The Black Crowes | 12.04 - 12.06 | S.F.

Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Josh Miller & Jay Blakesberg

The Black Crowes :: 12.04.09 – 12.06.09 :: The Fillmore :: San Francisco, CA

The Black Crowes :: 12.04 By Miller
The Black Crowes barreled out of the station Friday, gaining steam with every minute, as opener "Good Morning Captain," cried, "Well there's a ruckus on the levee/ Unruly crowd on the courthouse steps/ And if I make it to Sunday/ I'm sho'nuff going to ask the good lord for help." As it turned out, the heavens smiled on them all weekend as they completed a five-night Fillmore stand that proved one of the finest runs in their 19 year history, an exhibition of their core qualities delivered with real prowess and passion.

Friday may have been the most forceful, strictly rock 'n' roll night of the series, with rafter shaking versions of "Cosmic Friend," "Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution," and particularly their signature epic, "My Morning Song." Few things compare with finding one's hand raised skyward, quite involuntarily, as massed voices join Chris Robinson in yearning to make our "haze blow away." Chris, in full bohemian shaman mode, came off especially forceful and reassuring as he intoned:

If music got to free your mind
Just let it go 'cause you never know, you never know
If your rhythm ever falls out of time
You can bring it to me and I will make it alright

Chris Robinson :: 12.04 By Miller
For all its depths, the Crowes' music is also a charming, blood stirring affirmation of rock's fundamental power. Sure, blues, jazz, and much else lurks below the riffs and searing vocals, but sometimes, like this Friday show, what they do just feels fantastic. Here was the burbling, happiness inducing, gonad tickling stuff that made poodle-skirted teen girls jump on soda shop tables. This was the stuff that makes boys form bands and firm up the courage to finally kiss someone they've ached to touch for ages. This was good times fitted to songs that also hummed with larger, darker things, be it the needle damage of "Nebakanezer" (which really nailed this tune's jubilant musical counterpart to the gut sick lyrics), the thousand yard stare of "Lost My Drivin' Wheel" (a version that wrung every bit of melancholy from Tom Rush's original), or the suspended beauty of encore "Last Place That Love Lives."

Yet, even with some forlorn breezes and black night thinking, the Crowes generated a mighty roar on Friday that tied them to the long line of ancestors before them, a foundational display of rock's impure perfection, where electric bluesmen grope country kin and longhairs sprinkle the whole thing with something they picked up in the parking lot as a gospel choir nibbles their ears. If this is snake oil, as so many claimed at rock's dawning, then it's not without legitimately healing properties, a "Remedy," if you will.

If I come on like a dream
Would you let me show you what I mean?
If you let me come on inside
Will you let it glide?

The Black Crowes :: 12.04.09 :: The Fillmore :: San Francisco, CA
Good Morning Captain, Nebakanezer, Cosmic Friend, Whoa Mule, Roll Old Jeremiah > Jam > Good Friday, My Morning Song, Shine Along, Lost My Drivin' Wheel, Blackberry, Show Me, Nonfiction > Jam, Goodbye Daughters Of The Revolution, Remedy
E: Last Place That Love Lives, God's Got It, Hey Grandma

Continue reading for Saturday night...

The Black Crowes :: 12.06 By Miller
Saturday was a showcase for the delightful malleability of the Crowes' catalogue, and how the current lineup has embraced every page of their songbook with a gusto and intelligence that outdoes any previous incarnation. I've been seeing this band in concert halls since 1990 and have had revelatory evenings with every single configuration, but Saturday I was repeatedly struck by the same thought:

This is the band I always hoped The Black Crowes might grow into.

Each previous chapter has its highlights - Marc Ford, when he was on, is one of the guitarists of his generation; Eddie Harsch is perhaps the best "feel" keyboardist since Nicky Hopkins, etc. – but the overall cohesion of the band has never ever been better than today. For many reasons, this combination has a chemistry that dovetails perfectly and allows them to range imaginatively through the entirety of their song pool, originals and the ever-growing stack of choice covers all actively engaged and explored in a way that shows them enjoying the process, which in turn increases the quality of what they're laying on us.

This unification principle shined brightly on "Sister Luck," where they performed the Crowes' sleight of hand that takes a slowly paced number from a gripping, emotional simmer into spaces of heaviness and release. After the bite 'n' grapple of openers "Sting Me" and "Gone" – both delivered with real fire and uplifted nicely by guest percussionist Joe Magistro, who brought one back to the Amorica tour with his Latin accents – "Sister Luck" was a reminder that there's perhaps no better ballad band in rock. Between Chris' jagged, searching vocal and the tight, sinewy movement of the band, this take honored the original's spirit while opening things up into fresh territory in the tail end jam. Then, taking advantage of the thoughtful stillness they'd engendered, they offered up a quietly constructed "Polly" that sucked the tender marrow from Gene Clark's tune while adding a few layers of muscle all their own.

