Words by: Martin Halo
The Black Crowes :: 10.27.08 & 10.28.08 :: Hammerstein Ballroom :: New York, NY
...and the "Euphoria Or Bust Tour" rambles on.
As part of a multiple-night Halloween run, the Brothers Robinson returned to New York's Hammerstein Ballroom for the first time since their epic seven-night reunion back in the spring of 2005 (read the review here). After the "Listen Massive Tour" of 2001, the beloved Beacon Theatre on Broadway's Upper West Side was left as an old relic of diehard folklore.
The flickering candles that accented Chris Robinson's overgrown gold mining beard and the electrified beads stemming from the maraca-shaking 2005 opener of Amorica's "Gone" had all but dissipated. That kinetic energy was deflated as the Hammerstein opened its doors again. The glue applied after the departure of Marc Ford and Ed Harsch had all but dried, and for all respective purposes The Black Crowes were whole again. Like old time train robbers, the Robinsons planned yet another headline worthy heist, another revolutionary freak statement, a middle finger to The Man. With the doubts lingering before the release of Warpaint (2008) now a thing of the past, seven months of worldwide touring finds the band once again claiming their place atop the heap of vintage rock acts.
The inclusion of North Mississippi axe master Luther Dickinson and keyboardist Adam MacDougall (found in one of Chris' Laurel Canyon jam sessions) has rectified the massive internal rotation plaguing The Black Crowes lineup. But as the creative embers settled, things couldn't have been any more different as doors opened on the Crowes October 2008 three-night Halloween run. The lineup had morphed and the atmosphere was eerily calm.
The Robinson Brothers were back in New York, yet again with something to prove. They were on a mission to reaffirm the belief that their essential mixture of freak 'n' roll, Cali soul and psychedelic hypnotics was still alive and well in the hearts of the young. With a series of handpicked openers, the relevance and validity of their increasingly rare craft hung in the balance. Would they deliver?
A Big, Sloppy, Freaky Kiss
The aggressive thump littering the dimly lit Hammerstein stage was that of dark hedonism and earthy groan - a formidable greeting for the New York audience. Animalistic drum bursts from the arms of Joseph Sebaali fueled the distorted combustion of Cincinnati's Buffalo Killers. Touring in support of their sophomore album, Let It Ride, which was produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, the set opened with "Get Together Now Today." It was met with a cool response as guitarist Andrew Gabbard and brother Zach Gabbard (bass) traded vocal lines in a gritty call and response.
|Joseph Sebaali - Buffalo Killers by John Peets|
As the beast chugged along the distortion present from Andrew's guitar led to extremely muddled lead lines and vocals. The tone that was so perfectly conveyed on wax has yet to make an appearance in the live setting, but the songwriting and swagger was all there. The Buffalo Killers are a band for a small room with an audience gripped by the weight of hard times, medicated over a parade of stiff drinks. They are blue-collar kids fighting for the rock 'n' roll dream. "Let It Ride" personifies the reckless nature of a rock band stripped of the glamour and forced to play for keeps, wagering everything they got. It was the highlight of the set with the venue falling into a groove.
The air thickened as "Rockin' Chair" propelled the Buffalo Killers' set forward. The band's long hair and thick beards nodded in time. As part of "If I Get Myself Anywhere," Andrew expressed the underbelly of their reality:
I'm a traveling man just a pushing ahead
We're a traveling band looking for a bed
We're not trying to bite you, we're just starving to death
The set capped with a scorching "It's A Shame," before Chris Robinson later let the audience know that if they happened to see the band wandering the venue that they should give them a big, sloppy, freaky kiss.
Beyond the Sun
The waiting was over, with smoke billowing out of bundles of Nag Champa incense, the stage stood still as the venue comfortably filled. With a jean jacket over his shoulders Chris Robinson, in a no fireworks manner, stepped into the spotlight. "Wounded Bird" was the first matter of business. The lonely, chord based, guitar riff bounced off the face of Rich's Gibson 335 and set the tone in an explosive manner. The Black Crowes ignited in a storm of fervor. The tone coming off the stage was precise. Rich's belly-heavy rhythms manifested in a deep groan. His tone had a stark difference from the funk-laden grooves off Lions (2001) and the roots twang of the reunion tour legs. What our ears were taking in was a dark, almost menacing combustion of history. It felt like the druggy grooves of Three Snakes and One Charm (1996) mixed with the energetic punch of "The High As the Moon Tour." However, this lineup was an entity all to itself.
