Dickey Betts’ performance Saturday at Robarts Arena in Sarasota ranged from brilliant to emotive to ebullient, often in the same song. The guitar great, who has lived in the Sarasota area most of his life, elated and astounded the audience. He performed a set of cleverly updated, self-composed classics, mostly culled from his years with the Allman Brothers Band. In fact, it is doubtful Sarasota has hosted such a satisfying rock show since Dickey Betts and the rest of the original Allman Brothers played the same venue in 1971.
The headliner for the “Saving Austin’s Baby Blues” benefit, Dickey Betts and his backing band Great Southern took the stage around 9:30 p.m., launching into the dreamy introduction of “High Falls.” One of Betts’ most richly textured instrumentals, the song first appeared at nearly 15 minutes on the Allman Brothers Band’s 1975 album “Win or Lose Draw.” While striking in its original form, the composition reached a greater peak Saturday with bassist Pedro Arevalo leading the way for Betts’ fluid improvisations, which flowed over the spot-on drumming of Frankie Lombardi and Kenny Crawley. Guitarists Duane Betts (Dickey’s son), and Andy Aledort enriched the soundscape with delicate harmony lines and smart fills. Keyboardist Mike Kach glided in and out with flurries of keen notes. Dickey Betts and Great Southern sounded superb. The energy and creativity coming from the stage would continue throughout the special evening.
Dickey reached into his solo catalog for the next number, the buried treasure “Nothing You Can Do.” A driving beat and a sweet vocal by Dickey made the song about unrequited love more of a fun kiss-off than loser’s lament. You could almost see the 69-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer grin as he delivered the lines, “I tried my best to be her big star, now I'm trying just to get her off of my mind.”
The crowd roared as Aledort played the slide guitar parts made famous by Duane Allman on “Statesboro Blues.” Kach belted out the lyrics about trying to win a woman’s affection with lusty soul and Dickey caught fire again with a lengthy solo. The Allman Brothers Band chestnuts continued for the rest of the evening. All were written or co-written by Dickey Betts.
“Blue Sky,” the first ABB song to feature Dickey on lead vocals and one of the last recorded with Duane Allman before he died in a motorcycle accident, sounded as uplifting as the original. But Dickey modified melody, goosing the song with a fresh funkiness. A Dickey solo led into the blues standard “One Way Out,” another standout from the Duane-era Allman Brothers, which sizzled Saturday.
A mesmerizing introduction paved the way for an innovative reworking of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” Dickey refuses to recreate his acclaimed instrumental note for note the way it most famously sounded on “At Fillmore East.” Instead, he approaches it like a jazz artist, bringing the song to life each performance as he sees fit. On Saturday, Dickey made the song come alive in a way that left this reviewer and many others in attendance slack jaw. His Gibson Custom Dickey Betts SG VOS Electric Guitar Vintage Red sounded like a crying violin at times. Then, he made it snarl like a soldier ready to do battle. For 15 minutes, it was magic, the kind that can’t come from a mere trip down memory lane.
Dickey then sang his gorgeous folk song “Seven Turns.” It’s about the Native American belief that there are seven major decisions you make in life and served as the hit title track to the Allman Brothers Band’s comeback album from 1990. Kach sang lead on “No One to Run With,” Betts’ song with the Bo Diddley beat about a guy who has lost his partying pals. Released to radio in 1994, it’s still the Allman Brothers Band’s biggest hit of the past two decades. Dickey and Great Southern left the stage around 11 p.m., the time he was schedule to end his performance. But they returned, to a standing ovation, and played a warm, propulsive rendition of Dickey’s most popular instrumental, “Jessica.”
I’ve witnessed several outstanding performances by Dickey Betts since he split with the Allman Brothers Band in 2000. Saturday’s is my favorite. It should also be mentioned that in addition to delivering a searing performance – for free, all the musicians donated their time – Dickey happily greeted fans and generously signed autographs after the show, which he was seen at from the start.
But Dickey and his son Duane weren’t the only members of the Betts family to impress Saturday. The benefit concert began with daughter Kim Betts and her Gamble Creek band playing a fun, crowd-pleasing set of contemporary country tunes. Singer/songwriter and guitarist Dana Lawrence then performed some excellent originals with his band Kettle of Fish before the gifted vocalist fronted an Anderson-Poulos reunion. Chris Anderson grew up in Sarasota and lives in Nashville now when not touring as the lead guitarist with the Southern rock group the Outlaws. Greg Poulos is a Sarasota-based guitarist of equal talent most famous for being in the band of blues legend Freddie King. Yeah, it’s doubtful better music was being made anywhere else on the planet Saturday than at Robarts Arena in Sarasota.
The Benefit concert continues today with Outlaws guitarist Chris Anderson at The Five O’clock Club on Sunday from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. The "after benefit thank you party for the family, friends, and sponsors of Saving Austin’s Baby Blues" will be headlined by Great Southern keyboardist/singer Michael Kach's group featuring Chris Anderson and Greg Poulos with performances by Twinkle, Billy Seward and Cara Nally. Donations are appreciated.