The Allman Brothers Band didn’t give a good goddamn about a photograph. It was early spring in 1971 in Macon, the comfortable little mid-Georgia city they’d recently adopted as their hometown because that’s where their upstart Southern label, Capricorn, lived. The sextet — two guitars, two drummers, bass, organ — had been a band for only two years. They’d passed most of that time on tour, playing 300 shows in 1970 and barely surviving on an unsteady diet of booze and blow, heroin and pot.
But after a spate of mid-Atlantic shows in April, they were home for just three days before another sprint through the even deeper South, including Alabama and Mississippi. There were kids, wives, and girlfriends to visit, a rare respite for a band that had suddenly exploded in popularity. And then, there was this stupid photo. Three weeks earlier, they’d played three (and recorded two) nights of marathon concerts at Manhattan’s Fillmore East, intending to compile the performances into an album that at last bottled the ecstasy and improvisation of their electrified blues-rock. The pictures they had taken in New York were a bust, so Jim Marshall — already a high-profile music photographer, having snapped Cash at Folsom and Coltrane and Miles in repose — had followed them home to Macon.
They should have been flattered, hosting this icon in their sleepy city. But they were tired, and much like the Grateful Dead, their pals and cross-country rivals as the best live band in the country, they never cared much for promotion, anyway. What’s more, Marshall was bossy. “A real son of a bitch,” drummer Butch Trucks remembered decades later, “who was lucky he didn’t get his ass kicked.” They scowled for Marshall’s first shots, a gaggle of roughnecks with matching mushroom tattoos, flexing their Southern roughness for the camera.
Just then, Duane Allman — the band’s founder, fixer, linchpin, and unparalleled guitar dynamo — spotted his local cocaine connection and sprinted down the alley. He returned to his spot, clutching an 8 ball in his hand and brandishing a Cheshire grin. The rest of the band howled, so Marshall took his picture and got his album cover, everyone locked in a laugh. He caught the band in their most natural setting: reveling in the joy and possibility of the present, the exact same way they sound on what is arguably rock music’s quintessential live album, At Fillmore East.
The Allman Brothers never intended to make their first live album, per se; they simply wanted to make their third overall album, and they recognized they were better onstage than in a controlled studio environment. Their self-titled 1969 debut, recorded five months after their first show, felt chastened, its straitlaced production and relatively short songs drawing the reins fast on a spirited young racehorse. Their second album, Idlewild South, worked to showcase a softer and more commercially viable side. Sure, it sounded good, but it also sounded dated upon arrival, a folk-rock reverie from a band that was best when it was wide-awake, very high, and very loud. “We get kind of frustrated doing the records,” Duane admitted at the start of the ’70s, noting that the stage was where they found their “natural fire.”