The Black Crowes, August 5-7, Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco, CA

Chris Robinson - Black Crowes
Hammerstein '05 by Gary Evans
A year ago, many of us were up to our knees in Chris Robinson's New Earth Mud. Others were catching flashes of powerhouse guitarist Marc Ford in Ben Harper's band, while others still found their way to the chunky, softly glowing solo work of Rich Robinson. If asked, all but a few, including the musicians themselves, would have scoffed at the idea that a year later the Crowes hiatus would be behind us, and their most vigorous, together line-up yet would be 80 gigs into a tour that shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.

This is real, and there's no more tangible proof than seeing Rich and Marc alone on stage, armed with acoustic guitars, engaged in an intimate, finger-twisting conversation known as the "Sunday Night Buttermilk Waltz," which opened two of the new acoustic-tinged second sets at The Fillmore. It's a quietly holy thing, a musical handshake that testifies to the power of forgiveness and a shared humility in service to something greater than just one person's vision. If you think that's overblown, then maybe you don't really understand what's happening with this band today.

There's Something In These Walls

The Black Crowes :: Hammerstein '05 by Gary Evans
It matters where one makes their stand. Choosing the time and place for significant events gives us courage and a chance to prepare. The Fillmore ranks as one of the few venues in the world that nearly every rock listener has heard of. Bands frequently reach special places vibing off the sonic patina staining the wood. It's no accident the Crowes have chosen this place to shoot a concert DVD (which happened on Saturday night) or to dig into an extended, freewheeling examination of their entire catalog - a musical mountain that includes six official studio albums and literally hundreds of unreleased tracks and inspired cover tunes. In just the first three evenings, they've explored cuts from rising acid folk darling Devendra Banhart ("The Way It Is"), The Rolling Stones ("Lovin' Cup," "Torn And Frayed"), Crosby, Stills & Nash ("Pre Road Downs"), Neil Young ("Pardon My Heart") and the Beatles ("Yer Blues," "Don't Let Me Down"). Most of their interpretations have been knock-you-off-your-feet exhilarating. Their capacity for unadulterated beauty and full-steam chuggin' makes these songs fresh, now as much a part of their oeuvre as the original artists. And why not reference rock's history? They are capable carriers of a tradition. But while many, probably most, will only follow the trail blazed by others, The Black Crowes extend it further into unknown territory.

A Little Reason For Your Rhyme

Chris & Rich Robinson - Black Crowes
Hammerstein '05 by Gary Evans
While the earliest days of this band were clearly inspired by the hip-shakin' approach to blues, country, and soul used by many '60s and '70s acts, they've long pursued their own thing. Derivation is only useful to get one's feet moving, but any real artist knows they need to find a unique trajectory if they want to endure. With few exceptions, the Crowes have never courted mainstream success. The hits from their first album like "Hard To Handle" and "She Talks To Angels" had to come as a surprise. They have rarely been in step with popular tastes, but that's not to say they're relics. The phrase 'classic rock' is often a backhanded compliment suggesting dated, retro-frenching nostalgia. And though the Crowes are often labeled classic rock, that misses how vibrant and fully engaged they are with their music as well as with everybody else's music.

A clear sign of this active attitude was the thorny, spaceward-arched jams during the course of this opening weekend. Hitherto, unknown corridors have been revealed in pieces one thought they knew, like "Could I Have Been So Blind" and the ever-mutating instrumental sojourns in "Thorn In My Pride," which twice in the run included a frying pan-hot harmonica jam that prompted Chris to toss his harp into the crowd.

The Black Crowes :: Hammerstein '05 by Gary Evans
Another interesting twist was the Left Coast Horns, which included Dave Ellis (sax) and Marty Wehner (trombone), who joined them on Saturday to brass up the edges. The sheer "oomph" of twelve people on stage, all pouring it on, is physically moving. The sound is enormous, restrained power unleashed in intuitively orchestrated bursts. The band has always worked well with horns, but this grouping slotted in even better than the Dirty Dozen have in the past. With only an afternoon to rehearse, it's extra impressive how well the menagerie hung together. It confirmed the overriding sense that they're open to fearlessly embracing all the shards of their past and looking at them with new eyes.

