BACK TO THE NEST: MR. CROWES GARDEN

The Black Crowes :: 03.17.05 :: Toad's Place :: New Haven, CT

For those not familiar with The Black Crowes beyond "Hard to Handle" and Chris Robinson's marriage to Kate Hudson, their selling out a seven-day run at New York City's Hammerstein Ballroom after a three year hiatus might have come as a surprise. The Crowes still have fans — a lot of them. And with the announcement of the return of guitarist Marc Ford, a huge number of people who never had the chance to see him play with the band are eager to get their first taste.


Chris Robinson :: 3.17 :: Connecticut
In anticipation of the reunion shows, The Crowes embarked on a run of East Coast warm-up dates under their original moniker "Mr. Crowes Garden." Any questions of whether the reunion was just an excuse to make some quick cash were answered with a broiling, jammed-out, sixteen minute "My Morning Song" opener at the first show at the Staircase in Pittston, PA. The band would not be sticking to safe versions of the hits. The next night at Higher Ground in Burlington, VT was equally promising with a completely different setlist without any repeats and including one unreleased song. An encore sit-in by Mr. Jamband himself, Trey Anastasio, on the Beatles' "Yer Blues" and Otis Redding's "Hard to Handle" suggested that the band wouldn't be distancing themselves from the jamband crowd this time around either.

On Thursday night, The Crowes rolled into Toad's Place in New Haven, CT. The 750 person capacity club on the edge of the Yale campus is no stranger to warm-up shows having previously hosted pre-tour sets by Widespread Panic and the Rolling Stones. The St. Patrick's Day crowd was an interesting mix of newbies, students, older Allmans-type fans, and hardcore Crowes fans in threadbare late 90's tour shirts. The stage setup was simple. Instead of the tapestries, rugs, and decorations of previous tours, the band got its stage vibe on with a few green apples stuck with lit incense sticks.


The Black Crowes :: 3.17 :: Connecticut
(L to R: Dobrow, Chris, Rich)
The band members all hit the stage in denim work shirts except for Marc Ford who wore a leather blazer and a porn star cowboy moustache. Looking relaxed and focused, Rich Robinson started strumming the chunky opening chords to "Gone," and the band started rocking without hesitation. Backup singers Charity and Mona Lisa helped Chris with the next tune, "Sting Me," their rich voices adding a southern gospel feel, creating a firm bed for Chris's famously throaty voice.

The next song, "Go Faster," showed that The Crowes weren't avoiding material recorded without Marc Ford. When Rich, Marc, and bass player Sven Pipien leaned into their microphones to sing the chorus with Chris, they projected the comfort level of a band that has been rehearsing for months, not days.

Rich then began picking at the chords of "Paint an 8," off of their unreleased album, Band, for a rare performance. The Crowes recorded two studio albums, Band and Taller, which were never officially released. Though the recordings are widely traded, most of the songs have sadly never been played live. Hopefully, the upcoming tour will see more breakouts from these albums.


Rich Robinson :: 3.17 :: Connecticut
Part of The Crowes' trademark sound is a type of ballad that starts with a challengingly slow mournfulness and later rewards the listener with an obscenely soulful gospel chorus or refrain. The next song, "Girl From A Pawnshop," was cut from that mold. An early highlight of the show was the crowd chanting along with Chris, Charity, and Mona Lisa to the uplifting refrain, "P.S. All My Love," temporarily transporting the audience away from the cold Connecticut night.

Though The Crowes jam, they aren't progish key and tempo changing jammers like Phish or Umphrey's McGee. Instead, they establish a good groove and build and build. Rich Robinson, who writes most of the group's music, is key to this technique. He is as good at writing the churning grooves that define The Crowes' sound as Chris is at writing their catchy lyrics and melodies. The structured jam that followed let Rich lay down the groove while Ford soloed, giving the crowd a good look at what all the talk is about. His warm, vintage tone comes from a Les Paul and vintage Telecasters through Roccaforte amps. His playing is a combination of well-timed country, classic rock, and southern jam licks that often slip into subtle psychedelia — always pushing the music but never overpowering it.


Chris Robinson :: 3.17 :: Connecticut
During the jam, Chris stood back with his eyes closed, feeling the music as his huge necklaces shook and his elbow poked out of a rip in his sleeve. When the jam settled, he opened his eyes and riffed along to the music, "Can you feel my heartbeat? Can you feel it?" until the band segued into the overdriven guitar fuzz of "Black Moon Creeping," which set the tone for an epic "My Morning Song."

