The Black Crowes: Shine Along

By: Dennis Cook

The Black Crowes
"The further away we get from trying to play inside someone else's box is just going to be better for everything – the music, our community of fans and the band as our immediate family," says Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes. "Success is the freedom to do what you want."

It'd be difficult to be more removed from industry standard than the long-lived group's eighth release, Before The Frost... Until The Freeze (released August 31 on Silver Arrow). The double record, semi-conceptual opus was birthed in front of live audiences at Levon Helm's Barn Studios in Woodstock, New York earlier this year, and presents 20 new originals that find the nearly two decade old band exploring sincere country, high gloss funk, pastoral folk and other textures that move them well away from the "classic rock" tag that got attached the moment their first single hit in 1990. It's a brave, creatively charged collection, and one that handily announces a band once again hitting their stride.

The atypical approach to recording the new album - original material (save for a boffo cover of Manassas' "So Many Times") presented and captured in front of an audience - taps into one of the band's greatest strengths, i.e. their immense concert prowess, and may be the smartest move the Crowes have made in a long time.

"It's pretty funny when you do something that makes so much sense. You turn around and go, 'Why in the hell didn't we do this earlier?' It seems like such a radical thing but our band doesn't do the obvious very well. We can't and I wish we did sometimes; it'd make our lives a lot easier. We get these bizarre notions and if we don't try to shape them too much, if we just let them be what they are, we tend to pull them off better," says drummer/co-founder Steve Gorman. "One thing we learned – and we haven't had this conversation in a linear fashion as a band at all – is that momentum is to be held onto. You have to just enjoy the ride because you can't shape it. You have to hold on with a very loose grip."

"We laughed about it after it was done. Could you imagine talking to a record company in this day and age about what this was going to be? 'It's gonna be cut live as a double album. So, hook it up! [laughs].' It's a unique situation for us. We play what some people would consider traditional rock music but we do it different, from the compositions down to how we go about our world, our touring, our lives. There's something unique about it that makes it different. As time goes on many bands just slow down or rely on their hits. That's not us," says Robinson. "When we finished the record and I got the mixes back from Paul [Stacey, producer], I was definitely proud of this group and the work we put in. There's not a lot of people pulling off something like this, at least in terms of the scale and how we did it. We weren't in a rehearsal space for months [laughs]. We just set up, learned the songs and did it."

Fork In The River

There's the feeling of a strong wind in the Crowes' sails on Before The Frost... (see the JamBase album review for more details), and one senses something special is going on, some corner turned or necessary distance achieved.

Chris Robinson
"I think so. We played recently in Utica, New York and it was in the rain. Everyone out there had a hood on, and Chris commented, 'All the plastic people are here,' because everyone was wearing ponchos. And these songs went over, every single one of them off the new record. People get it and they dig it. It's pretty amazing," says Gorman, who notes the band didn't receive the same warm reception initially for the Warpaint material. "I think Warpaint was received okay, but the band knew what it was. We knew what it meant and knew we were on a new path. And there was a subconscious expectation that people would get it, too, not just enjoy the songs but understand how important it was. In the grand scheme of things that album is a very important piece of the puzzle."

"It's like someone just gave Columbus a compass: 'Here, dude, this will make the next few miserable months of life on the ocean easier.' I think Warpaint was that compass. And I have no problem saying I don't think that compass had been in place since sometime around 1998," continues Gorman. "We were still in pretty good shape when we recorded Band but then Columbia [Records] said 'no' and dictated what we had to do on the next album. We aren't good at that. We gave it our best try but the ensuing two years were not us being us. That was us being dictated to and cornered with literally no way out. It took a toll and we didn't see the effect of it until Lions."

With a bundle of new corridors to explore with this double record, The Black Crowes have created a series of jumping off points that will allow them to fully engage with all the facets of their musical personality. While moving things ever further away from the soundbite definition of the band based on "Hard To Handle" and "She Talks To Angels," this set is a wholehearted embrace of all the currents running within them.