There's the bigness of Zeppelin's Presence to some parts, where other boogie-fied sections evoked Humble Pie's own beloved live Fillmore album. Again though, the reference points are just markers on a shared highway. The Crowes play at the same level but never emulate anyone except in heartfelt spirit. What they do is grounded in vocal finesse and lyrical density married to an emotion-stoked musical palette truly unlike anyone else's.

If these shows are about any one thing, I think it may be to fully articulate who they are to the world. This is Black Crowes Music at its purest - refined to a razor kiss, lousy with all-too-human understanding. That there's also tremendous joy on display is the byproduct of days spent apart and realizing that this is where these men belong.

Show Me Holy Places Not Yet Found

Marc Ford - Black Crowes
Hammerstein '05 by Gary Evans
"This smells like the best place on earth." This outburst, accompanied by fanning hands, came from Chris Robinson moments after the first song of the run, a blazing almost-too-good version of The Band's "Don't Do It." The fragrant puffage of the gathered Amorican masses had hit his nostrils, and he knew the boys were amongst their tribe. A few nights later, the singer would compliment us on being freaky people AND for understanding that's a compliment.

Not everyone gets this band or how emotionally strong the connection is that they share with the faithful. In no small way, this is our church. So many of their songs are hymns - roughhewn, soaring from the ashes of regret and misunderstanding, pumped full of life by folks who've actually lived the truths they are telling. Like most of us, they want to love, themselves and others, but also to understand how bloody hard it is to live love as a rule. To be enveloped by "How Much For Your Wings," "Seeing Things" (buffeted spectacularly by the horns), or Sunday's extraordinary "Wiser Time" is to feel the presence of something larger than that which rock usually musters.

Their nondenominational spirituality comes out most nakedly on "Soul Singing." Played both Friday and Saturday, they've taken a sweet, decent album track and expanded it to Heaven size. The full scale of these musicians comes to the fore when they raise their own hands towards the sky, eventually tumbling into the weirdest jam they currently do, which sounds like the Butterfield Blues Band improvising over a hashed-up Pharoah Sanders riff. Soul is a strange ground to traverse, and this prickly tangent reflects the briar patch inside of us. In highbrow terms, it's the downward march of Dante and Kierkegaard that precedes one's ascent into enlightenment. Pretty neat trick to do that in wordless exploration.

A New Moon Rising

The Black Crowes :: Hammerstein '05 by Gary Evans
On the way to Friday night's kickoff, a quintessential California flower child rolled up next to me, embroidered bell-bottoms flapping near her bike chain. With a pearly grin, she said, "Today's the beginning of a new moon. It's going to be an amazing month." In a honey-blonde flash she was gone, but her words lingered as I made my way up The Fillmore stairs. This is a time of waxing not waning, a time of bright light in the sky instead of darkness.

It may be thought that my love of the Black Crowes makes me a touch uncritical of their work. The exact opposite is true. Those we love deserve our honesty the most. If the music was wanting or smacked of pandering or falseness, then I'd feel honor bound to say so. Seeing them truly together, living up to the "All Join Hands" slogan of this tour, is exactly what one would wish for them - a group happy in its work. This is their job, and the consistency and potency with which they do it these days is a joy to behold.

There are other acts operating on the same high ground today, but I think it can be argued that there's no better band going at this time. Understand that when you reach this stratosphere, it really comes down to a matter of taste. One may prefer one catalog to another, but the sheer mind-blowing power of a band ensures at least some respect from any open-minded listener. For a chunk of us, this is the band for which we've been waiting a long time. All the earlier incarnations have been leading to this place, this time. If it feels weighty being in The Fillmore with them, it should. For better or for worse, this is The Black Crowes - uncut and ready to rock your synapses with high-headed majesty. With two more nights left to tell their story, it's impossible to know the ending. My guess is it'll be a happy one.

In Part Two, we'll see what emerges on a weeknight and discuss how Rich Robinson deserves more credit than he usually gets, the brilliance of keyboardist Ed Harsch, the very rightness of bassist Sven Pipien, how drummer Steve Gorman is the muscular heart inside their body, not to mention how the whole five-night run at The Fillmore shakes down.

Dennis Cook
JamBase | San Francisco
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[Published on: 8/8/05]

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