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

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.)

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