Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Josh Miller
The Black Crowes :: 12.18.08 – 12.20.08 :: Fillmore Auditorium :: San Francisco, CA
Thursday evening was this writer's 100th Black Crowes show. While vaguely surreal on a personal level (who sees ANY group that many times?), it does offer a long lens with which to view things. What amazes is how this band remains as fascinating to me as they did when I first caught them at the long gone Cabaret in San Jose, CA in 1990. In fact, they are more compelling with every year. Theirs is not a simple tale, and as tempting as it can be to linger in beloved chapters, there's still much being written, especially in the past year, and the exuberance of their creation of late – both in the studio and on stages – has an encouraging fever pitch. Their excitement for the page at hand and the ones just being turned is infectious, as is the increasingly collective hand writing the story these days. Like any good Bible, this is the work of many voices and it is that multiplicity that allows so many places of entry, so many possible interpretations, so many corridors to lose and find one's self in.
With no small amount of sentimentality and barely contained emotion, I ventured in for the final performances of 2008, a year where The Black Crowes rediscovered their true power and potential after years of being almost but not quite there. As Rich Robinson said succinctly to me the first night of this run, "This feels more like a band than it has in a long time." That sense of camaraderie and shared purpose infused every performance at The Fillmore, but none more so than Thursday, where I'll defer to the wise words of an English pal who'd flown in for this run: "This was as great as any lineup, any show." Yeah, what he said and now let me tell you why.
To remain unpredictable after nearly two decades isn't easy. So, when the Crowes opened up with "Exit," a Holy Grail rarity last played in August of 1995, it was fair to say all bets were off. Thick, menacing and planted on defiantly sturdy legs, "Exit" ushered in "No Speak No Slave," which is as punk as classic rock modeled music gets. Hand extended like a magic wand, Chris Robinson snarled, "And you, you want to be free/ Then don't speak like a slave to me!" Unlike punk, you can close your eyes during this song and imagine waterways changing direction or mountains crumbling under the force of their delivery. When Chris asked, "Well, do you want to be heard?" it cut like a barber's razor, a neat, efficient slash that opens us up to our own timidity. The antiseptic here is the epic push of this and many other songs in their arsenal, which embolden and uplift in empowering ways. To suggest that a rock band has this kind of sway is perhaps a little naïve but there's no mistaking the surge I felt after each Fillmore performance. If music can't make us a touch bolder, braver or wiser then I'm not sure what will. Thursday's hard edged sermon – a pulpit pounder that didn't let up for five nicely eviscerating cuts and then dug into us with softer but no less effective scripture like "Nonfiction," Peace Anyway" and "Wiser Time" – one felt immersed in larger things, forced to grapple with big ideas and our own role within them. While "Evil Eye's" inquiry, "Do you have it in you to even try?" seems simple enough, it's our answer, that reveals the real potency of what they're serving.
|Chris Robinson :: 12.18 :: S.F.|
I found myself marveling at the vivid scenes scattered in their verses and the way the music soundtracks these breathing moments so poignantly. It's easy enough to focus on Chris – he's charismatic as Jesus and charming as the Devil himself – but it's worth steering your P.O.V. away from the gyrating frontman to see what the others are doing. Sure, Chris paints a darkly compelling vignette with the verse from "Cypress Tree" below, but the heart thump of the scene is played out just as strongly in the fluid, belly punching rhythms of Steve Gorman (drums) and Sven Pipien (bass) and the growl and sigh of Luther Dickinson and Rich Robinson's guitars.