|Chris Robinson - The Black Crowes by Rod Snyder|
Luther Dickinson's solos in the mix were clean and crisp, another pleasant surprise. His style resulted in a focused, slide generated wail that was far removed from the unpredictable nature of Marc Ford's slight decadence and the technical heaviness of Audley Freed. It oozed cool in a manner of constant construction and contained numerous moments of release. After a dark rendition of "Gone," the band showcased "Walk Believer Walk," a barreling train wreck of bayou swagger where Chris' vocals and Dickinson's guitar work led the way. You felt every downbeat as the Hammerstein unveiled her audible grace. And Chris Kuroda's (of Phish fame) lighting arrangements were a work of beauty.
At this point in the performance the sound was intensifying. As an audience member you literally felt every Steve Gorman foot stomp. You were pushed along by Rich's thick progressions. You felt at ease with Chris' spot-on vocals, and were sent to the stratosphere by Dickson's guitar licks. It was all melding together.
Making Rich Smile
It has been a gesture of myth, a gesture of Black Crowes lore. It has been hunted by voyeurs and sought after by seekers of the world's most rare things. When it happens, it is a moment of clarity and a time that proves to everyone that Rich Robinson is indeed human. When Rich smiles it makes the room smile, but on this particular evening the antidote was simple. Just have Luther Dickinson completely botch the second go around of "Hard To Handle" and like a flower bud opening its pedals to the shining sun, Rich and Chris shared a moment of laughter. It was at that moment, at least for me, that all the tension was sucked out of the air. The band was laid-back - that was obvious - but the general tightness of the compositions stood out and was conveyed by their performance. For example, the soulful nature of Shake Your Money Maker's "Sister Luck" remained fully intact with Chris' vocals and Dickinson's leads taking center stage.
|Rich Robinson by Rod Snyder|
Any doubts I had, especially after Marc Ford left the band, were put to rest within the first half hour. There was no animosity or signs of an ailing rock 'n' roll band trying to hold the pieces together. The truth of the matter is that The Black Crowes were standing in New York City, presently, as the world's quintessential American rock 'n' roll band. They are still dirty and they are still dreaming.
Gorman then came out from behind his drum set and sat at Chris' right shoulder for the homegrown "Whoa Mule." For the audience it was their first break, followed by "My Heart is Killing Me," a b-side from the dark Atlanta sessions of 1997, and a cover of The Grease Band's "Let It Be Gone."
The ballad section of the set highlighted "Miracle To Me," a soulful number off Lions, which just so happened to be recorded in a Yiddish theatre in NYC. As roots based and rural as The Black Crowes sound has traditionally been, Lions always struck a familiar vibe as a New York native. "Miracle To Me" was well received but it was "Descending" off Amorica that started to win the house over again and began the propulsion process for the remainder of the set.
The jangling rhythms of Amorica continued with a jam-filled rendition of "Downtown Money Waster." In spacey ambience, a basic beat emerged to the forefront with Chris Robinson backing it on acoustic guitar. Then, Bo Diddley's lyrics fell off his acid tongue, "I will tell you Mona what I am going to do/ I'm going to move next door to you." It was a Black Crowes debut that led into another hardened jam, which teased at the main riff of "Spider in the Sugar Bowl Blues." The light then fell dim. A spotlight rose upon Rich and the finely picked notes from Southern Harmony and Musical Companion's epic "Thorn in My Pride" took shape. The venue started to bust at the seams. A Gorman drum solo unearthed the resting spirits before Chris led them back in with a harmonica interlude. By the call and response of "Let Your Love Light Shine," it was evident that on this particular night, not only was the set connecting with the audience but was being driven home. The Black Crowes had returned from their usual mid-set journey and were ready to dust off some polished numbers.
|Chris Robinson - The Black Crowes by Rod Snyder|
"Oh Josephine" featured many memorable themes that ran consistent throughout the evening. Robinson sang, "It's too late to play it safe/ so let's let it all ride." And in that moment, the audience could feel the fragile nature of musicians on the run. You have two bands (The Buffalo Killers and The Black Crowes) at two completely points in their careers, putting forth the same message. It is the common theme of a traveling road band, the bare skin reality revealed once the glamour of being a rock star is peeled away. It was a moment of being able to see your heroes as common men, fighting a battle against legend and time.
