On March 10th, 2020, The Brothers stepped onto the stage of Madison Square Garden to celebrate the legacy and music of the Allman Brothers Band. Founding ABB member Jaimoe was joined by an extended family that included Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks, Duane Trucks, Oteil Burbridge, Marc Quiñones, Reese Wynans, and Chuck Leavell. It was a show that spanned generations and paid tribute to a group that even half a century later continues to thrill and influence new and old fans alike.
Kirk West wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
An icon in rock n’ roll photography, West first captured the ABB on film in 1973. When the band re-formed in 1989, West took on the role of tour manager (and mystic), a position he would hold until 2010. Kirk and his wife, Kirsten, traveled to New York City to document the show and participate in a pop-up gallery of his work– but it very nearly turned to tragedy. At the time of the show at MSG, the COVID-19 pandemic was poised to engulf the city and the world, and upon their return to Macon, the Wests discovered they had, in fact, contracted the virus.
Kirk and Kirsten have fully recovered and are in excellent spirits. Unfortunately, due to the virus, they’ve been unable to re-open the doors of Gallery West, home to a one-of-a-kind collection of country, blues, and rock n’ roll images. Now, with their health intact, the Wests are ready to share Kirk’s photographs of The Brothers in New York City.
Friday, June 19th, and Saturday, June 2oth, from 4pm to 9pm witness The Brothers as seen through the eyes of Kirk West. Prints will be available for purchase or special order. The gallery will be limited to 10 visitors at a time while observing suggested social distancing practices. Masks will be required and hand sanitizer will be available.
AI- First off, let me tell you how glad I am just to have this conversation. When Kirsten made the announcement that you two had tested positive for a COVID-19, at the time, I think there was more fear than answers going around and everybody was terrified. So let’s start there. How are you doin’? How you feelin’?
KW- Actually, we’re great. It was a tough couple, three weeks. We got home from The Brothers show in New York City on the 15th of March, and I had started feelin’ a little squirrely on the 14th on our way home. By the 16th, 17th, I was down for the count and it was pretty scary there. Kirsten caught it. She wasn’t nearly as sick as I was, but I had two or three days that were really, really scary to me. We finally ended up getting a COVID test at our doctor’s, but it took 12, 13 days to get the results back. By the time that we had actually gotten the results back, I was feeling much better. The fact of the matter is, I had been self-isolating for about six years as it was (laughs)! Ever since I got off the road and quit my little travelin’ around, I just hunkered down and started a new business, which basically entailed the gallery and website sales and doing these books. I had really come from a life of 30 years on the road to one where hangin’ out at the house was all I cared to do. So this self-quarantine and stuff wasn’t that big a trauma for me.
I knew you were going to The Brothers show up at Madison Square Garden, but I admit that I was surprised when you told me that you were going up there in the capacity of a photographer.
Yeah, I did a little both. I did a fair amount of what my old job was, but [I also went] to document the whole deal– rehearsals at SIR in New York, and I did a little a pop-up book signing and photo sale at the Live Nation headquarters there in Manhattan. I did basically everything I used to do, just different levels of it. The show was dramatically different than our normal New York City shows or any shows that we’d go out and do on the road. We’d have anywhere from 30 to a hundred people on stage– guests watchin’ and sittin’ and wives and all that– and none of that took place because they sold the show out at Madison Square Garden. It was a complete 360 sellout, so there was no guests on stage. There was no wives sittin’ up there in the catbird seat, and there was no Brotherhood Of Light show because we had people sittin’ behind the band, behind the stage. So there was that aspect of it I didn’t have to take care of– watchin’ the stage and all that sort of thing. It was a fun deal. It was an amazing week, and there was a vibe around there that we knew the shit was gettin’ a little sticky.
Had that show happened on a Thursday that week instead of the Tuesday that week, it would have been canceled. There’s no question about it. We were loadin’ out that night, I was waiting for the last of the band members to get on the van to go back to the hotel, and they had already cleaned the floor of all the chairs and they were laying down the basketball floor for the March Madness to start that next day. They were supposed to be playin’ basketball on [March 12th] and they pulled the plug on it before they ever opened the door. We got in and out, but it was remarkable how quick everything stopped after that day. And we thought we dodged a bullet! But Oteil [Burbridge] got sick, Derek [Trucks] got sick. And the thing about it is, Aaron, every year we’d go play The Beacon, a lot of us would come home sick! We used to call it the Beacon-naires Disease! It’s a small building, it was a reefer friendly building, and so there was a lot of that sort of thing going around. People would come from all over the world! You’d see your friends once or twice a year, and there’s a lot of huggin’ and kissin’ and shakin’ hands and sharin’ this and that… And you’d invariably come home from New York with Beacon-naires Disease (laughs)! You get home to Macon and everything was golden from the pollen. It was very difficult. The first couple days, you’re tryin’ to talk yourself out of it, you know? You’re tryin’ to say, “Oh, this is just a reaction to the pollen,” or, “This is just a garden variety of the Beacon-naires Disease.” But it hit pretty hard by two or three days afterwards, and it was just ridiculous. We survived. We’re healthier than we thought we were!
