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From the beginning, Chuck Leavell promised a night filled with “a bit of roots, a bit of rock, a bit of soul and a bit of rhapsody.”
Then for two hours, the man who has spent chunks of his career with rock royalty including The Rolling Stones, The Allman Brothers Band and Eric Clapton, delivered on his word.
Only eight days after Leavell helped honor longtime comrade Gregg Allman with a slam-bang musical soiree at the Fox Theatre, the master pianist/keyboardist rounded up another squad of top-notch talent – including Allman and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra – to commandeer Symphony Hall.
“Celebrating Georgia with Chuck Leavell and Friends” – tied to final stop of the Smithsonian’s “New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music” display in the Memorial Arts Building’s 1280 Gallery through Feb. 2 – hopscotched from blues (courtesy of Leavell and the astoundingly good Randall Bramblett Band), to classical (courtesy of the awesomely talented violinist Robert McDuffie) to soul (courtesy of powerhouse singer Michelle Malone) to gritty Southern rock (courtesy of Allman and the terrifically authentic Jimmy Hall).
A four-song segment in the latter third of the show – a highlight, really – was a tribute to Dawson native Otis Redding. It was also the first glimpse of Allman, whom the sold-out crowd greeted rapturously as he swayed behind his Hammond B3 organ, his hair swinging as he played and Hall tore the guts from “Mr. Pitiful.”
The ASO, which added a lovely texture to this batch of songs, bounded along the full-stage lineup while Allman played guitar and sang “I Can’t Turn You Loose.”
Leavell – a longtime Macon resident who should be commended for lining up such a perfect blend of players – introduced Atlanta’s Malone by calling her, “One of the greatest female singers I’ve heard” (high praise coming from this guy). Malone did him proud, proving herself a formidable duet partner for Allman on “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)” as her beautifully nuanced voice swooped to a roar.
She also deftly handled “Respect,” a seemingly tired cover until you remembered that Redding recorded it in 1965 – with a different arrangement, which the band followed here – two years before Aretha Franklin’s iconic version.
Allman seemed perfectly content to remain on stage, strapping on a guitar again for “Midnight Rider,” which Vince Gill and Zac Brown slayed with him at the Fox show. This time, Hall’s bracing harmonica argued nicely with the finesse provided by McDuffie’s violin to provide the backbone of the Allman Brothers classic.
The rousing double punch of “Southbound” and “Statesboro Blues” left the appreciative crowd exiting with a new cluster of memories from their classic rock heroes, but it would be remiss not to note some of the show’s other significant moments.
The concert served as a reminder of how much muscle Leavell possesses as a blues singer – it’s easy to forget considering his keyboard skills – but his guttural vocal runs on “Low Down Dirty Dog Blues,” the vintage song from Tennessee blues singer Leroy Carr heard on Leavell’s “Back to the Woods” release, were appropriately potent.
It also can’t be overstated just how phenomenal a guitarist Davis Causey is, especially when he threw off rough-and-tumble solos as easily as if he were playing scales.
He, Leavell and the multi-talented Bramblett go back to the Sea Level days, and their comfort level was palpable. The rest of Bramblett’s band – Gerry Hansen on drums and Michael Steele on bass – was equally impressive (though Causey’s slide guitar stole the spotlight on Bramblett’s “Driving to Montgomery”).
In some ways, the addition of McDuffie might have been the night’s biggest delight because the extent of his playing was unexpected.
The internationally renowned violinist – a Macon native who has performed with nearly every major orchestra in existence – almost caused the grown men in the crowd to weep with his visceral playing. Whether duetting with Leavell on the latter’s “Southscape” (which sounded a bit like a ’70s-era movie score) or soloing with the ASO, McDuffie mesmerized.
Leavell’s intent with this event was to spotlight Georgia music. That quota would have been met between the Redding and Allman songs alone. But what he wound up crafting – whether intentional or not – was a heady brew from some of the state’s musical monsters.