"Soul Singing" was standard and to the point before finishing where things usually start with "No Speak No Slave." The second half of Dickinson's guitar solo was clean and unlike the wah pedal snarl of Marc Ford. For the encore, the dusting off of George Harrison's "I Dig Love" did the trick; a vault relic from the 2001 "Tour of Brotherly Love" with Oasis.
Sightings included Cody Dickinson on a stroll up 8th Avenue and moe.'s Al Schnier leaving out the back entrance of the ballroom, past the tour buses and disappearing into the dark night.
Biting Cold & Howlin' Rain
The glistening aura surrounding New York City becomes blinding in the reflection of a mucky evening filled with rain and a biting cold spell that swept through the Hudson River Valley. As the lights fell on Tuesday, the inner confines of Hammerstein Ballroom were no shelter from the moans and groans of Howlin Rain. Spearheaded by Ethan Miller, the Oakland, California psychedelic outfit detonated into the spotlight with the fervor of the combusting cosmos. The tonal bending, distortion and feedback were harnessed at the hip of Miller in the form of face melting guitar thrusts. Smoke filled the rafters behind the stage to accent the cool swoop of yellow, red and purple lighting. With Miller's back arched, overgrown beard flowing in the freak flag wind, the outfit launched into the stiff-riffed "Dancers At the End of Time."
The setlist focused on numbers from the band's sophomore effort, Magnificent Fiend (2008), which sports mastering contributions from Rick Rubin. Alongside Joel Robinow (keys), Ian Gradek (bass) and Mike Jackson (drums), Miller, with a flower-print, button collared shirt loosely tucked into his jeans, unleashed the demons of rock's underground decadence. Mustache riding rhythms, Northern California earth vibe soul and outlaw rock 'n' roll all combined together to create musical bliss.
Things mellowed out in the acid trip rollercoaster for Magnificent Fiend's most soulful number, "Lord Have Mercy." Building vocal progressions from Miller pushed the set effortlessly along before the rambunctious "Calling Lighting Part #2." Howlin Rain earned a warm reception from the early arrivals, and after a 35-minute set and a genuinely warm, heartfelt thank you from Miller, the band walked off and night two of The Black Crowes' Hammerstein Halloween run was about to begin.
Watcha' Got Buried In Your Backyard?
Night two had a completely different vibe. Monday opened like a Shakespearean drama - it was familiar, it was flashy and it was an introduction. Tuesday stood as ACT II, a middle section of tension, conflict and climax - a night without resolution. MacDougall's slow-handed organ progressions accompanied the beams of light emerging from behind the dark, swaying shadows upon the stage. A repeated mantra from Chris Robinson of "It's alright sisters/ It's alright brothers" echoed throughout the rafters. With a peace sign raised above his head and a shirt reading "Free," the New York audience was immediately thrust back into the spell. The transition from metropolitan reality to counter cultural sermon, at the alter of rock 'n' roll, became easy at the hands of "Movin' On Down the Line." The number has been used as the most common opener during the numerous legs of dates in support of Warpaint, but it works.
|Luther Dickinson by Josh Miller|
With a short jam fueling the octane injection, the house was quickly brought back up to speed. With Chris' hands on his hips, the band shook their way through the rambling "Black Moon Creeping," where dynamic tempo changes and sandpaper solos hooked the listener. The venue swayed in earthy groove before the welcomed radio staple "Twice As Hard." With a looser audience and legs dangling from the VIP balconies, the freak 'n' roll vibe was lucid and evolving.
The last notes of "Twice As Hard" marked yet another fork in the road. For the nine song middle portion of Tuesday's set The Black Crowes chose rarities, buried gems and the influences of Jimmie Rodgers country and Skip James blues to pave the musical road. The deluge started with a b-side from post-Three Snakes songwriting demos in the form of "Another Roadside Tragedy." Raucous verses mixed with calm interludes, which sent the room spinning before Rich gracefully led into the desolate ballad "Girl From a Pawnshop." The poetic number saw Chris cry, "There is a passion in being alone/ a grace in a loveless town." With gospel backup singers in support, an artful coda began to fire off. Signifying the end of a long written letter, the repeated line of "P.S. All my love" echoed in a state of heightened awareness. Dickinson took the reigns of the coda, milking it for all of its emotional glory. Like a powder keg, the room exploded.