You’ve sort of been buildin’ yourself back up for quite some time now.
Here’s the deal, Aaron, the last couple of years, I came down in ’18 with severe pneumonia and I hadn’t really gotten back on my feet from that when I had the heart attack and quad bypass. And then I was trying to gather my strength. Everybody said, “Oh yeah, these bypass surgeries, man, they do ’em every day! No worries! And within 90 days, you’ll be feeling a hundred times better n’ you ever did!” Well, that never really happened. I never really got back on my feet and then come November– the heart attack had happened at the beginning of December of ’18– and then in Thanksgiving time, a year later, 2019, I developed this intestinal bleed. So I was in the hospital for several days, lost half the blood in my body… Finally got back!
That was in December of ’19, and I knew goin’ to New York in March of 2020 for this show, this week of rehearsals and stuff, I knew it would be a test of my stamina. I knew that. I was gonna find out just what I got in me, you know? It’s one thing to feel pretty good when you’re stayin’ at home and workin’ on the computer and printin’ pictures, and it’s easy to fool yourself into thinkin’ you’re feelin’ pretty good. I realized what my limits were or how long my legs actually were. So the fact that I came back with COVID didn’t really surprise me. It disappointed me in the fact that it got so severe so quick. We got out of New York City just in time. There’s no doubt about it. Within 48 hours, that whole city had changed completely.
Let me ask you about the rehearsal sessions. You were there to document it. Celebrating 50 years of a band with that kind of history, the Allman Brothers, that had to carry some weight to it. And I imagine though that it was really kinda like a family reunion with amplifiers and instruments…
With everybody together, was it a calculated, “Let’s play certain songs,” or was it more like, “Let’s just all get reacquainted with each other and see where it goes?”
A little of both. They’d kinda worked out this stuff before they got to town, conceptually. There were a lot of conference calls, there was a lot of discussion about who exactly would play the music, would there be guests– and there were no special guests. Other than Chuck Leavell, who was in that band for four years, and Reese Wynans. That was a brilliant idea to have him play the B3 parts because he had been involved in those initial jam sessions in Jacksonville that created the Allman Brothers. He was in the Second Coming with Dickey [Betts] and Berry [Oakley], and he played on those early jams before Gregg got back from California. So it was the perfect idea. That was, I believe, Haynes’s idea to reach out to Reese.
Subsequent to those early days in ’69, Reese had gone on to have a tremendous career. He played with Boz Scaggs for a long time, and then played with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. He was the keyboard player that they added once it became more than a trio. After Stevie Ray died in ’91, he floated around, did a lot of sessions, livin’ in Nashville… He was currently workin’ with Joe Bonamassa out on the road, recording with him. Joe gave him a week or 10 days off for him to come do this gig. He was leavin’ New York to go right back to Minnesota to hook up with Bonamassa– and that never happened because they pulled the plug on every big show.
The rehearsals themselves, the gathering of getting everybody together… Derek would see Warren out on the road. They’d run into each other. They’d play Florida, and [Marc] Quiñones would come and sit in for a song or two, but this was great. SIR, Studio Instrument Rentals, is a big rehearsal complex on the West Side down in Chelsea, and that’s where we always rehearsed. Coming into The Beacon, the band would set up for a week or two at SIR and get acclimated to the temperature in February and March and work stuff up. It was great ’cause you knew the neighborhood, you knew where to go buy bags of ice at the bodega, and you knew where the good Chinese joints were, and yeah, it was a big family reunion kind of deal. It was a relatively private rehearsal. There wasn’t a lot of press there or anything like that. It was like comin’ home. It was exactly like a family reunion.
You say that. Jaimoe’s called– and several of them have spoken about this before– New York City bein’ a spiritual home for the Allman Brothers. You toured and traveled throughout that area. I’ve traveled and toured up through that area, and I still get amazed at how much that music and style of music means to people– certainly everywhere– but in the Northeast and New York in particular. Why do you think that’s so?
