Some of what you’re about to read is idle speculation, the imaginings of a serious fan set down with some small amount of shame over his feelings. A meager defense before I get rolling is that these thoughts are the by-product of a mind that has spent long hours burrowing for riches in the depths of the Black Crowes music. I feel I can lay claim to whatever infinitesimal portion of the music any hard-core listener has a right to call their own. What you will hear is a loud sigh rendered in words. An official live record from this band has been a long time comin’ and children what we got isn’t quite the promised land many in Amorica hoped it would be.
Now that the Crowes are on an indefinite hiatus it’s nearly impossible to resist reflection on what the band has been up to this point. And while I thought briefly about resisting it became impossible to say anything without the witch of hindsight poking me in the back of the head. So here it goes...
Throughout their decade plus existence the band suffered from the critical albatross of being labeled a retro-rock group early on. The press painted them as an amalgamation of the Rolling Stones, Allman Brothers, The Faces and any other ‘70s band that wore velvet, liked the blues and strutted their stuff in stadiums. It’s never been a fair appraisal of their sound and still isn’t. In a culture built around snippets of ideas one’s soundbite gets frozen pretty early on in the cycle of fame.
What the group eventually came to refer to simply as “Black Crowes Music” was a bouillabaisse of southern rock, late ‘60s soul music, early Maggot Brain-era Funkadelic, Sun Studios rockabilly and ‘70s country music all sprinkled with a liberal dash of psychedelia. That Rich and Chris Robinson also had a knack at writing a pop hook didn’t hurt either. It sounded enough like other music to fool people into thinking they were perfect copyists but while their music carried echoes of other groups it remains a sound that no one else can quite duplicate. Try to name one group that sounds like the Black Crowes without having to qualify the statement with a laundry list of exceptions. “Black Crowes Music” has soul without being soul music, its rock that does a lot of things besides roll, it’s pretty and it’s fierce. Mainly it’s true to whatever muse drives them even if that muse didn’t always jive with everyone else. It sounds like them and no one else, for good or bad, and that’s the highest compliment I can pay any band.
In many ways it was a curse that their first album, Shake Your Money Maker, produced four radio friendly hits. That combined with the omnipresence of the video for “Hard To Handle” on MTV made the young band from Georgia very well known in record time. It set the bar so high so fast that the band would never again achieve anything like it in terms of sales and widespread exposure again. I think this was a demon that gnawed at them forever more. As the years progressed it became more and more apparent that it frustrated the band to not have their music be heard and loved by more people. The last couple of studio releases took on a polished sheen and hammered down the jamming tendencies in favor of shorter, simpler songs. It was an obvious attempt to work their way back onto AOR stations. It didn’t work. Even the usually FM ready production of schlock meister Kevin Shirley couldn’t make the Crowes singles connect with the mainstream again. I Believe this was due to that muse I spoke of a moment ago. Whatever it is that makes the Brothers Robinson write songs, whatever drives the engine of the rest of this incredible band wouldn’t allow them to totally abandon the heart of their music. And the proof of this lies in the hundreds of live shows that laid audiences on their asses again and again.
From the first time I saw the Crowes saunter on stage at The Warfield in 1991 I just knew this was where the band belonged. Setting their tunes down for posterity on studio records was all fine and well but live they blossomed into something far beyond what anyone can hear on their albums. At their best, the shows combined workhorse tunes from their first two albums with a wide array of different elements. Covers ranging from Bob Marley to blues standards showed what superb interpreters of material the band was while at the same time illuminating the roots of their own music. An entire alternate career’s worth of unreleased songs has floated in and out of the mix over the years. The tours would always start with a fairly fixed setlist and within a couple months the leash would be chewed through and they roamed free. This kind of wicked surprise in sets reached its apex during the Three Snakes and One Charm tour in ‘96-97. One literally never knew what might come up at a Crowes concert. It was the kind of exhilaration fans of Widespread Panic, Phish or many other more firmly entrenched jambands enjoy every night and there are many Amoricans (as Crowes fans have dubbed ourselves) who still wax poetic about this time. Even touring behind sub par material from the last two studio efforts, the band still energized even mediocre tunes when they played them before an audience. While I will forever argue that “Lickin’” and “Soul Singing” are amongst the sorriest things Chris and Rich have penned, there was no denying that when you heard them dig into these songs live they had a small charm especially when Chris spun into a shake dance of delight in the instrumental passages.
What I had always hoped for in an official live release was a fair representation of what I’d seen in my many shows over the years, what I’d heard in the hundreds of recordings that have come my way. Black Crowes Live fails on so many levels it’s hard to know where to begin. In fairness, if you’ve never heard a Black Crowes bootleg or been at some their more exploratory shows this might not be such a disappointment. You might even say this is pretty rockin’ and I’d join you in saying that there are pleasures scattered amongst the weeds. But it isn’t a fair and honest representation of what this band sounds like in concert when they are in top form.