The end of "Pawnshop" was a solidifying testament to the passion the music of The Black Crowes exerts in its fans. You would think the snarl of their most up-beat numbers would meet the most favorable response, but like Zeppelin's "Ten Years Gone," "Tangerine" or "Down By The Seaside," in classic stoner fashion, the ballads resonate just as hard in the souls of men and women.
"Locust Street" followed before Chris strapped on an acoustic guitar and kicked off a cover of Bob Dylan's "Girl From the North County." What a moment. For the more casual fan, Tuesday was turning into a confusing experience. I'm sure they were asking, "Where is 'Remedy?'" The seasoned audiophiles were baking in bliss.
Chris' love for Gram Parsons was on full display with a cover of the traditional (by way of The Byrds) "He Was A Friend of Mine," followed by "Here Comes Daylight." In the two nights, there were no song repeats and with acoustic guitar still strapped over his shoulder, Chris and band launched into the only selection from By Your Side, "Welcome To the Goodtimes." This left the venue reeling and in a head spin of jubilation. There was a short break for everyone to catch his or her bearings. The country portion was over; it was now time to explore the dirty, grimy heart of the blues.
|The Black Crowes by Josh Miller|
Walking out from behind his kit with a large marching band bass drum propped up across his chest, Gorman's thump propelled "God's Got It." On one face of the drum was an image of Warpaint's cover. On the other was a political symbol, that whether you agreed with it or not, solidified one thing: I don't think Steve went Republication this time around. Dickinson's solo was also a highlight.
Then it was Rich's turn. With rhinestones glistening off his shoulders, he bent his head down to feed his vocals into a bullet mic for Little Walter's "Forty-Four Blues." The jam at the end was mind blowing. There is a classic divide in the jam scene. On one side, Phish, standing as a jam band pioneer that sometimes plays rock 'n' roll. On the other side, The Black Crowes, a vintage rock 'n' roll outfit that sometimes jams. Instead of fluffy, sometimes wandering improvisation, the Crowes bring the goods and they bring it hard. Even though the arrangements are predictable to the diehards, the music is served up stiff and strong. Pick your poison, to each his own, and for me, a fix of the Robinson Brothers has long been my drug of choice.
A Spectacle That Made You Cry
The insanity of "My Morning Song" threw the audience into an uncontrolled frenzy. Rock & roll has never been calculated salvation for the people who play it. It is a poor, dark, lonely existence with gambles around every corner, but for those who congregate towards it, this music resonates in their hearts. Chris preached:
|Chris Robinson - The Black Crowes by Rod Snyder|
Music got to free your mind
Let it go, let it go
And if your rhythm ever falls out of time
Bring it to me and I will make it all right
Feel your heart beat, for the very first time
It's going to be all right
Let your soul go
Let your heart go
Let your mind go
Hammerstein was in a state of chaos - the venue was going bonkers. The Black Crowes lifted New York City upon their shoulders. A welcomed "Jealous Again," began the last roll before opening up into "Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution." The encore of night two included the classic "Sometimes Salvation" and a cover of The Band's "Shape I'm In."
With today's Black Crowes, leave you presumptions at the door and experience the myth. 'Nuff said.
10.27.08 :: Hammerstein Ballroom :: New York, NY
Wounded Bird, Gone, Walk Believer Walk, Hard To Handle, Sister Luck, Whoa Mule, My Heart's Killing Me, Let It Be Gone, Miracle To Me, Descending, Downtown Money Waster > Jam > Mona (1st time played) > Take Off From The Future > Thorn In My Pride, Oh Josephine, Soul Singing, No Speak No Slave
Encore: I Dig Love
10.28.08 :: Hammerstein Ballroom :: New York, NY
Movin' On Down The Line, Black Moon Jam > Black Moon Creeping, Twice As Hard, Another Roadside Tragedy, Girl From A Pawnshop, Locust Street, Girl From The North Country, Here Comes Daylight, He Was A Friend Of Mine, Welcome To The Goodtimes, God's Got It, Forty-Four Blues, My Morning Song, Jealous Again, Goodbye Daughters Of The Revolution
Encore: Sometimes Salvation, Shape I'm In
JamBase | Upper Altitudes
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