So you found yourself a killer
The one with blue eyes
I guess the blood stain on the blanket don't lie
I guess I saw it coming
Like a boy I just kept running
But through this crime I have survived
Later during one of the best tunes The Band never wrote but could have, "There's Gold In Them Hills," it was the backroom, warbled piano of Adam MacDougall that danced with Chris, etching bright flashes on stretches like:
|Chris & Rich Robinson :: 12.18 :: S.F.|
Broken my heart
For diamonds and gold
Through scandal, through madness
All I have left is this grey in my beard
This mountain and the stories that I've told
There was no escaping time's chilly touch at this show. The Crowes have been a reflective bunch since their teens but as anyone with a few decades under their belt can tell you, the years pack a great deal of detritus into one's bindle. One of the key things that's maintained this band's position at the top of my personal heap is the way they struggle with the tough stuff with the understanding that what happiness one finds is usually hard won. Maybe others have had an easier go of it but if you've spit out a few teeth and lost some blood along the way, the Crowes make highway music you're likely to vibe with. That said, exultation is possible and arrived in a rafter shaking "My Morning Song." There is simply nothing like standing elbow-to-elbow with likeminded strangers transformed into a roughhewn street choir, shouting, "March me down to the seven seas/ Bury me with a ruby ring/ Kiss me baby on an Easter Sunday/ Make my haze blow away." More than once I found myself stomping my feet in a dance of freakin' joy during this one. It's the kind of thing I'm WAY too constrained to do in almost any other circumstances. Normally, I'm a lurker in the back of the room, taking notes while others dervish about, but under their influence, on a night like this, my answer to "No Speak's" question is a resounding, "Yes, I do want to be free." And I was, at least for a couple hours, joining the jigs around me and waving Amorica's flag high, moved and loosened in present tense – a rare gift offered up freely and enthusiastically by the band, scooped up by a packed house ripe for deliverance as our resident preacher intoned, "Right on and get down to you and yours."
12.18.08 :: Fillmore Auditorium :: San Francisco, CA
Exit, No Speak No Slave, Cypress Tree, Evil Eye, Walk Believer Walk, Nonfiction > Jam, Peace Anyway > Wiser Time, There's Gold In Them Hills, Wyoming And Me,
Do Right Woman, Do Right Man, Another Roadside Tragedy, Sting Me, My Morning Song, Jealous Again
Encore: Willin', Poor Elijah - Tribute To Johnson (Medley)
Much like any Dead show that began with "Shakedown Street," Crowes long-timers know that an evening kicked off by "Cursed Diamond" is likely to be special. In broad terms, Friday was the most overall pro show, every element right where it needed to be when it needed to be. For various reasons, my personal tastes lean towards Thursday and Saturday's selections but that's my quibbles and stepping back on Friday it was hard to imagine a better rock 'n' roll band out there. No, I'm not saying the Crowes are better than your favorite band, what I'm saying is this band today could go toe-to-toe with any of the giants out there and hold their own - Tom Petty, Radiohead, Mars Volta, etc got nothing on these boys. We're so hung up on hierarchies; for one thing to be the "best" another must be "worse." That's not really the case but it's how we like to stack things. Try to resist that urge and simply understand that the level of beauty, power and depth to what the Crowes are laying down right now is equal to the very best the very best out there have to offer.
|Chris & Rich Robinson - The Black Crowes :: 12.18 :: S.F.|
They did not arrive at this state by accident. Most days they put in two-plus-hours of rehearsal before a gig - fine tuning turnarounds, sussing out jam possibilities, reacquainting themselves with lesser-known fare. They are skilled enough to walk onstage and just do their thing but they want to deliver something extraordinary. Some part of them, not just us in the stalls, retains a belief in rock's glory and potential, and by God, that requires a little genuflecting if you're gonna tap into it. Much of the soundcheck work ends up in the sawdust, like the early R.E.M. tunes they goofed around with on Tuesday afternoon, but within their play resides a supplicant spirit that reaches for things slightly beyond their own powers – "On a good day, it's not every day/ We can part the sea/ And on a bad day, it's not every day/ Glory beyond our reach." Their dedication pays off in concerts like Friday, where the quiet-to-huge rise of "Cursed Diamond" led to the smack down of "Horsehead" and end times bounce of "Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution." Flow was the rule and while things slowed a touch too much for my tastes during a somewhat shaky "Bring On, Bring On" (that 3 Snakes material is so hard to reproduce live) into "Girl From A Pawnshop" and Dylan's "Girl From The North Country" (with Rich and Chris alternating verses), they quickly got back up to speed with the pleasant snottiness of "Good Friday" and a rarities one-two punch of "Title Song" (last played 8/4/06) and "Bewildered" (last played 7/18/93). They seemed as surprised as the crowd when they'd pulled off the twisty toughness of "Bewildered," and Chris ran over to hug Rich at the song's conclusion.
