The Black Crowes :: 03.22 & 03.23 :: Hammerstein Ballroom :: New York, NY
Stepping out into the marrow-freezing New York night, many of us felt like we could walk on the moon. The how and the why of such a trip would be figured out in the journey. The second night of The Black Crowes' official return after more than three years was behind us, as were any lingering doubts that one of the truly great rock 'n roll bands of our time had come back to deliver some grace in a loveless time.
The Black Crowes :: 03.27 :: Hammerstein Ballroom
The seven night series at the Hammerstein Ballroom had sold out in record time, a palpable sign of the pent up demand for their unique roots music bouillabaisse – a refracted jewel composed of facets of the blues, Bob Marley, country strains, Led Zeppelin, and other classic rock. Their inspirations are the stuff that throws down deep tendrils into the Earth, solid enough to withstand wind and rain and all manner of hardships. Put simply, it's real in a superficial age. In broad strokes, their catalog sounds like a mash up of The Band's glorious sepia-covered second album and The Beatles' Revolver - backwoodsy and psychedelic in equal portions, smears of blood and dirt imbedded in their faded denim reveries. And it makes a person feel hellaciously alive.
As good as the word had been about the "secret" club warm-up shows the previous week, nothing could have prepared us for just how bloody good they were right out of the gate on Tuesday. Beanpole lean and vibrating with freak energy, they pounded a one-two punch of "Gone" and "Sting Me" that reached out like an invisible hand to scoop up everyone shoehorned in the room. Most hardcores, this author included, had trouble sleeping on Monday night, nervous and excited in a way that got left behind with the truth about Santa Claus. Within minutes, your gut told you they were back, really back! Like the irrational love many of us feel for the Crowes, it can't really be explained in words. It bypasses logic, skirts the snotty cynicism prevalent today, and opens us to a spot of faith in something bigger than ourselves.
Chris Robinson :: 03.25 :: Hammerstein
If this all sounds overblown, then maybe you've never really adored a band the way the people at the Hammerstein do. Everyone who'd come from far and wide, across a continent like me or across oceans like some lovely Brits, had their reasons. Maybe it's the indestructible melodies, maybe the junkyard poetry, but whatever it was that brought us to New York there was no doubt that we were happy to see them together again, celebrating "15 Years of Cosmic Rock-N-Roll."
Part of the excitement came from the return of guitarist Marc Ford, who'd left under less than cordial circumstances in 1997. Without beating a dead horse, the intervening years lost much of the majesty and bravery the band displayed with Ford. One can conjecture all day about why that is, but the vibe was never quite the same. Back with the architects of "Black Crowes Music," Chris Robinson (vocals, percussion) and Rich Robinson (guitar, vocals), things just sounded right again. Combined with the bedrock playing of keyboardist Eddie Hawrysch, there's a fluid interaction that's slippery like sex and nearly as pheromone-saturated. Filling in the rhythm end are newcomer Bill Dobrow (drums), a veteran of Rich Robinson's solo band, and bassist Sven Pipien, who's playing better than anyone remembers him ever sounding during his last stint on the By Your Side tour - now a man full of popping, heavy hooks. While still working out the kinks, stumbling into jams, and missing a left turn here and there, there's a sense that this could develop into the best Crowes incarnation yet. They're messy in an Exile On Main Street way - the holes and hiccups are part of the appeal. It is the diametric opposite of the half-dead, too-clean, factory-produced rock pumped out by most record labels today.
Marc Ford :: 03.25 :: Hammerstein
And by God, they're fun to watch. It's something the little girls FULLY understand, but even the fellas can't help but stare. They're great looking guys, full of interesting angles and thrift store charm, who tell part of the story with their bodies and faces. One is drawn to odd details – wide opening eyes that accentuate a lyric or the guitarists' ring-covered hands that DaVinci would have sketched. A smile always raises seeing Chris flirt with the back-up singers, a southern boy who loves knowing he can turn on the sistahs. The intuitive lighting from Phish alumni Chris Kuroda amped the emotional content without ever distracting from the music, working well with the Tolkien-meets-King-Tut backdrop behind the boys. The stage has always been the natural habitat for this flock, and seeing them perform hungry handfuls of their albums, unreleased cuts, and inspired cover tunes with an apostolic fervor is downright electrifying. Early on at the first Hammerstein show, Chris Robinson, a rock toreador dressed in a black rose accented jacket and leather pants, said, "Do you feel your heart beating free?" The crowd about shouted down the rafters.
