Several numbers into last Saturday’s concert, Celebrating Georgia with Chuck Leavell and Friends at the Woodruff Arts Center, Leavell leaned into the microphone from his seat at the grand piano on the Symphony Hall stage. With a trace of sincere incredulity in his voice, Leavell turned to the nearly packed house and quipped, “We usually play bars.”
Indeed, the evening was a pointedly casual and highly appreciated convergence of arguably incongruous musical and demographic elements — think Baby Boomer frat party with symphonic strings. Most importantly, Leavell and his illustrious posse, which included Gregg Allman and Wet Willie founder Jimmy Hall, delivered with fervent joyfulness on an early promise that the show would comprise “a bit of roots, a bit of rock, a bit of soul, and a bit of rhapsody.”
An opening stint featuring Leavell, accompanied by the sharply honed Randall Bramblett Band, highlighted the Rolling Stones keyboardist’s considerable boogie-woogie, blues and stride piano chops. With his old friend Bramblett commandeering the requisite Hammond B3 organ (and taking the occasional tenor sax solo), Leavell romped through a playlist — ”Low Down Dirty Dog,” “No Special Rider,” “Southern Casey Jones,” ”Losing Hand” — mostly drawn from his most recent album, Back to the Woods: A Tribute to the Pioneers of Blues Piano.
Leavell then relinquished the spotlight to Bramblett, who led his troupe through two original songs including “King Grand,” a funk-bucket blues, which was particularly affecting thanks to a pronounced New Orleans second-line groove laid down by Gerry Hansen on drums and Michael Steele on bass. Notably punctuating the proceedings throughout the night was Davis Causey’s flat-picked and slide guitar breaks, which wowed the crowd by reverently acknowledging the ghost of Duane Allman without conjuring up a fretful of clichés.
The next segment of the program featured Leavell in a duet with renowned violinist and Macon native Robert McDuffie. A frequent guest soloist with the ASO, McDuffie proved magnificently up to the task of accompanying Leavell on two songs. The most affecting performance was a beautiful rendition of “Ashoken Farewell,” easily recognized as the theme music of Ken Burns’ epic Civil War documentary. The evening’s only inescapably sour note was struck when the Bramblett band returned to join the duo for Leavell’s “Comin’ Home,” which unearthed long-suppressed memories of Kenny G–induced smooth jazz serenades.
Mercifully, the ASO under the baton of Francesco Lecce-Chong swept onto the stage in support of McDuffie for a wonderfully frenetic performance of the Third Movement from Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto (the composer’s instructions for the section call for playing in moto perpetuo, or perpetual motion). With the orchestra and soloist in fully empathetic mode, Leavell then hit the crowd where it lives with an authentically tinged interpretation of “Georgia On My Mind.”
The remaining segments of the program were marked by star time. At the top of the list was Gregg Allman, who — together with his late brother and legendary guitarist Duane, in the Allman Brothers Band — basically invented the category known as southern rock in the 1970s (Leavell joined the Allman Brothers in 1972, a year after Duane’s death from a motorcycle wreck). When the audience caught sight of Allman’s long, straight, whitened blond hair and lanky frame dressed in black, looking exceedingly spry and healthy for a 67-year-old liver transplant survivor, they were sent into a swoon. Joining Allman onstage was Jimmy Hall, lead singer and harmonica wizard for Wet Willie, the famed Mobile, Alabama–based band, which is likewise linked with the roots of southern rock.
With the reigning kings of southern rock poised for action, Leavell informed the crowd that the ensuing series of songs would be dedicated to the memory of Macon’s favorite son, Otis Redding, who perished in a 1967 plane crash. Suitably rousing accounts of “Mr. Pitiful” and “Can’t Turn You Loose” followed, hampered somewhat by a muddy sound mix — which throughout the night tended to mask the bass, rendering moot any especially eloquent soulfulness on Steele’s part.
Regardless, the wayback machine was still running at full throttle as Leavell introduced the next guest, Michelle Malone. Introduced by Leavell as “one of the best female vocalists I’ve ever heard,” Malone is an extraordinarily gifted and accomplished guitarist and singer-songwriter, an Atlanta-born-and-raised daughter of a cabaret singer. Her name drew the least amount of recognition among Saturday’s audience — a deficit that was quickly and indelibly rectified.
Recalling the 1969 remake of “I’ve Been Loving You (Too Long)” — which was originally cowritten by Redding and Jerry Butler and released in 1966 — by Ike and Tina Turner, Malone and Allman seduced the room with an appropriately torchy interpretation. Duly inspired, Malone took the mic and knocked the joint into another dimension with a hair-raising interpretation of Redding’s “Respect,” performed in its original form, which is significantly and affectingly different than the version immortalized by Aretha Franklin.
The final segment saw the ASO depart and McDuffie return to the stage as Leavell led the assemblage through two Allman Brothers Band classics. With Gregg sounding very much like the seriously brooding young man he was when he originally composed “Midnight Rider” in 1970, the audience blissfully wallowed in the nostalgic revelry they had paid good money to experience, with many in the crowd lending their voices to the mix. With its standard blues progression giving the musicians plenty of room to stretch out and bring things to a climax, the Allman Brothers’ “Southbound” was the perfect outro for the program.
Naturally, the audience was not going to disappear into the chilly evening air without an encore. Leavell and friends did not disappoint with a ragged-but-right rendition of “Statesboro Blues.” Immortalized by the Allman Brothers, the song was written by Blind Willie McTell, the legendary blues guitarist and singer from Thomson, Georgia, who for a period during the 1930s and ’40s could be encountered in parking lots on Ponce de Leon Avenue playing for nickels and dimes.
One could hardly imagine a more fitting conclusion to the Georgia Roots Music Festival. Comprising one full day of free performances and meet-and-greet presentations featuring members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, McIntosh County Shouters, Skillet Lickers, Mudcat, Thomas Dorsey Birthplace Choir and the Albany Civil Rights Institute Freedom Singers, the mini-festival was sponsored by Leavell and his wife, Rose Lane, and others in conjunction with the Georgia Department of Economic Development and Georgia Council for the Arts. The whole shebang was linked with the opening of a Smithsonian Institution touring exhibit, New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music, in the Memorial Arts Building’s 1280 Gallery. Including displays and interactive elements exploring early traditions of American music, the exhibit will be on view through February 2, the final stop on an 18-month tour across the state.