Chris Robinson :: 12.06 By Miller
The room was thick with emotion by this point, and it was clear that this was going to be far from a typical Saturday night affair. No major hits were played, and instead we were given rarities like "Darling of the Underground Press," "Title Song," and "Downtown Money Waster" – three songs that the Crowes have tackled with mixed results over the years. This is the material hardcore fans wait for, and even if many previous live outings didn't always compare well with their studio counterparts, we were usually glad they showed up at all. However, at The Fillmore, these three sparkled. If anyone has wondered what keyboardist Adam MacDougall and guitarist Luther Dickinson bring to the table they need only listen to these versions. "Darling" matched the blues-modern perfection of the Southern Harmony b-side, while "Title Song" was simply majestic and "Money Waster" skipped with appropriate mischief. "Too many late nights and you don't go to Heaven," indeed, and four nights into the run for many of us found us laughing and wondering if we'd put a few red marks in St. Peter's big book this week. No regrets, just wondering.

The new songs from Before The Frost... After The Freeze were equally impressive on Saturday, and offered further evidence that what they're churning out today fits very well with the best parts of their earlier output. "A Train Still Makes A Lonely Sound," rolling in smack dab in the show's middle, was a chooglin' sing-along and proof that the blues still have some fresh curves when shaken by a band like the Crowes. "Lady of Avenue A" was wistfulness, something culled from cold sidewalk strolls in the Big Apple but primed for any post-midnight, thought riddled walk one takes all alone. Best of the bunch – and I know there's a healthy portion of the fan base that will differ – was disco dabbling "I Ain't Hiding." Its Chic-with-balls strut was glorious live, and the lyric is one of Chris' most playful in years. Anyone who's partied out of bounds and lived to tell of it should appreciate this one, and the naughty rhythmic pulse and background vocals are hugely infectious, especially with the boys playing hard as deep red lights bathed them and The Fillmore's mirror ball spun high above.

Rich Robinson :: 12.06 By Miller
Another of Saturday's pleasures was seeing Rich Robinson step out more – stronger, more forthright lead vocals and far more luscious, inventive soloing than any previous night in the run. And this trend continued into Sunday. I think sometimes Rich doesn't realize how fuckin' good he is, but when he steps outside his innate reserve he's a glorious catalyst for kick ass rock 'n' roll, and the way he sparked everyone from his beaming brother to the rest of the band each time he stepped up showed the proof of this.

It was the first encore number that really cemented the major changes that have taken place in the past two years. "Descending" was a real showpiece for Eddie when he played keys. For a while, there was an attempt to have MacDougall approximate Ed's solo bookends and provide that continuity for fans. This night, MacDougall took the song into far different spaces, his literal spotlight solo showing off his Ray Charles licks and command of stride piano moves before the tinkling conclusion. It is not a new song, and has been played many times, but it was utterly transformed here.

Where The Black Crowes find themselves as 2009 ends is a place where the old can be made new, where the predictable can be circumvented, where their virtues far outweigh their flaws. It is not what it has been but it's also unclear – in a wholly positive way – what it will be tomorrow, except to say that the quality of their music has never been higher.

The Black Crowes :: 12.05.09 :: The Fillmore :: San Francisco, CA
Sting Me, Gone, Sister Luck, Share The Ride, Polly, Garden Gate, Darling Of The Underground Press, A Train Still Makes A Lonely Sound, Title Song, Downtown Money Waster > Jam, Lady Of Avenue A, High Head Blues, I Ain't Hiding, Don't Do It
E: Descending, Hot Burrito #2, Will The Circle Be Unbroken (w/ tour openers Truth & Salvage Co.)

Continue reading for Sunday night...

Chris Robinson :: 12.06 By Miller
Sunday was one of the most poetic, moving nights of music I've ever experienced by any band, but all the more poignant coming from a group that's soundtracked the lives of myself and not a few others in attendance for nearly two decades. Two years and two albums on with this lineup - Chris Robinson (lead vocals, guitar, percussion), Rich Robinson (guitar, vocals), Steve Gorman (drums), Sven Pipien (bass, vocals), Adam MacDougall (keys, vocals), and Charity White and Monalisa Young (background vocals) – they're capable of delivering on any part of their catalogue and seem increasingly skilled at juxtaposing the right things in a single night. It's not a hits-package or anything like it, and in this way it's a steeper slope for audiences with less obvious handholds than most bands this far into their career. It's an artistically minded decision that also keeps the experience of getting on stages alive and immediate for the band. You can't coast when it's a different game every night, and this Fillmore run was especially challenging, with not a single repeat in five nights. And even still they didn't get to a bunch of great songs; there is just too much to work with these days.

The music was flowing loose and steady in their veins as they opened with a suitably bittersweet skip through Traffic's "Feelin' Alright," with the songbirds putting a sharp edge on Chris' lead line. The soft contours of "Seeing Things," moaned with wounded intensity with every note matching Chris' powerful vocal. This was the first of many quieter numbers they explored on Sunday. They excel when the lights are low and the feelings usually kept silently inside are explored in verse and melody, and their prowess in this regard was on full display Sunday. It's a brave group that moves from one ballad to another, but they did so and made it work by the sheer quality of the compositions and their execution. From a delicate reading of "Ballad In Urgency" to the cheek-to-cheek tenderness of "Greenhorn," the Crowes played in a fully exposed way, the songs thriving because of the honesty of all involved. Twice I felt a tear come to my eye, stirred to the surface by their direct engagement with things too often shunted into the shadows, hopes and fears and disappointments too true to speak aloud most days, yet sung shoulder-to-shoulder with the third sold out crowd in a row, well, it was a release and a benediction of the first order.