It’s because they played so often there. It’s like goin’ to Charleston and tryin’ to find somebody who’s not a ‘Spread Head! It’s the music they grew up with. It’s like all these button-down bankers down here in Southeast America that did nothin’ but get high and drink and go see Widespread Panic all through college. It’s the same kind of thing in New York City. [The Allman Brothers Band] played there so much, all these little colleges and clubs in that neck of the woods, not necessarily Manhattan, but all around. And I wasn’t tryin’ to be negative talkin’ about buttoned-down bankers down here bein’ ‘Spread Heads because half o’ Wall Street’s Allman Brothers fans! Literally, the vast majority of the money that we raised to build the Big House Museum came from Wall Street guys. There was a handful of ’em– about five or six of them– that would put together a big party. They’d buy out an entire Beacon show, almost 3000 tickets, every year. And they’d have a big Wall Street party! Economically, people that see concerts in New York City are prepared and used payin’ a lot more money for a ticket than they do in Atlanta or certainly Macon or Savannah or anything like that. You can play from Boston to DC [then] west to Pittsburgh and the Brothers could work there all the time, never go anyplace else. We would go to the West Coast every year or every couple years sometimes, wouldn’t go out there every year. ‘Cause the markets [in the Northeast] were big and solid and close together.
You’ve got this gallery show coming up on Father’s Day weekend. You’re gonna have photos from the rehearsals, from the show… Have you released any of these yet or will this be the first time? An exclusive, if you will, at Gallery West?
This’ll be the first time. I haven’t put ’em up, I haven’t sold any of them on the internet. I’m goin’ through and printin’ now. It’ll be a couple dozen seriously intimate and killer pictures. The other photographers that were shootin’ the actual concert, that’s been out there. It’s magnificent lookin’. I didn’t shoot much of the actual concert– ’bout half the first set. Once all the photographers got out of the pit, I went down there with the other two guys who had full show photo passes. But I shot the entire soundcheck in the afternoon on the stage back where nobody could get during the show itself and the rehearsals at SIR. Lot of real intimate, cool stuff. Stuff that nobody else has the opportunity to shoot.
I’m assuming that you’ll have some photos framed and ready to go? What other options are you going to have?
I’m printing nothing but 16x20s for the show, and they’ll be framed and on the wall. In the past, we’ve had these series of small flip racks that have 8x10s and 11x17s. For the time bein’, we’re doin’ away with the flip racks. So if you want a picture, a smaller copy of the one that’s on the wall, you’ll pay for it and I’ll print it and send it to you.
You photographed the Allman Brothers for the first time in 1973. In 2020, you went up to New York City to photograph The Brothers. Does it still excite you to see this music goin’ around again?
Oh, good Lord, yes, Aaron! Absolutely! Number one, the show at the Garden was absolutely spectacular. The plan is that they’re remixin’ and re-editing the video and sometime this year, that’ll be released on a CD/DVD and streaming. But yeah, it’s exciting as hell. In addition to all the photography stuff that I’m proud of, I mean, it’s full circle, Aaron. I felt that way when I photographed the last show– when they played their last show in New York at The Beacon in 2014. I was no longer working for the band, and so I just shot it like I was a kid shootin’ pictures for the first time. It was a wonderful deal! This was a bit of that, but also a proud re-involvement.
When they got off the van, the garden had done this little walkway from the underground parking to the dressing room. They’d built a little Highway 41 with peach trees… It was a nice little entrance, and Derek climbed out of the van. He said, “I was nervous, Kirk… Until I saw you.” (Laughs) And then I said, “This is just the way it ought to be! It’s goin’ to be just fine! (Laughs) It had been 10 years since I had worked for the band. Although I’ve seen them throughout, things changed. But the fact is that this music is still important to the world, to the people. We’ve got projects comin’ out all the time! At the end of last year, we put out a 10 LP box set called Trouble No More. It was 50 years of Allman Brother’s music. We’ve got a package we’re doing now, live tracks from ’70 and ’71 that have never been released. There’s a lot of cool things. We’re putting out a show that will be available only at the gift shop of The Big House. You’re not going to be able to buy it on the internet or nothin’. It’s a show that’s never circulated, a live show from Texas in ’71. There’s a big video project being developed that will focus on the Duane era that we’ve uncovered and tracked down. There’s a lot of stuff coming out in the next 12 months. And it’s all very exciting, Aaron, to be re-engaged at this level, at this depth there with this music.