Music Review: Duane Allman - Skydog: The Retrospective Box Set

The best by one of the greats...
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Duane Allman's recording career lasted just six years, but not a moment of it was wasted. This is made abundantly clear on the seven-disc Skydog retrospective, which has just been reissued by Rounder Records. The first edition of the package was released last March, came in a box meant to resemble a guitar case, and even included a guitar pick - along with the discs and book. It was a limited run, and while the reissue may not be quite as fancy, it is still pretty damned cool. The seven CDs contain a total of 129 songs, and the book tells the story behind all of the great  music.

One of the most amazing things about this set is the fact that out of 129 tracks, only 21 are from the Allman Brothers Band. In the opening line of the book, Scott Schinder says "Even if he had never formed the Allman Brothers Band, Duane Allman would be a crucial figure in American popular music." It is a bold statement, but Allman's studio work bears it out. While Skydog is a Duane Allman retrospective, it is also a showcase for artists as diverse as Boz Scaggs, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, and Lulu (among many others). Working with Duane seems to have brought out the best in these musicians. 

Listening to Aretha Franklin's version of The Band's "The Weight" is one example. Allman's slide guitar opens the song, and is all over it, but there is much more to the track than just guitar. Aretha gets right inside of Robbie Robertson's lyrics, and King Curtis' sax kills it. Wilson Pickett's take on "Hey Jude" is fantastic, as is his version of "Born To Be Wild." Allman's guitar is a powerful ingredient on these songs as well, but the whole band is smoking.

With these and numerous others, I realized that as much as there is in Skydog, it is still just a sampling. The full albums that so many of these songs came from are now on my list of music to further investigate.  

If there is such a thing as a definitive Duane Allman performance (outside of the Allman Brothers Band), I would nominate "Layla." The song has been played so many times that it is hard to hear it with fresh ears anymore, but the way he and Eric Clapton play off of each other is absolutely brilliant. Although it is not nearly as familiar as "Layla," Duane's playing on "Loan Me A Dime" by Boz Scaggs may be his other definitive non-Allmans moment.

The seven discs are arranged chronologically, beginning in 1965 with Duane and Gregg's high school band The Escorts. Appropriately enough, the lead track is their version of the classic "Turn On Your Love Light." On the third disc, which covers the years 1968-1969, we hear three songs from Duane's abandoned solo album, and it closes with four songs from The Allman Brothers Band.

Interestingly enough, the first three songs on disc four (1969) are also from The Allman Brothers Band. As it turns out, the entire first Allman Brothers Band LP is on Skydog, split between discs three and four. The way the tracks are presented, it is almost as if the inclusion of the full album is hidden, but it is here.

Of the previously unreleased tracks, one of the more intriguing is "Sugar Magnolia" by The Grateful Dead. Duane sat in with the Dead at the Fillmore East on April 26, 1971, just a few weeks after the Allman Brothers had recorded their landmark live album there on March 31.

The seventh and final disc of the set is from 1971, and there are nine songs. These are some of Duane Allman's last recordings, and he was in marvelous form. The second to the last track of the set is a nearly 18-minute live version of "Dreams" recorded by the Allman Brothers at Stony Brook, New York on September 19, 1971. The final "Little Martha" is a beautiful acoustic duet between Duane and Dickey Betts, and originally appeared on Eat A Peach.

Duane Allman was just 24 years old on October 29, 1971, the day he crashed on a motorcycle in Macon, Georgia. The songs on Skydog are a testimony to the brilliant body of work he left behind. There is no point in wondering what might have been, although at the age of 24, we know that he was just getting started in many ways. It was a tragic loss, but this set collects the best of what he left behind.