Recorded after more than 40 years of living the blues — but before the life-saving liver transplant that was the unfortunate result of the same — Gregg Allman's Low Country Blues carries the welcome jolt of a veteran stretching to meet a challenge. But instead of stretching horizontally, the way the Allman Brothers Band does, when it adds layers of solos to the music's blues-based foundation, Low Country Blues asks Allman to reach deep into his reserves as a singer.
Largely absent from the studio since the death of producer/engineer Tom Dowd in 2002, Allman was wooed back to recording by T-Bone Burnett. The peerless go-to guy for 21st-century roots recordings (see also: Elvis Costello, John Mellencamp, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Elton John & Leon Russell), Burnett asked Allman to choose from about 20 blues songs, only a few of which (among them Muddy Waters's "I Can't Be Satisfied") were part of the familiar blues-rock canon. Featuring Burnett's longtime rhythm aces Jay Bellerose (drums) and Dennis Crouch (drums), as well as Mac "Dr. John" Rebennack (piano), Doyle Bramhall II (guitar), and a hardy four-piece horn section, the music at times has the spontaneity of a live-to-lacquer 1940s Okeh Records session, without the 78rpm scratches and pops.
Allman plays keyboards and a little guitar, but it's his singing that grabs the gut. You hear the fear of death and disbelief at survival in Sleepy John Estes's "Floating Bridge," the utter despair of Bobby Bland's "Blind Man" (done famously by Little Milton), and the tangible presence of Satan himself in Skip James's "Devil Got My Woman." The high-energy horns push Allman beyond his usual comfort zone on Amos Milburn's "Tears Tears Tears" and Otis Rush's "Checking On My Baby." The one new song, "Just Another Rider," by Allman and ABB guitarist Warren Haynes, is a timeless-sounding addition to their band's long and honored repertory.