Luther Dickinson :: 12.06 :: By Miller
One was struck by the quality of their lyrics, both the originals and spot-on covers, this night. While the world says less and less of substance all the time, as a general rule, here was a band basically obsessed with depth and real feeling. Standing stock still as Chris oozed emotion on "Ballad," I sang along with the black invitation, "Let's start this misery, if that's where you want to be," and recalled the many bad pathways I've set out upon in my life. Earlier it was Rich on "What Is Home" that got me thinking about the "charge into the foothills" of other's lives and how easy it is to get lost there. It was an intensely thoughtful selection on Sunday, which frequently sent me off on philosophical tangents, though never so my focus wasn't mostly fixed on the music unfolding around me. I love that they challenge their audience to feel and think, to grapple with things we might not choose to face on our own. This inward movement usually happens quickly, not unlike the verse from the fabulously rendered "Appaloosa" that noted, "Simple as lightning starting wild fire/ Just down from a trip off my high wire/ Just coming home to walk my own floors."

"And The Band Played On" was as appealing as on Before The Frost... but taken into a pulsating, Pink Floyd-like jam that left me slack-jawed, softly stunned by the hum of distant machines and a feel that was total "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" shit. Really stunning, and a sign that even with over a hundred shows under my belt that they keep coming up with pleasant surprises, taking their audience to new places and traveling there by unfamiliar trails. The possibilities only seem to be expanding with this band, and that's not something one usually finds in a 20-year-old group. Chris is stretching out on electric guitar more, taking a juicy solo here and there and helping steer this great guitar driven entity from time to time, and Luther is playing tasty electric mandolin on some newer tunes. The whole bunch of them seemed frequently surprised at what they pulled off this run and anxious to keep exploring their boundaries and potential permutations.

Lesh & Chris Robinson :: 12.06 By Blakesberg
The main show would have been the perfect period on this Fillmore run, which indeed proved to be their best ever at this venue, however, being in the Bay Area, bassist/elder statesman Phil Lesh joined them for a Grateful Dead focused mini-set for the encore. While this might have been a letdown for those hoping for just a few more Crowes gems, it proved surprisingly intense and musically switched-on. Phil clearly loves playing with these guys, and more so than in past Phil sit-ins, the band hit Lesh's wavelength quickly but also put their own stamp on the material.

"Loose Lucy" had everyone thanking them for a "real good time," and initially sounded like they might play T-Rex's "Bang A Gong." They milked the call-and-response with the Dead savvy crowd, and it worked like it always did in Jerry's day. But, the real stunner of the set was next AND it wasn't sung by Chris. "To Lay Me Down" is profound ache pushed into notes, and Rich sung the ever-loving heart out of it, hitting just the right emotional tone and evoking shiver inducing memories of Garcia several times. The patience and care the band executed this one with was impressive and it showed that their own approach to quiet material has its forebears, though few of them.

The throttle opened up again with "Sugaree" side-stepping the overused cover's omnipresence with sweet ass solos from MacDougall, Dickinson, and particularly Rich, whose slide work throughout Saturday and Sunday was a grand swing between guttural snarl and angelic hosanna, but always touched by lingering vocal qualities. In short, the boy sings when he plays slide, and I caught more than a few people looking towards Luther's side of the stage and then doing a double take when they found Dickinson doing the rhythm part instead of the slide work that was knocking them out. "Deal" was its usual shuffling joy, and Chris turned it on brightly for "Lovelight," pulling the rest of the people onstage right along with him into the promised land.

While a touch odd to have the final expression of this five-night stand be the music of another band, it worked, if only to announce that the aesthetics and philosophy inside Grateful Dead music has been carried on and morphed into something new with the Crowes. And it showed that this band can play the hell out of just about anybody's songs if they put their mind to it.

By Jay Blakesberg
By Jay Blakesberg
By Jay Blakesberg
By Jay Blakesberg
By Jay Blakesberg
By Jay Blakesberg
By Jay Blakesberg
By Jay Blakesberg
By Jay Blakesberg

The Black Crowes :: 12.06.09 :: The Fillmore :: San Francisco, CA
Feelin' Alright, Seeing Things, Stare It Cold, Space Captain, So Many Times, What Is Home, Appaloosa, Ballad In Urgency > Wiser Time, Oh Josephine, And The Band Played On > Jam, Greenhorn, Soul Singing
E: Loose Lucy (1st time played)*, To Lay Me Down (1st time played)*, Sugaree*, Deal*, Turn On Your Lovelight (1st time played)*
* = w/ Phil Lesh

Continue reading for more of Josh Miller's pictures from Friday and Sunday...

12.04.09

Continue reading for more of Josh Miller's pictures from Sunday...

12.06.09

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