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Allman fans to get 'Big House' preview

MACON -- That Kirk West would be the one person from the Allman Brothers Band's wide sphere of influence who would end up memorializing the band's glory years was a given.

West, a self-proclaimed hippie packrat, used his "gift for BS" to con his way backstage at Allman Brothers shows so frequently during the band's early days he was hired by the rockers to "keep people like me away."

As the Brothers' tour manager, West squirreled away every bit of band-related minutiae he came across. And as a professional photographer, his access to the musicians gave him exclusive up-close-and-personal photo opportunities..

The mementos he collected over the years make up the bulk of the exhibits that will go on display soon at "The Big House," the 6,000-square-foot Tudor-style mansion at 2321 Vineville Ave. in Macon that was home base for The Allman Brothers while they rocketed to superstardom as Capricorn recording artists in the early 1970s.

West and his wife Kirsten, who bought and lived in The Big House for 15 years, spearheaded efforts that have turned the home into an interactive museum that houses the world's largest collection of Allman Brothers memorabilia.

It was while filming an infomercial about efforts to turn The Big House into a museum that West came up with the idea of putting together a documentary that chronicles the Brothers' ties to the Vineville mansion from 1970 to 1973, when the band shed its reputation as something of a local phenomenon and became the progenitors of the blues-based music that would be called Southern rock.

That documentary, "Please Call Home: The Big House Years," has been acclaimed by critics as an inside look at a part of Georgia music history rarely available to casual fans. The many Southwest Georgia Allman Brothers followers can judge the film's merits for themselves Saturday when the State Theatre on Pine Avenue hosts a screening of "Please Call Home."

For their $20 ticket, which will benefit The Big House museum, attendees will see a screening of the documentary, take part in a question/answer session with West and listen to the music of a number of local artists, including the Allman-influenced Bo Henry Band.

The evening will also include a silent auction that includes, among other bid items, an autographed Allman Brothers poster.

"This documentary is not what you'd call a definitive look at the Allman Brothers' career," West said during a recent phone conversation. "It's more a window into three or four pivotal years in the band's career.

"The project is more or less an outgrowth of a 10-15-minute infomercial we were filming about The Big House (museum) project. We asked folks involved with the band, people who had lived at the house, to talk with us for the project, and it turned out great. But we had so much outstanding footage, we decided to take it a little deeper."

"Please Call Home: The Big House Years" has been screened at fundraisers in Macon, New York, Chicago, Dallas and Sarasota, Fla. Local Allman Brothers fan Jodie Gooch was instrumental in bringing it to Albany.

"I met a board member of The Big House several months ago, and he got me involved in the project," Gooch, who is a member of the Georgia Allman Brothers Band Association, said. "I ended up spending a lot of time this past summer with Kirk and Kirsten in Macon, and I grew to really believe in what they were doing.

"I became passionate about the project, and I thought it would be awesome to show the documentary for Allman Brothers fans here. It's a very cool thing, and I am so proud to be a part of bringing this to Albany."

West first saw the then-unheralded Brothers perform at a small club in Chicago on Feb. 1, 1970. ("I've since gotten the contract for that show," he says.) Using a fake ID to get into the club, West found himself drawn to the blues-influenced music. He started showing up whenever the band played in the area and usually talked his way backstage.

After he was hired on as tour manager, West's relationship with the band evolved into a friendship that has lasted the 40 years that the Brothers have been performing.

When he and Kirsten married in 1991, they decided the time had come for them to leave Chicago. They looked at property in New Mexico and New Orleans, but as fate would have it, they ended up at The Big House.

"I had been toying with the idea of putting together a book about the band, so when I was in Macon in '92 for a fan gathering, I went through the house and took a bunch of pictures," Kirk West said. "For some reason Kirsten pulled out the proof sheet, looked it over and said, 'That's where we're going.' We bought the house in August of '93 with the idea of making it into a bed and breakfast.

"The zoning codes in Macon prohibited us from doing that, so we got around it by not charging people. I put up all my memorabilia in a couple of rooms, and over the next 10 years or so we had more than 25,000 people come by to look at the collection. All of the surviving members of the band visited and stayed with us at some time, and anyone who was willing to take no for an answer would informally drop in."

The Wests unsuccessfully tried to find a buyer for The Big House, and then the concept of forming a nonprofit 501(c)3 foundation evolved. One interested party kicked $75,000 in to get things started, and the idea took off.

"We reached out to Allman Brothers fans with the idea of turning The Big House into a museum, and they responded in a big way," West said. "After we put this thing together and the very first piece of mail we got was a $5,000 check, I said to myself, 'This is going to be easy.'

"That shows how naive I was, but the bottom line is we've raised more than $2.5 million for the project and only $25,000 of it was from a grant. It's all been fan-driven."

The Big House Foundation's dream of opening the museum will be realized the weekend of Dec. 5-6 when Derek Trucks, who fronts his own band and plays with the Allmans, performs during a citywide festival that will include a "soft opening" of The Big House. The foundation plans to open the museum a couple of days a week through the remainder of the year and hold a grand opening during the first quarter of 2010.

West said he wants to stay involved in the project, especially with the planned music education programs that will be conducted in conjunction with the Bibb County School System.

Henry, whose band draws heavily from the Southern sound perfected by the Allman Brothers, said he's looking forward to Saturday's event. The Bo Henry Band is actually playing at a tailgate party before the Georgia-Auburn game in Athens and will rush home to close the musical portion of Saturday's show.

"I'm actually a little surprised -- but very happy -- that we were able to bring this event here," he said. "It's great to think Allman Brothers fans in the area are going to get to be among the first to see this documentary. The band has a lot of fans in the surrounding area, and I think they're going to love this."

Doors open at 6 p.m., and the showing of "Please Call Home: The Big House Years" starts at 7 p.m.