Lazy July and August afternoons are traditionally called the dog days of summer. The fresh buds and flowers of spring have faded as the relentless heat causes trees, people, and dogs to wilt under an unforgiving sun. Thankfully, the only withering from the last Sunday in June came from Duane Betts and his two musical pals, Berry Duane Oakley (bass) and Johnny Stachela (guitars), blazing musicianship when they played City Winery DC on the 3rd stop of their Dog Daze Tour.
After a brief opening set from Charlie Overbey on June 26, Betts, seated between Oakley to his right and Stachela to his left, hit the bluesy opening chords to “Downtown Runaround” from his first solo EP, Sketches of American Music (2018). “Shinin’” from the Allman Betts Band debut album, Down to the River (2019), came next. Berry Duane Oakley took over lead vocals for the evening’s first Allman Brothers Band cover, “Done Somebody Wrong” (written by blues legend Elmore James).
Watch the official music video for “Downtown Runaround” by Duane Betts on YouTube:
As the evening progressed, the trio settled into an easygoing, familiar groove. With the music washing over me, I thought about the confluence of the traditional and the new. Two of the three performers bear surnames from rock royalty: Betts and Oakley.
Both Dickey Betts (Duane’s father) and Berry Oakley (Berry Duane’s dad) were founding members of the Allman Brothers Band, a musical ensemble that arguably created an entirely new genre of rock and roll: Southern Rock. Imagine having that legacy bestowed on you, and then imagine becoming a musician yourself and carrying on that same musical tradition. The combination of pressure and privilege might be enough to turn off any progeny of famous musicians, but not these guys. Duane, Berry, and Johnny came to play the blues, and so they did.
Stream Duane Betts’ EP, Sketches of American Music, on Spotify:
I’d seen Duane perform a few times before, so I was familiar with his music, voice, and, of course, talent. But seeing him in a small, intimate space with only acoustic guitars (except for Oakley’s subdued electric bass) was an illuminating experience. A live performance by a fully amplified band (electric guitars, drums, keyboards, etc.) can easily overcome most mistakes as volume, reverb, and sustain sometimes become a substitute for finesse.
But a sparsely decorated stage, no light show, and three players, two of them on acoustic instruments, leaves no room for error and has a wonderful way of focusing the senses, for both performer and audience.
Although the first three tunes were performed flawlessly, the trio was apparently just warming up. By the time they played the Allman Betts tune “Autumn Breeze” (another from that band’s debut album) the trio was clearly locked into a groove. Between Duane and Johnny’s sublime twin leads, this gorgeous song has that Allman Brothers Band vibe, but somehow feels completely contemporary. Diving back into tradition, Howlin’ Wolf’s “Shake for Me” came next rounding out the first “act” of the performance.
I often think of a concert as a three-act play — a story revealed through melody, rhythm, and lyrics: the introduction, the story told, and the conclusion. Focused as I was on the song selection, the expansiveness of the set list seamlessly wove together the entire evening’s performance.
The second “act” began with the lovely new ballad “Colors Fade” quickly followed by Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” The evening’s first surprise came next: “Althea.” This 1980 Grateful Dead tune is a relatively easy song to learn to play, but exceedingly difficult to perform.
With no backing percussion, reproducing the song’s syncopated rhythm with a bass and two acoustic guitars is no little feat, not to mention replicating Jerry Garcia’s lead runs without sounding too much like the iconic guitarist. Oakley’s unerring bass coupled with Betts and Stachala’s alternating leads, satisfied this old GD fan with their near-perfect interpretation of the song.
After the Billy Jo Shaver favorite, “Live Forever,” came the night’s second surprise. To even attempt the next song, “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” given its revered place in the American rock canon, is risky…but on acoustic instruments? Betts’s rendition capped the second act in style indeed, its difficult time changes handled with ease and the Duane Allmanesque leads never faltering.
The final act opened with “Rivers Run,” Betts’s ode to childhood, followed by another new tune “Wiser Time.” Then we got what many of us had been anticipating all night: a flawless performance of the gorgeous Allman Brothers Band song, “Blue Sky.” Throughout the show, both Oakley and Betts had impressed with their lead vocal prowess, but their harmonies on “Blue Sky” were superb, as well.
Watch Duane Betts and the Pistoleers perform “Taking Time” live at JITV HQ via YouTube:
The concert ended with another tune from Betts’ first album, “Taking Time,” followed by the evening’s last surprise. “Little Martha” is another Allman Brothers Band favorite, it’s delicate fingerpicking contrasted against a gorgeous bass line is a study in both subtle and powerful songwriting. This night’s performance provided a lovely, though intimate, climax to a beautiful evening.
Here’s the setlist for Duane Betts at the City Winery on June 26, 2022 (created from memory and author’s notes-corrections welcome):
Done Somebody Wrong (The Allman Brothers Band)
Shake for Me (Howlin’ Wolf)
Colors Fade (new song)
Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right (Bob Dylan)
Althea (Grateful Dead)
Live Forever (Billy Joe Shaver)
In Memory of Elizabeth Reed (The Allman Brothers Band)
Blue Sky (The Allman Brothers Band)
Little Martha (The Allman Brothers Band)
There are a few more summer 2022 shows remaining on Duane Betts’ Dog Daze Tour. Check his website or Facebook page to see tour dates.
Here are some photos of Duane Betts performing at City Winery on June 26, 2022. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Mark Caicedo.