You can say what you want: since they first came crashing and tumbling through rock and roll’s front door in 1990, the Black Crowes have been true to themselves and their music. Led by brothers Chris and Rich Robinson, the Crowes haven’t always taken the easy route or the most popular path, opting instead to make rock and roll that wasn’t ashamed to show its influences while retaining its own voice. The band has evolved and matured in public, weathering personnel changes and a three-year “hiatus” (2002-2005) from which they emerged stronger and more focused than ever, comfortable in their own feathers.
With the release of Before the Frost … Until the Freeze, the Crowes have turned a corner. With songs that span the gamut from (of course) gritty, greasy rock to lovely acoustic stuff that you might think was written 100 years ago (if you didn’t know it came from a bunch of good ol’ hippie boys), to smoke-break-at-the-flying-carpet-garage, this album is the best of their career.
Sure, you can still hear their love for the Stones and the Faces and Humble Pie throughout the album … but when you really listen to this thing (forget the segregation of the “rock disc” and the “folk download” – just listen to the goddamn album) you’ll realize that it’s high time the Black Crowes were compared to another band: the early ’70s Grateful Dead.
That’s all you really need to know.
…And the Long
What should probably be said right off the bat is that I’ve never owned a Black Crowes album. I do remember where I was when I first heard “Jealous Again” in 1990 (sitting on the town dock in Stonington, Maine having a lunchtime Ballantine Ale and banana with my buddy Rick) and I also remember thinking that these guys had the Faces’ sound nailed. The guitars had that crank-up-the-mid-range squonk and the piano stivvered all over the place beautifully like a half-plastered young Ian McLagen. I thought it was great – but right or wrong, I just wasn’t convinced there was more to it than that.
Over the years, my impression of the Crowes remained the same – they seemed to almost always have at least one cut off each release that would catch my ear, but in a “that reminds me of something” way. Critics usually worked the Faces angle – or, of course, early-‘70s Stones, as brothers Chris and Rich Robinson lent themselves to Mick and Keith comparisons without even trying. Fair/unfair? Doesn’t matter – then was then and we’re working our way to now.
Fast-forward through the band’s three-year hiatus and the Robinsons’ solo projects – not that they aren’t noteworthy, as they are; the vibe of both Chris’ New Earth Mud projects and Rich’s Paper album are obvious footpaths to where the band is today. The 2005 reuniting of the band made for a good story (I’m a sucker for happy brothers tales); and the news that Luther Dickinson had become a full-time Crowe in 2007 made that year’s release (_Warpaint_) something to take note of.
So now it’s June of this past summer and I land the assignment to review The Crowes upcoming disc-and-a-free-download. Having been aware that the album was recorded in front of a live audience at Levon Helm’s barn back in the winter, I’m interested in hearing the results. But it wasn’t going to happen for a while, as it turned out: no review copies were going to be distributed before the August 31 release date, according to the PR folks. (Thereby ensuring there would be no album-reviews-without-an-album ala Maxim’s Warpaint debacle, I suppose.) That was okay – as long as we were all on the same page, I was cool with that. We’ll get it when we get it, I figured.
And then I heard “I Ain’t Hiding.”
A few weeks prior to the album hitting the streets, the Crowes released “I Ain’t Hiding” as a single – and within minutes it was all over the web. I listened to it briefly and then shut it off – refusing to go any further. Not because it was bad, mind you, but all I could think of was “Shit – after being pummeled with pretty-near 20 years’ worth of Stones’ comparisons, the Crowes dole out a tune that sounds like “Miss You”? Right down to the up-the-steps bass line and “ooh ooh” background vocals? There’s got to be more to it than this.” I didn’t even give the thing a chance to play through totally and prove itself; I wanted to wait to hear the whole album. I shut the laptop off and went to Newfoundland for a couple weeks with my wife. (Not just simply to escape any more Crowe leaks, but it helped.)
I returned Labor Day weekend to a pile of mail, including many promised review albums. A dig through the pile turned up no Crowes, though – apparently I’d slipped off the PR list. It took another couple weeks to land the rascal, during which time I imposed a total Crowes blackout on myself – no listening to song samples off the new album and no reading of any other publication’s reviews (apparently they’d received their copies). I needed to meet and greet this thing on my own terms.
But, God bless ‘em, the PR folks came through in the end and the album showed up at about 11:00 AM on Monday the 21st. By noon, I was well into the Before the Frost disc and had Until The Freeze downloaded.
By 1:00 PM I was hooked.
Three of the most impressive releases I’ve reviewed this year are Jorma Kaukonen’s River of Time, Levon Helm’s Electric Dirt and this new release from the Crowes. And they all have one thing in common: they were recorded at Levon Helm’s barn up in Woodstock, NY. The home of Helm’s live “Midnight Ramble” sessions, the barn is also a full-fledged recording studio with veteran soundman Justin Guip heading things up.
If you’ve ever attended a Ramble, then you’ve already marveled at the barn, both in terms of beauty and sound. All-wood construction (there are no metal fastenings in the main structure), the barn’s acoustics are great. Indeed, when you’re inside the thing, it’s like being in the body of a giant acoustic instrument – and, in this case, Justin Guip knows how to play that instrument.
All three of this year’s releases from the barn are beautifully recorded; clean and well-separated but earthy and raw at the same time. The south may have Muscle Shoals, but up in the northeast, the place to go is Levon Helm’s barn.
Couple that with the presence of Larry Campbell, the barn’s resident Master of All Things With Strings and any album made there can’t help but sound good. Campbell contributes just-right doses of fiddle, banjo, and pedal steel to BTF/UTF; sonic layers that add to the sound without ever making it less Crowes. (We’ll get to some specific examples in a moment.) Paul Stacey – who not only co-produced Warpaint with the Crowes, but toured with them on guitar in 2006-07 as well – returns as producer, capturing the band’s sound without ever corralling the emotion of the performances.