Rich Robinson
"If we'd made an electronic record or a modern rock record like Nickelback then fans would have reason to call the police and lock us away, but there's nothing like that. The last record put us on track to get in a place where everyone is happy and creative and we could utilize that energy and see where it takes us," Robinson says. "In some ways, [Before The Frost...] solidifies our cult status [laughs]. But if that's what it's gonna be then that's what it's gonna be. I don't spend too much time looking back over things, and I think this album just adds to the vibrancy that keeps us in the 'now.' For us, as a band, we're always interested in opening the door to ideas and creative possibilities, what's next. It's been that way for a long time, but that's also a thing that keeps us from being a heritage band – or whatever they're calling it this week – that goes out and plays the same old shit and has nothing else to do but generate money. That's never been the trip we're on."

"We've attempted to make records with as much breadth and not been as successful. It really is a matter of things lining up, us sensing that AND not fucking it up," offers Gorman. One sizeable leap of faith for some fans has been the dirty disco vibe of "I Ain't Hiding," but dissenters should know the Crowes were equally uneasy about it at first. "We allowed ourselves to feel a little weird about it for a while, but we didn't get weirded out by the fact that we were weirded out. It's not the end of the world either way. Trust me, the looks on the faces in those metal chairs [at the Barn performances] when this would start were priceless. I'm looking down because I don't want to start laughing, and I'm peeking out at all these familiar faces with complete 'what the fuck?' faces, but not in a bad way, just genuinely like 'wow.' By the time the song ended they realized it's fun. When I talk about being patient [in this band] these days part of that is not dismissing a song immediately, realizing it's fun and seeing if it's fun enough to make itself comfortable."

Got Live If You Want It

So together is the playing and production on Before The Frost... that it's almost a surprise when a burst of audience applause comes in at the end of each track. Some critics have been annoyed by this aspect but for the Crowes it was just being honest.

The Black Crowes by Rod Snyder
"I don't think we ever discussed it. For us, that's what it felt like in the room. We're not trying to wave the fact that people were in the room in anyone's face, but for the band it would have been very unnatural to not hear that. It was such a part of the proceedings, and the energy in that room had a lot to do with those friendly, familiar faces sitting in those chairs, faces we see every year, show after show. I know a lot of their names but I know ALL of their faces," Gorman says. "I wasn't aware of it at the time but looking back there's no overstating how much the album was made possible by those people sitting in those chairs. If we couldn't make a great record with those guys in the room then fuck it, we should hang it up."

For many of the band's deepest fans, it's their concert energy and ability to pull off amazing shows throughout their 20-year history that defines them far more than their studio output. Even without the splashes of audience cheer at the end of each track, Before The Frost... carries a healthy measure of that live-in-the-moment vibe.

"In a pragmatic sense, it's the only way to cover that much ground, in terms of amount of material. If we'd made a conventional album in a conventional studio setting then we would have run into problems. We're not improvising as we would in a jam, but the first weekend we played 13 brand new songs. 13 new songs in the studio in a month," chuckles Robinson. "It's definitely some sort of kinetic editing system, where something will fall flat on its face and the air will come out of it if it doesn't have some merit, not just right now but in terms of the scope of what you've been writing for 20-something years. Without the writing there's nothing, and that's been the story with this band since about 1985."

"Rich [Robinson] and I were in Woodstock for about 10 days before the band arrived with Paul, and there were some bits and pieces that fell by the wayside. For me, it's a lyric piece as well as a musical one. I did the majority of the lyrics over a period of four or five days. It's a loosely based, thematic thing – will the 'Aimless Peacock' find his way to 'The Last Place Love Lives,' with the idea of this rural place, a magical hollow or whatever. A person grows up in this environment and then leaves," offers Robinson. "That's why it's funny to try and describe 'I Ain't Hiding' to people who don't get it. Well, on the vinyl edition, on Side 3 the character from these songs finds himself in an urban place like New York, where the girls are different and the drugs are faster. 'Make Glad,' 'Lady of Avenue A,' 'Kept My Soul' and 'I Ain't Hiding' are the little foray into the city. Of course, by Side 4, like all true poets and wanderers, we find ourselves back in the place that had so much magic for us in the first place, but we come back with different lenses, different perspectives."

Continue reading for more on The Black Crowes...

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