Warm, spontaneous gestures like this abound these days, and it's impossible to mistake how much everyone onstage enjoys making this music together. Without digging up skeletons, I'll simply point out that hasn't always (or even often) been the case in years past. 2008 was the first full year with MacDougall and Dickinson and it's clear these are the right guys, right now, to leaven all the other elements in the Crowes. Smiles were abundant on Friday and there are few more charming things than this band when they know in their bones that they're getting the job done (and then some). Whether it was the visible leaning forward of the whole pack of them during Delaney & Bonnie's "Comin' Home" or the pimp stroll of "Hard To Handle," there was no missing they were feelin' the vibe as strongly as anyone in the house.
|The Black Crowes :: 12.18 :: S.F.|
It's worth a moment's pause to raise a glass to lighting designer Chris Kuroda (of Phish fame), who was very much another member of the band during these shows. His artistry is so thoughtful, so passionately planned and executed, that he added to the heft and emotional content of every number, every night. While lights are often a nice bit of icing on the musical cake, it's no exaggeration that his pastel sweeps, bright white bursts and various light constructed crows added brilliant adjectives to what they were writing. Add his ability to improvise in the moment and you've got one of the premier illumination experts currently working. He literally left me slackjawed several times each evening.
By the cover of Rev. Gary Davis' "God's Got It" that kicked off the encore, the working week had been reduced to a dust heap memory and we were feeling weekend in our marrow. Watching Gorman shimmy with a marching band drum, banging the shit out of it with a tambourine in one hand and a mallet in the other, one felt all the force of their jubilee. So, when they plowed into The Rolling Stones' "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" they swept us from the pews into something darker, earthier and just plain naughtier. For as nakedly spiritual as they can be, there's still a big, clanging pair of balls fueling much of the Crowes' mojo, and their assault on "Knocking" accomplished something the macrobiotic, stadium-minded Stones of today never could – a genuine evocation of the song's 1971 Sticky Fingers nastiness. This encore was the band in a nutshell, an eye towards heaven with their digits buried in something moist as a snack cake. Yum.
12.19.08 :: Fillmore Auditorium :: San Francisco, CA
Cursed Diamond, Horsehead, Goodbye Daughters Of The Revolution,
Hotel Illness, Comin' Home, Under A Mountain, Jam > Bring On, Bring On
Girl From A Pawnshop, Girl From The North Country, Good Friday, Title Song,
Bewildered, Soul Singing, Hard To Handle > Jam, Wounded Bird
Encore: God's Got It, Can't You Hear Me Knocking
Boxing is another metaphor I've often turned to with the Crowes. Some nights there's a "let's step outside" feel to them and this tour closer at The Fillmore jumped out with pugilist gusto – Dickinson rockin' back and forth on his heels, Rich's hard stare, Chris' pre-bout shit talkin' vibes, the body work pummel of Gorman and Pipien. I suppose this makes MacDougall the cornerman, applying ice and cutting back any swelling. Hawking the bile of Dave Mason's "Feelin' Alright" in our eye is a hell of an opener. For such a seemingly cheerful number, it's chock-a-block with dis-ease and sarcasm; in short, custom built for this lot. That they hadn't visited this tune since 1997 seemed vaguely surprising given how well it suits them.
