Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Josh Miller
The Black Crowes :: 03.19.08 :: The Fillmore :: San Francisco, CA
People tend to cling to the past. The familiar, no matter how painful or messed up or just plain no fun, often proves a stronger force than what's right in front of us or what might be. For many, the known will always win out against the unknown, where we find ourselves licking old wounds instead of letting them properly heal. We'll take the pain we know over the potential of an uncertain future. When someone breaks out of this cycle there's a quiet exuberance about them, a potent air of freedom and hope that speaks for them without a single word. One catches a serious whiff of this from The Black Crowes lately. Their new album, Warpaint, is littered with it:
Chris Robinson :: 03.19
It's too late to play it safe/ So let's let it all ride.
Starting to let go/ Now that we know/ It's time to move it on down the line.
Put forever in your mind/ Let go of space and time.
It's telling that the Crowes chose to debut their new lineup with guitarist Luther Dickinson and keyboardist Adam MacDougal on a tour built around Warpaint. It's this aggregate that created these 11 songs. There's no history or old fingerprints to contend with. The handful of U.S. shows they scheduled before traveling to Australia and Europe placed this album front and center, and it didn't take long at The Fillmore to figure out their message:
Welcome to a fresh dawn, children. Pass the new wine and drink deep.
Playing one's latest release in its entirety, in sequence, is uncommon and risky. It's a lot of material for the band and the audience to absorb. There's no safety net – fan favorites tossed out early to court good will, the easier muscle memory of oft-played material, etc. – and there was a tentative quality to the opening minutes of "Goodbye Daughters Of The Revolution." The song had only been played live seven times previously and it's obvious they're still finding their place, exploring a new lover - excited, tentative but also wonderfully reckless, split open in ways that make almost anything possible. And like the band, fans haven't gotten the full flavor of these lips yet. It takes a while for intimacy to develop but if you closed your eyes during the last section of "Daughters" (and there after) you heard music every bit as intense, joyous and true as anything in their catalog. Moreover, from the opener on, you heard a renewed passion and sense of collective conviction that elevated the whole experience beyond a mere concert, if you let it. What's happening with the Crowes these days is gonna happen whether fans and critics want it to or not. It's gonna be a lot more fun if folks take the bottle they're passing our way but it's going around whether we take a swig or not.
By the second cut, "Walk Believer Walk," they were fully inside things, taking an already heavy blues into a dark place, kicking over bodies in a 12-bar graveyard. The only thing I can liken the live "Walk" to is the first time I heard Canned Heat's Live At The Topanga Corral while fucked sideways on mushrooms. Curled up on my bed, headphones on, I felt the full creeping menace of the blues crawling off Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson's fretboard while Bob "The Bear" Hite ushered me into the resounding catharsis the blues offer. The Crowes tapped into both facets at this show, not just on "Walk" but elsewhere. Their blues are far from traditional but many Warpaint tunes carry the depth of good blues – road weary but unbroken, lived in but not yet worn out.
The Black Crowes :: 03.19 :: The Fillmore
There was little chitchat from the stage, only a stray "thank you" or "right on" sprinkled in from time to time, and for a band known for some sartorial outrages in the past they were dressed simply. The focus throughout was the music, which rumbled with intensity from the foundation up. If I had to call an MVP for this one it'd be a tie between drummer Steve Gorman and bassist Sven Pipien, who without flash or solos provided much of the oomph and momentum. More than once Pipien inspired slackjawed comments from my cronies for the tendons and sinews of his basslines. Warpaint shows off the high level musicianship of all involved, and that fact was only further reinforced in the live setting.
The tentativeness of "Daughters" did crop up from time to time but by the end of each song they had a hold of it, expanding on the studio versions in ways that gave them real presence. It's clear they're figuring out what they can do with this album, kicking over places each show where minute embellishments can shift things nicely. Dickinson, in particular, showed great cheek all night. He's obviously having a ball being a Crowe and rarely missed an opportunity to dig in a few more millimeters, never overplaying (to his credit) but also far less tentative than one might expect from a guy who'd played all of seven shows before this gig. There's far different trip energy for Dickinson to dip into here than in the North Mississippi Allstars and he baptized himself without a moment's hesitation especially during "Evergreen," "Walk," "God's Got It" and the entire second half of the performance.
This did find Rich Robinson doing a lot less soloing than he's done in the past few years, leaning further into a rhythm guitar role, where he's absolutely brilliant. It's possible he wants to give Dickinson extra space to find his place in the band but this may also have something to do with Dickinson's general dynamic with the group. Without diminishing Marc Ford's contributions, Dickinson communicates more with the entire band than Ford ever did. A soliloquy can be brilliant but a conversation is far more interesting. This dynamic is the core of this new Crowes chapter. The overlap and pleasure in their playing created music that breathed and flowed with the power and glow only multiple, engaged players can generate. I don't think any of them has ever played better on a technical level but there's an energy that's flowing between them that added something tangible.