The centerpiece of their second album, "My Morning Song" starts like any Crowes rock song, then builds into a long jam that resolves into the previously mentioned slow burn gospel chorus. This version of the song did not disappoint with a structured three-part jam that felt like a song in progress. Sven Pipien, who played bass with the group from 1997-2000, kept things simple and supportive throughout the evening. His laid-back stage presence is perfect for the band, and his playing is strong without melting into the mix. New drummer Bill Dobrow, from Rich's solo project Hookah Brown, played well but was obviously still learning the ropes. He checked in visually with Rich throughout the night. A big guy and a heavy hitter, he looked like a sweaty dwarf hidden behind the drum kit. It's a different dynamic than it was with original drummer Steve Gorman, who often called the changes for songs. While no one can really fill the shoes of an original band member, Bill held his own and will only get better.


Marc Ford :: 3.17 :: Connecticut
Those who squeezed through the now tightly-packed audience for the bar and bathroom after the lengthy "My Morning Song" missed the cover of Joe Cocker's, "Space Captain," a song the band hadn't played since 1992. The crowd joined in on the poignant refrain, "We got to get it together / It's getting better and better." The only real misstep of the night was the next ballad "How Much For Your Wings?" While solid, the song lacked the telepathic communication between the players that existed for the rest of the night.

The band closed out the 105 minute single set with a series of songs dripping with the swaggering, classic rock 'n' roll and southern boogie that attracted many people to The Crowes in the first place. Though the songs sound something like Exile-era Stones or Rod Stewart-led Faces, they are not a simple aping of 70's styles. They have a distinct urgency and emotion to them that is part Chris's voice, part Marc and Rich's guitars, and all Crowes. Ford and Rich locked in again for "Conspiracy," and Rich plowed through a quick solo during "P 25 London." They closed the show with "Stare It Cold," the only song played off of their first album.


The Black Crowes :: 3.17 :: Connecticut
Kate Hudson, Chris Robinson's very famous wife, peeked out from the side of the stage as the band returned for the encore. She's been an easy target for gossip ever since their Aspen wedding in 2001. She's been both accused of breaking up the band Yoko Ono style and credited with encouraging Chris to get the ball rolling with the reunion. Whatever the case, Chris seemed mellow, relaxed, and focused throughout the night.

The first encore was a first-time cover of Dylan's "It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train to Cry," and it anchored the night in a rootsy, folky funkiness that hinted at the Dead, who also covered the song. Though The Crowes jettisoned their Dead-like image in later years, Chris's time spent singing Dead covers in his solo band New Earth Mud and his recent stint singing with the newest lineup of Phil & Friends has obviously influenced him. Much of the bluesy funkiness of the song was due to Eddie Harsch's soulful keys playing. A veteran of Albert Collins' and James Cotton's bands, Harsch was introduced to the band by Stones and Allmans' sideman Chuck Leavell in 1990. When Chris introduced the band after the song, the crowd's applause was loudest for Eddie, making one wonder if his lanky, laid-back presence is really the heart and soul of the group.


Chris Robinson :: 3.17 :: Connecticut
The last song of the night was a cover of Bob Marley's "Time Will Tell." Though a bit downbeat, it continued the rootsiness of the encore and ended the show with some very fitting lyrics, "You think you're in heaven, but you're living in hell. Only time will tell." It seemed fitting for a band whose past success has led to more infighting, addiction, and tension than happiness. Hopefully time, experience, rehab, and maturity have given them all the tools they need to make it last this time around. No doubt, the humbling experiences of Rich, Chris, and Marc starting over with new bands and much smaller crowds has helped them to appreciate what they have with The Crowes.

In terms of the current jamband climate, they couldn't be coming back at a better time. Though the definition of a Jamband has never been clear, The Crowes are already doing the things that attract jamband crowds: mixing up setlists, including special guests, jamming, and playing unreleased material. And the jamband world is in desperate need of rock bands with smart lyrics and charismatic frontmen with strong vocals, which partly explains the success of bands like Ween, the Flaming Lips, and Wilco with the Bonnaroo crowd. After selling out the Hammerstein shows, The Crowes have already booked a much longer tour that will take them to Jazz Fest, Bonnaroo, and later to Japan. If these preview shows are an indication of anything, it is that the band is ready to make up for lost time. Whether or not the band can keep it together beyond this tour comes down to how well they can manage their interpersonal relationships. When it comes to bands, longevity is the exception, not the rule, and it will be interesting to see how this story unfolds. Like the song says, "Only time will tell."

Words by: J-R Hevron
Images by: LaBarge
JamBase | Connecticut
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http://www.blackcrowes.com/

[Published on: 3/22/05]

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