In the case of Before the Frost … Until the Freeze, you wouldn’t know the album was recorded live until you hear the crowd’s reaction at the end of the first cut. Stacey, Guip, and crew nailed both the power of the crunchier cuts and the “gather ‘round the wood stove” vibe of the acoustic-based tunes – and in the end, it helps tie everything together. My only real complaint about this album is the division of the songs into the harder-edged cuts of the main disc and the softer side of the Until the Freeze download. (Apparently, the vinyl version integrates the songs, tracking them in the order of their recording.) I understand the attraction of the packaging and the something-for-free offer, but as a musical offering, this is … well … I hate to do it, but I can’t come up with a better comparison … this finally really is the Crowes’ Exile On Main Street – except for two big differences.
First, the Crowes take that country vibe that the Stones were laying down on cuts such as “Sweet Virginia” and “Torn And Frayed” and take it even further into the mountains, valleys, rivers and plains. When Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia wrote “Cumberland Blues” and “Ramble On Rose,” they were offering Heads big slices of what may now be slapped with a sticker that reads “Americana!”, but was really nothing more than bits of history and folk lore and life – real life as lived by bigger-than-life characters. That’s where the Crowes will take you on this album; these are truly well-written songs. Start listening to this album now; by Thanksgiving, you’ll be setting a place for “Old Jeremiah,” swearing he’s a relation of yours.
Secondly, the Stones crafted their masterpiece over a period of many months in the cellar of Keith Richards’ mansion in France. That’s not a criticism – just a statement of fact. The album’s heroin-infused midnight vibe couldn’t have happened any other way. But the fact remains that the Crowes pulled off this collection of songs in front of a live audience without a net – and are choosing not to use that fact as an excuse of any kind. Normally, tagging an effort as a live recording offers a little cutting of slack; the unspoken tag is “This is warts and all, folks – there might be a clink or a clunk here and there, but it’s all in the name of the vibe.” Again, until the crowd goes apeshit at the end of the album-opening “Good Morning Captain,” you’d never know that what you’re hearing was recorded live. That took some guts.
With the exception of one song (“So Many Times,” a Stephen Stills/Chris Hillman-penned tune off the second Manassas album), the 20 songs on BTF/UTF were written by the Brothers Robinson. (Out of those, three are Chris’; one belongs to Rich – and the rest were joint efforts.)
It’s quite a trip: consider, for instance, the dosed camels swaying happily to Rich Robinson’s sitar in “Aimless Peacock” – while almost-but-not-quite-there voices swirl out of the mist of percussion, along with some … blues harp? Don’t even question it – just go with it.
Luther Dickinson lays down some of the most engaging playing of his career throughout the album, offering up everything from the sweet jazzy licks of “Greenhorn” to weaving bluesy mandolin against Rich’s dobro in “Shine Along”. And his electric lead work – both fretted and slide – is fierce throughout the album.
The aforementioned Larry Campbell is definitely an honorary Crowe for this one, adding everything from killer fiddle (“Garden Gate”) to pedal steel that’ll either break your heart (“So Many Times” and “Appaloosa”, for instance) or put a crease in your best Sunday-go-to-meeting overalls (“Roll Old Jeremiah”). It’s Campbell’s banjo underneath Adam MacDougall’s piano that sets up the rollicking “Tennessee Jed”-like feel of “Good Morning Captain”. And speaking of MacDougall, his keyboard work is all over this thing – from lovely Nicky Hopkins-style keys on “Lady of Avenue A” to a hellacious B-3 organ squall on “Been A Long Time”. (Yes – take that, you furry freaks: “Long Time” is all Steve Marriott swagger until after the final chorus – at which point everything drops out for a moment, then explodes in a gale of chugging guitar/bass/drums while MacDougall lets loose on the keyboard … followed by Chris Robinson blowing some nasty harp … followed by a ripping lead by Luther Dickinson. Get out the tie-dye, sweet momma – we’re goin’ to the Avalon! Ahhwoooo!)
Bassist Sven Pipien weaves with Rich Robinson’s rhythm guitar as much as he does with drummer Steve Gorman – it’s Pipien’s walk up the neck on the chorus of “A Train Still Makes A Lonely Sound” that provides the shivers, while he and Gorman team up to give “What Is Home” a “Ramble On” feel. And, of course, it was Pipien’s disco bass against Rich’s whacka-whacka wah guitar that weirded me out when I first heard “I Ain’t Hiding.” All was forgiven, however, when I finally listened to the full cut make its transition from shiny dance floor to grimy back alley. Call it quirky, call it the Crowes’ “Shakedown Street” – call it what you will. Nobody else would do anything like it at this point in their career.
Rich Robinson drops riffs and hooks all over the place – as critical to the sound of the rocking-chair-on-the-creaky-porch Crowes as he is to the raunchy, plugged-in version. And brother Chris can still belt it out when he needs to – but he’s also become a better storyteller with age … and sometimes that’s what a song requires. There’s a thread of sincerity and realness throughout Before the Frost … Until the Freeze that could only come with time and dues paid. Chris’ voice is the embodiment of that. Power isn’t always measured in decibels … soul carries the most clout of all.
In the end, this album delivers much more than expected, with its greatest risk being that it’s too much for long-time Black Crowes fans to digest. The chat rooms may be going berserk with threads on the Crowes’ “new sound” or their music’s “new direction” – but not to worry.
This is simply the music of a band that’s comfortable with who they are – and it’s the sort of comfort that encourages exploration … kind of like that band I mentioned way back at the beginning of all this.
Brian Robbins is a prolific reviewer (and fisherman) who resides on the coast of Maine.