of fell in love with the blues up here seeing Buddy Guy play in his club when I was a kid. I was 21 and in a stoner rock band (the Dark Horses). We had a friend that worked at Buddy’s place. She said you should come down and do a little jam and I said alright. So we learned a couple of blues standards and moonlighted as a wannabe blues band that night. We had so much fun and I guess back then it was really rare for Buddy to play at his own joint, he was touring a whole lot heavier back then.
Q: Yes, it’s usually just in January and then Buddy plays Legends all month long.
Devon: This was summer and sure enough the polka dot Strat comes out and we’re like, he’s gonna play! Buddy schooled us on dynamics, soul and tone, like everything became defined. So I’ve always had a love affair with Chicago because of that. I’ve always made my records in the South and this time I really wanted to shake it up. I did the Honeytribe records, the Royal Southern Brotherhood albums, and the Turquoise solo album all down south. So I thought it would be nice to get with a producer that could put together a band around me and write some tunes for me. I had produced a couple of albums with the clarity of calling every shot. So I really took that approach with (Tom) Hambridge and said, just produce me dude and it was very liberating.
Q: How do you feel about Ragged and Dirty? Is it a big step forward for you?
Devon: I think so, man. It’s my most honest writing, my most organic version of what I do. It is a mix of soul and blues and rock. We’re only an amalgam of all the parts that go into us so as far as that being a rendering of that, you make a truer and truer record and mature as an artist. I really feel it’s good when you feel like your latest record is your most vital and vibrant. I’m really, really happy with it although I do think we just scratched the surface, me and Tom Hambridge. I think there’s a whole other level we could get to.
Q: Was your previous solo album, Turquoise, real blues oriented?
Devon: The weird thing about
Turquoise was ,that every
song was 1-4-5 but inverted as so it might be 4-5-1 or another. That why
it was Turquoise because it’s
a shade of blue. Not many people got that (laughs). That was way more of
a singer-songwriter record, taking the blues form and twisting it.
Singing soulfully and playing blues licks. It wasn’t straight up
blues…singer songwriter blues if that is even kind of a subgenre. It was
very reflective, kind of looking back at ten years on the road, themes
of home are real prevalent on that record. This one,
Ragged and Dirty is more
like, I’ve accepted it, I’m just gone, so let’s rage it up (laughs) .
Q: Let’s get your brief impressions of some of the guys you played with on the new album here in Chicago. Like Tom Hambridge, who’s the hot blues producer with Buddy, Johnny Winter and others as well. What was it like working with him? He also drummed on the record as well didn’t he?
Devon: I could really write a book on our chemistry and our instant bromance as it were. We just really hit it off personally and professionally. What a great writer, he’s a triple threat. An amazing songwriter, an amazing producer and he’s a fantastic drummer. And to have him quarterbacking the sessions from behind the kit was a first for me. The producer was actually in the trenches with us. I just think he’s one of the best, such a sweetheart and super talented.
Q: Tom has done some great work with Buddy Guy too. And you had one of my favorite keyboardists in town, Marty Sammon on the new record, one of Buddy’s guys!
Devon: Oh my god. That guy is from another planet. Some really, really tasty work and he really brought a fresh canvas to each tune. Like he didn’t just play the same tired old lick. He approached each song with sense of newness and what can I do to vibe on this. He did some piano, some B-3, some Wurlitzer, some Rhodes. Amazing.
Q: Marty did a lot on the instrumental jam, “Midnight Lake Michigan”.
Devon: He did. I told him I wanted ominous and he brought it.
Q: You had Giles Corey too. He just released his debut album on Delmark Records.
Devon: Yeah, that was a trip because just a week before I was calling Hambridge and it was like, hey bro, I’m getting stoked and sent you couple more tunes. And he’s like, man I’ve put together a great band and he was so excited, I’ve got so and so and Giles Corey on guitar. And I’m like, I play guitar, what are you doing? Oh no, trust me, it’ll be really cool. And again, I’m like, no really, what are you doing? He goes, look man, I’ve done it on all my other records, just trust me. I said ok, so we went in and the genius of it was that I didn’t have to go searching for a tone for every single rhythm guitar part. All Giles did and I’m not trying to minimize it, was lay down the meat and potatoes rhythm guitar. The beauty of it was when the basic tracks were done, I got to do all the secondary, ethereal guitar parts and then do all the guitar solos. I didn’t have to spend all that time, dialing in different tones for rhythms. It was such a time saver. Giles was money, he nailed everything. He’s such a great guy.
Q: You named the album after a Luther Allison song. Luther was once a big man in this town with the West Side blues sound. How did it come about that your new album Ragged and Dirty was named after one of his songs and not an original song of yours. Is there a story behind that?
Devon: Well, I just remember thinking after Turquoise, where do I want to go with this next record and I was in a Luther phase. Listening to a couple of his records. I had discovered him in the mid-Nineties when the blues kind of blew open for me.
Q: Did you have those Alligator albums? Or maybe the ones he did for Motown and Gordy Records?
Devon: I had a couple of live things I bought in the last three or four years. Then I bought Bad News Is Coming. It’s one of those records that’s instantly in your Top Ten if you’re into that kind of music and it truly was for me. It just struck a chord and I remember hearing that tune, “Ragged and Dirty”. I actually dig “Bad News Is Coming” better but I would never ever touch that one (laughs). But Ragged and Dirty is just so dope, it was like, that’s where I want to go. Why don’t I just call the record that? That’s kind of like my life over the last ten years. It kind of all came together.
Q: What about the other songs on the album? Are there any of which you are particularly proud?
Devon: Everything. I like the record, I’m pleased with it.
Q: You used “Half The Truth” to kick off the album.
