By Andrew Dobbie
LONDON (Reuters) - Gregg Allman is a believer in the healing power of music.
Barely a year after undergoing a liver transplant, the veteran American musician is back on the road with his regular band, looking a little frail but in good voice and excellent spirits.
The Gregg Allman band kicked off a European mini-tour at London's Barbican Center Friday, with two further UK dates scheduled plus more in Ireland, the Netherlands and Germany before they head home next month for a lengthy tour of the United States and Canada.
The backbone of their set is a series of songs from the album "Low Country Blues," his first record for 14 years.
It was released in February to critical acclaim and commercial success to match, debuting at No. 7 in the U.S. Billboard chart.
Diagnosed with hepatitis C and advised he needed a new liver, Allman decided to go into the studio to record an album of songs by his blues heroes, before going under the surgeon's knife in June last year.
With award-winning producer/guitarist T-Bone Burnett at the helm, the result is a spare, no-frills collection of classics by the likes of "Sleepy" John Estes, Skip James, B.B. King and Muddy Waters.
It shows off Allman's skills as a hollering blues performer and a musician of eclectic good taste.
Allman, 63, who co-founded the Allman Brothers Band with his brother Duane in 1969, says music was a consolation during his traumatic health problems before and since his transplant surgery.
"It was a great feeling to have a real good record in the can," he told Reuters backstage at the Barbican. His famous long blond tresses are now white and tied in a ponytail and his bushy beard trimmed neatly.
He said the operation was "the most horrendous pain I have ever been through" and it had taken him a year to recover enough to be able to tour again, although he is still in pain and will need further treatment later in the year. "I feel like someone hit me with a sledgehammer. But I'm alive."
As part of his musical therapy, he went on a brief tour with Elton John and Leon Russell four months after the operation. "But it was good and it got me out of the house."
Greeted by a standing ovation when he took to the Barbican stage, Allman was subjected throughout the performance to shouts and whoops from an audience that was more like a meeting of the faithful than a gathering of music fans.
However, he dealt with them with grace and southern charm and led the band on a brief tour through his back catalog and some choice cuts from "Low Country Blues," switching between his trademark Hammond B-3 organ and electric and acoustic guitars.
Shunning the airs and mannerisms of the rock star performer, he preferred to showcase the talents of fellow musicians in his rocking ensemble, with some stunning solos from guitarist Scott Sharrard, pianist Bruce Katz and sax man Jay Collins. For the London gig only, the band was augmented by two British horn players, Lee Badau on sax and trumpeter Alistair Walker.
Saving the best until last, the hyperactive crowd was treated to encores of Estes' "Floating Bridge" a haunting track from "Low Country Blues," and a barnstorming rendition of Blind Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues," a vinyl classic from the Allman Brothers' 1971 live album "At Fillmore East," with Sharrard recreating the slide guitar of the late Duane Allman.
Allman appeared genuinely touched by the warmth of the reception from the London crowd. As he left, he wound his way slowly along the edge of the stage to shake outstretched hands and mumble thank-yous.