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At 50, Allman flying solo and straight

It is 26 years to the day since his brother Duane died in a motorcycle crash in Macon, Ga., so it's no surprise that Gregg Allman's publicist informs his interviewer that he would rather avoid the subject.

But it is Allman that brings up his brother's name when remembering the glory days of the Allman Brothers Band. The band, with a reputation of playing nearly anyplace any time, made frequent visits to the bay area in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

"Yeah, I remember Duane and I would book in those gigs just to get a little gas money to get back home on," Allman says. "You know, we worked 306 nights in 1970 alone. Those were real good times."

A month shy of his 50th birthday, Allman seems like a man who is once again having good times. His first solo record in nine years, Searching for Simplicity, is about to be released. With the Allman Brothers Band on a winter hiatus, he is hitting the road with his own band, which will make its first tour stop Thursday at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater.

"I'm feeling better these days," he says in his unhurried drawl, which imparts a hard-learned philosophy from the rock 'n' roll school of overindulgence. ""You know if you stick around long enough and you're smart enough to pay attention to what's really going on in your life, you'll make it. I wished it would have come sooner."

Allman, who has lived in the Northern California region of Marin County since 1989, says he has been on a straight and narrow path for the past year or so, trying to reverse a longtime trend of alcohol and drug abuse.

"When I started to make the new album, I decided to put an end to all that," he said. "I needed to get my physical life back together."

It wasn't easy, he says. After all, Allman had been fighting the same demons off and on for the better part of three decades. But his abuses had taken a physical toll. His weight had ballooned, and there was evidence that his once powerful voice was failing.

"I go to the gym three times a week now," he says. "I've lost about 30 pounds, and I'm building up my muscle strength a little more every week."

But most important, says Allman, his outlook is better than it has ever been. He owes much of that, he says, to friends and family who stuck by him while he "got things figured out."

Allman says that working on Searching for Simplicity allowed him to delve into the basic musical spirit that the Allman Brothers Band summoned to help evolve the style of Southern rock they pioneered in the late 1960s.

"There's a lot of blues and R&B stuff that I've been listening to for a long time and I've wanted to experiment with for a while now," Allman says. "The Brothers still play a good bit of blues, but for the album I wanted to go deeper still."

Allman developed his love for blues shortly after he and brother Duane had formed their first band as teens in Daytona Beach in the early 1960s. A young black friend named Floyd Miles (who is touring in Allman's current band) gave Gregg his first exposure to singers like Marvin Gaye, Howlin' Wolf and James Brown, "and that's how I learned how to sing."

Gregg and Duane followed a musical odyssey in various bands that wound across the country before they landed in Jacksonville, where they teamed up with another Florida band that included bassist Berry Oakley, guitarist Dickey Betts and twin drummers Butch Trucks and Jaimoe Johanson.

Over the past 30 years, the Allman Brothers Band has enjoyed worldwide acclaim as one of rock's most original-sounding groups. However, Allman still considers the band's early Florida concerts to be among the best it ever played.

"Back then you couldn't keep us off the stage," he recalls. "We would play until daylight if you let us."

Allman says his current band lineup captures the adventuresome spirit that he enjoys.

"These guys are into a lot of different things," he says. "People will be surprised at some of the things we come up with."