Devon: That opening riff just sounded like an opening song. That was one that Tom wrote. But “Midnight Lake Michigan” is my proudest moment. I’m really happy that Tom was open to that. We had cut the whole record, eleven tracks. I was like, I want to do a spooky, moody blues piece. A really long one. He was like, we’ve got enough really strong songs, that would be a really cool statement on the record. So I kind of walked the band through a Coltrane thing. Let it simmer and simmer, then we’ll go 5-4 and drop back to a 1. Real spooky and use those dynamics. It’s going to be like ten minutes long and everybody’s looking at me like I’m crazy. Let’s do it three different times and then Tom can edit the best stuff together, kind of like Frankenstein it. But we ended up playing it one time! The only overdub on the track is the mallets on the piano strings, the pecking. That was it. I’m happy with the whole album but that’s my proudest moment on it. I’d like to eventually do a whole record like that where it’s totally improv and none of it is written. “Midnight Lake Michigan” was not written. I just told them, hang on the 1 and when my neck goes up, I’m going to a 5, then we go to a 4 and then to a 1. It was fun, man!
Q: There are some other good songs on there like “Can’t Lose ‘Em All”.
Devon: That’s a Leroy Parnell cut. He’s a buddy of mine and Hambridge has worked with him. Tom and Leroy co-wrote it. When I heard it, I thought it sounded very Allman Brothers like.
Q: It’s more Allmanesque than anything else on the album.
Devon: Leroy is a huge Allman Brothers fan. So I was like, I spent twenty years staying away from that. Let’s have one that sounds familiar. I think it’s good. I am who I am. Why not? I’m not doing a whole record like that, I’m not doing a tribute tour. I’ve carved my own way into this mess. I’ve already proven that I can do what I do so it was like let’s have fun. This is cool.
Q: Yes, why not? I didn’t want to come here and focus on your famous father and the Allman legacy so much. I’ve read enough to know that Gregg wasn’t a big part of your life, at least in the early years.
Devon: We didn’t meet until I was 17. But it’s cool because I found my own way. As my career progresses, I deal with less and less of that. When I came out, I was the son of Gregg Allman and now I’m more like the Allman family. That’s really a beautiful place to be and I really worked very hard for that.
Q: When you were a kid, did you use the Allman name?
Devon: My mom remarried when I was 10 so I used Allman until then. From then on, kind of against my will, I had my stepdad’s name. When I got old enough to stick my middle finger out, I said give me my identity back. And I had it changed back in court and it was all legal. But a weird little era (chuckles).
Q: These days do you have much contact with Gregg?
Devon: Oh yeah, like we were texting yesterday. We have a great relationship now even though he missed the boat on being a dad. My mom got me out of there, it was all drugs and insanity. All of that. But we’re totally solid now and it didn’t take long.
Q: Musically, I don’t hear a lot similar in your voices. If I just heard you not knowing your last name, I wouldn’t say that you sound like your dad. Maybe a bit but you don’t imitate, you do your own thing. You are your own person. And anyway, it’s very hard to sound like Gregg, he’s so unique.
Devon: Exactly. It’s all relative and it’s all perception. Half the people will come up after a show and say dude, you sound just like your dad! And the other half are it’s cool that you totally have your own thing. You don’t think about the people. All you really think about is being as true as you can be with your voice.
Q: And now the Allman Brothers chapter is really coming to an end. You already launched your career but moving to another level too.
Devon: The one thing that would be nice for people to count on with the family is you’re going to get honest music. We don’t make music with robots and machines. Tuning the vocals to be in tune. We actually play and sing and want to carry that far into the new millennium. I’ve always looked at it that way. I’m not out to be a rock star.
Q: You could if you wanted to be but you know the dark side.
Devon: Yes there’s a dark side of it and I don’t mean success. Everybody wants their business model to be successful. I do this because I hope in 2150 there’s some kid picking up a guitar after hearing the Stones. If I’m a little brick on the bridge that got us from the Twentieth Century to the future kid in his bedroom, my job is done. That’s it.
Q: Is this your last time around with Royal Southern Brotherhood?
Devon: I leave in April.
Q: And this had been a pretty amazing time for you, a collaborative thing.
Devon: Absolutely the best musical experience of my life. The why am I leaving? I’ve been juggling two bands for years and I want to spend some more time at home. My son’s a teenager. I spent the first five years of his life off the road because I didn’t want to miss it. And then I went out there and worked three hundred shows a year to catch up on everything I missed. And now I’m kind of reentering that mode of life. In a couple of years, it’s going to be chicks and cars and see you pop! He’s 14 and we do a father-son trip every year, we went to Alaska last year for a week and a half. It all comes down to this. I can really only do one at this point. I leave with a heavy heart. These are great cats, there’s no ill will.
Q: You’re facing some of the same issues as Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes from the Allman Brothers with a couple of bands going on for so long.
Devon: They’re just overachievers, all of them. I think when you have a lot of music in you, you look for different outlets so when I joined Royal, I didn’t want to stop doing my own thing. And it was a great mix for a while when I got sick of doing it all myself. I would go and be part of RSB. And then I got to go out with a tour of mine. But it’s time. I really want to produce and also do another album with Hambridge.
Q: When do you think that might happen? Ragged and Dirty is a new album.
Devon: Yes, so maybe by the end of the summer or the fall. And it would be out at the beginning of next year.
Q: Would you come back to Chicago?
Devon: We talked about the exact same studio, engineer, band everything. We’ll see. I may not want to if it’s winter. I may want to go to Jamaica or someplace warm.
Q: Yes, you don’t want to come to Chicago in the winter to record. Is there anything we didn’t cover that’s important to put out there?
Devon: (laughs) Spread love, it is the answer!
Q: You and Ringo!
Devon: I appreciate your time, brother.