Though it never says it on the liner notes, the material on Live was taken from the last two dates the Crowes played on their 2001 tour at the Orpheum Theater. It had been their strongest tour in years and the giddy diversity of earlier times had begun to return. What made me scratch my head when I first heard that the live album would be culled from these dates was why? Why use the last two dates of a tour when everyone is tired? Why not dip into the many splendid shows that happened on the same tour? The three night run at New York’s legendary Beacon Theatre would have been a perfect choice. Or better still, the stellar two evening stint at the now defunct Maritime Hall in San Francisco where the band hit some heights I hadn’t seen in quite some time. Setting aside these thoughts I still tried to approach this album with an open mind. There had been some amazing moments at the Orpheum shows and perhaps they would be delivered on the album. Instead we get a carefully selected set that manages to avoid most of the true magic that happened on those two nights in Boston.
Missing are the stunning versions of “Thorn In My Pride” that happened on both nights that included some wicked jamming from all of them. Missing is the blistering set opening “My Morning Song” from the second night. None of the cover tunes they pulled out made the cut, which is a damn shame. My favorite part of the Halloween show was a road ready take on the band’s original “Share The Ride” that segues perfectly into Little Walter’s “Mellow Down Easy.” Chris' harp playing on 'Mellow' cries out like some lost James Cotton wail he picked up on the wind. Perhaps the bigger mistake was leaving off the crushingly powerful take on the Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’” from the first night’s encore. This rendition lit up the Crowes message boards. It is the kind of cover that makes one nearly forget the original version. Live also skips anything from their first album that wasn’t a single. They leave off “No Speak No Slave” which had taken on new life on this tour with guitarist Audley Freed amping up the aggression inherent in the song.
At this stage you probably think I’m nit-picking. For the casual listener this record might be fine but I’m writing to the heart of the band’s fan base, the people who like me have woven this music into the fabric of their days. By saying what I’m saying I’m only asking for the best this band is capable of. Being a fan to me has never been about blind devotion and pat enthusiasm for whatever they release. If I don’t ask for the best in them, if I accept whatever comes with a blank smile, then I contribute to the music not being what it can be. Though it kills me a little to say so, this is far from their finest effort. However, Live does have a few charms.
One hopes to find at least a few definitive versions of songs when an official live album comes around. I find it very telling that the only track that comes close to this threshold is “High Head Blues,” a sour, bile filled retort to fame and fortune. In other spots on the album Chris Robinson sounds tired, loses steam mid verse or just plain walks through a few songs. Here, he’s at the top of his game. It’s also one of the few tunes the band plays into a jam on. It’s followed by the other highlight of the set; a previously unreleased original called “Title Song.” Long a fan favorite in it’s few live appearances, “Title Song” manages to be both simple in its beauty and grand in construction. That it had never made it onto a studio release has baffled many but at least now a version is out there for all to enjoy. Though ballads had largely been banished from the band’s live sets in the past few years there is a stunner on disc one. “Miracle To Me” is deceptively simple on album but live it was fleshed out into a languid pop swell with lovely acoustic playing from Audley Freed. Chris sings every word with conviction. It is an unadorned love song that brought a smile to my face.
This is not the first time this band has been serious about releasing a live set. Nor is it the first time they’ve made plans to go their separate ways. Back in 1995 things looked dark for the future of the group. Internal strife and flagging record sales had muddied the waters. Knowing this the Crowes professionally recorded a gig at the Beacon Theater on March 22, 1995. Rumors flew that this was to be their first live album but never materialized in a release. A soundboard of this show circulates widely amongst trading circles. There is a graceful solemnity that opens the proceedings. The two brothers play “Cursed Diamond” by themselves and then a couple more band mates join them for a sweet, slow, sad version of Gram Parsons’ “She.” A funereal “She Talks To Angels” follows and remains my single favorite take on that song ever performed. The show builds and builds and builds into a headlong rush towards the traditional final encore of “Remedy.” This performance is everything that Live isn’t most of the time. If asked I would say most fans would take the versions of the songs on this show to the ones presented on Live and often with little to no hesitation in saying so. It hangs together as a whole since it was a passionate, focused experiment designed to say something about who they were at that time. Live comes across as disjointed and arbitrary especially when compared with this show.
Given the hiatus status of this band, it is sad that what may turn out to be the final official release from the Black Crowes is a work that misses much of their strengths and plays up many of their weaknesses. V2 Records is promoting the set as "Greatest Hits Live." Given that there was already a greatest hits collection just two years ago this hardly seems necessary. If the band wanted to be regarded as more than neo-traditionalist rockers with a handful of 10 year old hits then they needed a different live record than this. In many ways this feels like an afterthought, a contractual obligation that arrives out of necessity rather than a carefully chosen testament to one’s band’s power and glory when they hit a stage. I just think that’s a pity when it was in their power to do otherwise.
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