The Black Crowes :: 03.27 :: Hammerstein Ballroom
What pierced me most at these shows was all the life they bring to their music now. A great deal of carnage lay behind this reunion. All the drama, hard calls, and frustrations that fueled their hiatus is part of this for better or worse, but it's background noise to the organic feeling that's emerging. They have a lot more to live for today. Ford and both Robinson brothers have wives and children, which opens them up to an emotional landscape unavailable to those without such connections. You can hear it in the way the words emerge and in the utter sincerity of their playing. A song like "Bring On Bring On," performed with real majesty on Wednesday, with lines about baby's eyes and worries about what one could have done differently resonates on more levels now.
The Black Crowes :: 03.25 :: Hammerstein Ballroom
It's easy to forget that Rich and Chris are siblings. We say it a lot, but the reality of being family, an older brother and a younger brother, is a challenge at the best of times. Try organizing a family get-together or building a backyard fort with your sibling and let me know how that works out. That the Robinsons can make music together at all, especially the way they do it, is a small miracle and one I'm personally thankful to be experiencing again.
Chris and Rich Robinson :: 03.27 :: Hammerstein Ballroom
These elegant beasts - all the gruff and graceful human things – delivered more highlights than there's room to share. Some of it can only be understood by the faithful like the incalculable pleasure of seeing hundreds singing along to tunes that have never been officially released or the orgasmic releases hidden in sections of "My Morning Song" or "Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye." Other parts, like the cover tunes they make their own, are easier to comprehend. They soar in their interpretations of Joe Cocker's "Space Captain," Delaney and Bonnie's "Coming Home," a very Pigpen-era Dead-like take on Dylan's "It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry," and the Bob Marley covers they encored with both nights. The tracks from their last two studio releases, Lions and By Your Side, breathed heavier with Marc Ford pushing their lungs, especially the funky delayed satisfaction of "Young Man Old Man" and the wham bam Wednesday opener of "Greasy Grass River" and a possessed "Go Faster." They dipped artfully into many slow numbers, especially the first night. Anyone can play fast or mid-tempo, but in the molasses is where a lot of real flavor lies. There's no pretending when things dip down low, and the Crowes shined on gems like "Sister Luck" and "Girl From A Pawnshop." Even the jamming had more meat on it than in the past – an inquisitive reach more than making up for any stumbling.
That nothing seems off-limits gives one faith in wherever they want to take us. They have kicked down some of the doors that held them back before, emerging on the other side wiser and bit more ready for happiness. They are still on a learning curve in this newest chapter, and Bill Dobrow seems to be the hardest pressed with the demands of absorbing a decade-and-a-half of material. His playing on Wednesday though had a caveman beauty, showing him to be the descendent of pounders like Grand Funk's Don Brewer and the Guess Who's Garry Peterson. There's a lot of idle speculation (and wishful thinking) about original drummer Steve Gorman returning, but if given half a chance to grow beyond the warts and false starts and out-of-sync bits, Dobrow could be fantastic in a band that plays big in a world of pipsqueaks.
Chris Robinson :: 03.27 :: Hammerstein
Midway through the second night, Chris pointed out that it was snowing outside and began singing a few bars of "Auld Lang Syne." I leaned into my Amorican comrades, an appellation the fans have given ourselves, and said, "I feel like I'm splitting open with joy," and all heads nodded. More than a few hugely happy tears were shed at these shows. This music is part of our lives. It's infiltrated our vernacular and informed our days. We wake to it, dance to it, cry to it, and make love to it. It is a friend that brings a special community together, and instantly lets us know these people are cool simply because they get what the Crowes do. No one chooses their favorite band. It finds them in the intangibles. All we know is the world glows most brightly when we come together and share in the Crowes ceremony, a roughhewn ritual in which we're ready to partake over and over.
Getting on the plane back to California on Thursday, I felt a twinge at missing the "Good Friday" show and the white-draped Easter Sunday service. Yet, I also found myself enjoying that hungry feeling inside. The Black Crowes are back, and there's no doubting they've made more than a few of us starved for what comes next. Maybe for the first time in their existence, they are primed to show the entire world they are one of THE greatest acts ever assembled. At their best, like these first two salvos, the Crowes are everything good and true about rock 'n roll, and Children, you better believe they're ready to blow your haze away.
Words by: Dennis Cook
Images by: Gary Evans
JamBase | NYC
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