|Chris Robinson's Birthday Celebration :: 12.20 :: S.F.|
That opening swing didn't let up as "Stare It Cold" brought in a squarely landed haymaker. Sometimes I think they realize in the moment how indestructible some of their earliest material truly is. Written just out of their teens, "Stare It Cold" is a crosscut saw that's lost none of its serration, a modern day heir to Chuck Berry they can be rightly proud of. Pumped up with primal rock ooze, they shimmied into "High Head Blues," a luxury life diatribe equal to anything The Kinks ever wrote, and one could hear their Latin rock influences clearly, all those War and Santana albums finding new voice in the Robinsons' tune. Another reoccurring pleasure for longtime fans is how over time different root sources bubble to the surface. Nothing is too obvious with the Crowes. Sure, it's not hard to pick out the '50s rockabilly, the '60s S.F. ancestors, the Muddy Waters and Skip James threads, but there's nothing resembling outright emulation. They digest all their loves and burp up something with its own heady bouquet. But the mastication, the acid breakdown, the mild violence of expulsion is part and parcel of their thang. Rarely do their influences surface in the ways one might expect, and thus it's hard to figure out where Rich picked up his flamenco touches on "High Head" or where Dickinson first discovered the slurry howl that surfaced in the jam coda.
Like "Morning Song," there's something inescapably church-y about their version of Joe Cocker's "Space Captain." Ostensibly the story of an extraterrestrial stuck on Earth, their take serves notice that we forgot we could fly – and then offers an updraft that sends one skyward. We quickly found the ground again with the broken-but-still-upright lament of "Seeing Things," another early composition that would have seemed utterly perfect pouring from Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett in the '60s. Highs and lows, the earth and the clouds, such was their reach on Saturday, broad shifts that still felt part of a cohesive landscape. Some of their strongest material ("Thorn In My Pride," "Movin' On Down The Line," "Downtown Money Waster") walked alongside stirring rarities ("Feathers," a cover of Gene Clark's "Polly") that froze the air. All their colors, the full spread of their plumage, came out on Saturday and while not as seamless as Friday it was kinda breathtaking to see all that they could do.
|Chris Robinson :: 12.20 :: S.F.|
In a nod to the Bay Area scene and its tendrils in their garden, Phil Lesh joined them for a three-song encore of Grateful Dead staples. Personally, I've heard all the versions of "Sugaree" I care to in one lifetime but theirs was a perfectly solid take on that loping blues. Things got considerably more intriguing during "Cold Rain and Snow," with Pipien, on acoustic guitar to let Phil bass it alone, leaning into Chris' mic to share glowing harmonies. I say "glowing" rather than "perfect" because there's a rough edge to the Crowes that no amount of sandpaper and elbow grease can remove. There's a sharpness even in their quietest moments that appeals because it circumvents cheese and cliché. There's an intrinsic toughness to even their most hippy leaning aspects, something riotously obvious in their execution of "New Speedway Boogie," perhaps THE Dead tune for this band.
"One way or another/ This darkness got to give."
Life is a long journey, and the wisdom needed to bring light into shadow is never garnered without a fight. Often it's ourselves that we're battling hardest with, and this internal struggle lies at the core of The Black Crowes. While it might have been nice to hear three more Crowes originals instead of a trio of Dead cuts to end this year, one would be hard pressed to find a song that exemplifies this band more. It was a fitting period on this chapter but also a pointer to the bright horizon just ahead.
12.20.08 :: Fillmore Auditorium :: San Francisco, CA
Feelin' Alright, Stare It Cold, High Head Blues > Jam, Space Captain, Seeing Things,
Young Man, Old Man, Let Me Share The Ride, Descending, Downtown Money Waster > Jam > Mona > Take Off From The Future > Thorn In My Pride, Polly, Oh Josephine, Feathers, Movin' On Down The Line, Remedy
Encore: Sugaree, Cold Rain And Snow, New Speedway Boogie
Check out coverage from the first two nights of The Fillmore Run here.
Continue reading for more pics of The Black Crowes in San Francisco...
Images by: Josh Miller
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