BY THOMAS STINSON
(Music Scene note: Tom Stinson recently retired from the AJC after 37 years as a reporter and editor. Now he has more time to keep the beat with Tribute - A Celebration of the Allman Brothers Band.)
When you play the Northside Tavern, you want to keep one eye on the door because on Saturday night, the gigs play out like a Fellini movie and you want to identify who the newest character might be.
We've seen fist fights and bachelor parties and lesbian bachelorette parties and flaming-shot spewers and pool sharks and golfing buds and everything in-between pass by over the five years our band -- Tribute A Celebration of the Allman Brothers Band -- has been performing there. Always great fun, always a spectacle.
So it was during our 14th gig last Saturday that I was trying to scope out the newest arrivals. A small group: tallish, detached, watching and listening and not drinking and who could this be, bent forwards with back against the door frame? Older dude, ball cap, circular glasses, about 50 wrist bands of any color, leaning on a painted cane that looked more like a shillelagh.
In a short while, our keyboardist, Henry Davis, leaned over and said, his eyebrows up to his hairline, "Jaimoe's here."
Except for Dickey Betts, who was fired by the group in 2000, Jai Johanny Johanson -- known universally as Jaimoe -- is the last surviving member of the original Allman Brothers Band. A fierce percussionist who could fire off a press roll that sounded like he was strafing the stage, Jaimoe is 73 now but still at it, touring with his newest outfit, Jaimoe's Jasssz Band.
That's who was aligned against entry way at the Northside that night, delivered there by a limo driver who suggested stopping off after they played an opening act at the Variety Playhouse. And here they were, good-time buddies in some crosstown bar, just checking us out.
As their keyboardist Dave Stoltz told Davis, "We've brought you an original Brother."
Jaimoe is in the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame. After a 35-year break for real life, I again play drums too. And there, any comparisons end. When I first saw the ABB in February 1970 in the Fillmore East -- they opened for the Grateful Dead, which still doesn't seem right -- more than the guitar mastery and Gregg Allman's droning growl, I was transfixed by Jaimoe and Butch Trucks, not just by the virtuosity of the performance but their choreography of paired drumming. Some 47 years later, I still see them nodding at each other through "Every Hungry Woman."
And now Jaimoe was here. Larry Griggs, our band's only Macon resident, grabbed the mic to say, "We've got royalty here tonight."
It was not hard to tell the Jasssz Band was weighing judgment on us. But sneaking a peek at Jaimoe, I saw that shillelagh starting to crack time on the floor to "Come and Go Blues." As we whipped around the challenging "Jessica," Jaimoe had his hands out and was dancing.
Is this really happening? At once, the band all stood up and invited the guys up. Griggs, bassist Chris Jones, vocalist Ollie Nichols and fellow drummer Mark Bishop gave up their spots (Bishop took a turn later on "Stomy Monday") and here came Jaimoe, slowly picking his way through a over-crowded stage that can fill up with four players. Now we had eight with two full drum kits and John Marsten's conga//bongo set-up.
In took a couple minutes but he settled in. We shook hands and I found myself saying, "This is one of the greatest nights of my life."
Jaimoe thought a second, tilted his head and asked, "How do you know?"
Good question. But in an instant, we were off on "Dreams," Gregg Allman's reflection on troubles times, played to a 3/4 signature with the snare drum played slightly behind the beat. Fun song to play and I couldn't help watch Jaimoe to my right, exploring accents and grace notes well off the melody, just like in all the videos I'd watched.
It took 30 seconds to find that groove. Trucks' part had traditionally been to plow the road for Jaimoe with a steady syncopation, not my usual role. But I dug down into it, added some fills and they came around and generally held on for dear life.
The song went on for nine minutes, or at least that's the time on the version that popped up on Youtube that night. Felt like one zip around the block and then I was climbing out to let Bishop have a turn.
Shaking hands again, I thanked Jaimoe one more time but he held my grasp and said, "You are a great musician," a fun sentiment that we both knew to be untrue. But for a few minutes, anything had been possible. With that, I kissed him on the top of his head.
When we all took a break, Jaimoe let Nichols know, "Ya'll are bad-ass."
Yeah, Jaimoe was here and I could not let go of that fact, still incredulous at 5 a.m. that morning, watching and rewatching Youtube and "Dreams" and an improbable night at the Northside with an original Brother.
Members of Tribute A Celebration of the Allman Brothers include: Mark Bishop (drums), Henry Davis (keyboards), Larry Griggs (guitar), Rod Gunther (guitar), Chris Jones (bass), John Marsten (percussion), Oliver Nichols (vocals) and Tom Stinson (drums).