Rich Robinson :: 03.19
Warpaint live proved a revelation. Having spent a lot more time with this album than most (I was allowed an early listen to work on a big feature for the band's website), it's already crawled inside my life, soundtracking the past few months in wonderful ways. So, hearing them tussle with this stuff live was exciting and scary. Would they mangle what I'd already grown to love? Would they inhabit it with the same fullness one finds on the record? For the most part, they only stretched things slightly but always in ways that spoke to the promise of things to come. It's way too early to tell how these songs will develop once they've toured them for a few months but it's already clear their hearts are fully invested in their shared creations. From the oeuvre covering "Movin' On Down The Line" to the marching band drum fueled "God's Got It" to the sophisticated campfire sing-a-long "Whoa Mule," there was nothing tentative about their affection for what's happening now. The older material touched on in the brief second set was fine, hell, bloody great in spots, but their eyes shone most brightly as they smeared on Warpaint.
That said the second set was a blast, a Whitman's Sampler of all things Crowes. Jumping back in with a cover of Delaney & Bonnie's "Poor Elijah – Tribute To Johnson," they showed their instinct for tapping other's catalogs remains impeccable. The country-blues-rock hybrid proved a perfect vehicle for them. The church moment of the night, something that invariably happens at every Crowes concert at least once or twice, occurred during "Seeing Things," where everyone in the room seemed of one blood, one body, if only for a few fleeting moments. They'd touched on this vibe during the intro to "Movin' On Down The Line," where Chris Robinson intoned, "It's alright, sisters. It's alright, brothers," and you felt the audience rise with each repetition. It put us on the path to the holy land of "Seeing Things," where an ecclesiastical shimmer coated the walls, our heads and the notes flying through the air.
During the bugged-out jam on "Nonfiction" fellow scribe and JamBase regular Andy Tennille said, "Now, that's some seriously evil shit." For all the sunlight in the new songs, these are still the Crowes, the yin-yangiest rock band you'll ever find. They grock that a sunrise don't mean much if you haven't survived the black night that precedes it, and their music reflects this understanding. Hence, during one of the plum strangest readings of "Nonfiction" ever, Rich's gift for unpredictable, cool chord structures emerged in hot flashes, though his compositional sense floated in every selection. In his own weird way, Rich possesses a bit of Frank Zappa's angular genius, which struck me most forcefully during "Nonfiction," both in the composed bits and his bandleading during the freakout, and during a stunning run through "There's Gold In Them Hills," a MacDougal driven song that echoes Leon Russell and The Band but shifts and churns with an aching barrelhouse soul that's all Crowes.
The Black Crowes :: 03.19 :: The Fillmore
A trio of covers brought the evening to a close. A gorgeous, measured take on Dan Penn's "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" capped the main show, giving the songbirds in the back a chance to take flight, their presence felt more in fine texture than flat out gospel punch these days. The encore slapped us on the ass and sent us on our way without asking for our phone number. The Ray Charles/Joe Cocker gem "Let's Go Get Stoned" was met with riotous enthusiasm, inspiring the cannabis kids to cloud the air with ostentatious flair. Before the last selection, Moby Grape's "Hey Grandma," Chris said, "We've been waiting a long time to play this one." It was cool to hear one of the few true descendents of this beloved SF pioneer chug down this cocktail of "Robitussin and Elderberry wine." To end on a group sing, a song geared for a gang of guys to shout with garage rock gusto, seemed fitting. They delivered "Hey Grandma" with the fervor of teenagers who've just gotten their hand under their girl's sweater for the first time.
There is a tendency towards hyperbole amongst music writers, especially when crowing about our personal favorites. In my estimation, this band is everything right and good about rock 'n' roll, the actinium to zirconium of rock's basic elements combined in ways that illuminate the genre. That's me, and hopefully you have a band or artist that similarly uplifts and informs your world. However, that depth of feeling doesn't make me uncritical. They get no free pass if they're not serving the music I know they are capable of making. What I can say with certainty after The Fillmore performance is they are engaged with some of the purest Crowes music of their career. The things that make them this band and not some other, the intangibles that endear them to fans, all the quirks and exclamation points that make them who they are, well, all that is fully intact. This is the Crowes-iest music you'll find and if that idea flips your switch then be prepared to shine.
The Black Crowes :: 03.19.08 :: The Fillmore :: San Francisco, CA
Set I:Goodbye Daughters Of The Revolution, Walk Believer Walk, Oh, Josephine, Evergreen, Wee Who See The Deep, Locust Street, Movin' On Down The Line, Wounded Bird, God's Got It, There's Gold In Them Hills, Whoa Mule
Set II: Poor Elijah-Tribute To Johnson, Seeing Things, Nonfiction, Do Right Woman, Do Right Man
Encore: Let's Go Get Stoned, Hey Grandma
-Chris played electric guitar on "Wee Who See The Deep"
-Luther played mandolin on "Locust Street"
-Steve came out front and played a marching bass drum with full drum major regalia on "God's Got It"
-Rich played 12 string acoustic guitar and Steve came out front and played a djembe on "Whoa Mule"
-Chris played acoustic guitar on "Poor Elijah-Tribute To Johnson"
-Chris played acoustic guitar on "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man"
-Chris played electric guitar on "Hey Grandma"
Check out JamBase's exclusive feature on The Black Crowes and Warpaint here...
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