Southern Blood

Farewell albums by great artists have turned into a sort of sad, strange genre over the last few years. Warren Zevon was literate and funny and unbearably poignant in The Wind in 2003 and he sort of established the form. His cover of Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door struck me as deeply felt when I first heard it, but maybe I’m oversentimental and he was being ironic: “Open up, open up.” Blackstar was one of David Bowie’s most experimental albums, a bucketlist modern jazz record, another attempt at wrestling with and redefining his legacy that opened up emotionally in its last two songs.

Even compared to other confessional album, these albums are impossible to divorce from their circumstances. You can’t know that someone was dying while making a piece of music without looking for clues about piece of mind, some kind of final statement and reckoning.

Gregg Allman was never one for playing coy, and almost every song on Southern Blood is either about saying goodbye or looking back. The title of “My Only True Friend,” which is the only song he was involved in writing, tells you where he’s at before he sings “I’ve got so much left to give/but I’m running out of time.” The same goes for “Going, Going, Gone” by Bob Dylan, which is just devastating. He takes a layer of humor out of “Willin'” and tops Little Feat’s original. There’s lust and humor elsewhere on the record, and “Blind Bats and Swamp Rats” gets more sober and becomes a Gothic horror movie. I don’t think anybody ever sang “comme ci comme ça” like that before.

I can’t be remotely objective about this, but he doesn’t just let the story of the album do the work. Gregg sounds great, and since the volume comes down, you can hear how tasteful and thoughtful a singer he is. These last performances are some of his best ever. That he recorded them after he had already far outlived the time he expected when he was told he had terminal cancer – and retired the Allman Brothers Band with a top-flight performance – is something like a minor miracle.

But if this album is a last word and testament, the last words have to be noted: he finishes by covering “Song for Adam” by Jackson Browne, and in the last verse he comes to the words “I guess that he stopped singing/In the middle of his song…” and just stops. He’s overcome and his voice cracks. There’s another chorus, but I almost wish they had just stopped there, letting the rest be silence with Gregg enacting that lyric. It’s a remarkable end to a record that’s both a goodbye and a gift.

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