Like watching Michelangelo strap on a guitar
By John Petric
Published: Wednesday, March 18, 2009 3:46 PM EDT
He looks like a Confederate soldier, rawboned and hawk-eyed, yet with a slight touch of Charles Manson in him. One tough-looking hombre, in other words.
But ex-Allman Brothers guitarist Dickey Betts embraces the rainbow of American roots music with his Les Paul, pouring out electric truth and beauty with solos oozing laconic grace and emotional intensity. Dickey is a six-string Zen master. He means every jazzy, bluesy, country-tinged note.
The amateurishly pointless jams of Allmans-idolizing jam bands can only approximate those that inspire them. Dickey’s musical posture, on the other hand, was pitch perfect Friday night at the LC Pavilion.
Ah, but why get negative on music that is so positive?
Believe you me, brothers and sisters, there is nothing quite like the full flight of three Southern guitars led by the 65-year-old Betts, who co-founded the Allman Brothers with the late Duane and still-living Gregg in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1969.
Watching the long-haired, bandana-wearing Betts in action is to see workmanlike craftsmanship combined with Michelangelo’s passionate visions. He puts his whole physical and spiritual being into his music, and you’re lifted right along with his climbing, floating, free-falling solos. His body dips and ducks, his eyes sometimes watching his fret board, other times closed as he concentrates on his breezy vibrato.
Lots of guitar players want to appear heavy, as if they’re orbiting around the sun. With Dickey, it’s obvious he’s the real thing, irrevocably connected to a core with a seething surface and calm depths—or vice versa, depending on the song.
“Blue Sky,” that lazy-day-in-the-country song, had Dickey soloing a honeyed lyricism up and down the neck of his guitar. His low notes rippled a thick wake, like a gator cruising the swamp for a midnight snack. Working his way up the frets, Dickey would work a tender phrase at the fifth, rework its mellowosity at the eighth and then pour a stinging sweetness with high arcing notes on the 12th fret. Goddam glorious, it was, fit for painting frescoes on the walls of Jericho.
When he got past the 12th fret, his solos became angelic. Not even Carlos Santana or Jeff Beck can bring out the lyrical halo of the guitar’s upper reaches the way Dickey can.
Now all this is pretty damn ironic because he was kicked out of the Allman Brothers for being such a mean drunk. Hey, whaddya gonna do? Picasso loved kids, but he was a bastard toward women. That’s life.
With an excellent slide guitarist playing counterpoint next to him, and his son Duane on his other side on third guitar (and two set-kit drummers just like the ABB), Dickey resurrected the double and triple leads and guitar harmonies he and Duane pioneered so many years ago. Sounded bloody marvelous, particularly the slide dude, who framed a lot of Dickey’s magnificent solos with his continuously moving sheets of chords.
“Ramblin’ Man,” “Hoochie Coochie Man” and, of course, the triumphal masterpiece, “Jessica” were but a few pages taken from the Allmans’ halcyon days. When Dickey hits the middle passage of a long and beautifully composed solo, after the descending cascade of lead guitars finally fall to earth and the rhythm section kicks back in, I get so emotional I can’t believe it.
Dickey Betts on the frets—a true star. When he connects—and he always has with me, even though I’ve been seeing him play since I was 16—his music takes you to a place you can’t get to any other way. Long may you fly, tough guy.
Rock on Forrest!!!... we love ya man!