The Black Crowes, August 5-10, Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco, CA

By Dennis Cook

The official setlist archive, Crowesbase, has a one-word review for the August 9th performance – "Wow." That warmly surprised encapsulation nicely sums up the close of the Black Crowes' five-night Fillmore stand, which culminated in a pair of shows so unexpectedly varied and utterly well-played that a bright, bright future is all but assured.


Chris Robinson :: Fillmore '05 by Darren Ankenman
With opening night and the DVD taping behind them, the band was deliciously relaxed. Before they thrived on friction, using it to static charge their sound. Now, they operate from a calmer, clearer place. Call it Zen, maturity, whatever, but the driving force behind this rumbling assemblage is a far cry from their drama-licious past. To read most press about them today you'd think Chris and Rich Robinson were still bickering siblings in the Kinks/Oasis mold. Poppycock! To borrow a line from their tune "Feathers," they were all smiles, nothing stood in their way.

The truth of the band's collective togetherness shined through each show. And it starts from the top down. The Robinsons openly joke about their earlier troubles now. They make light of snafus and poke fun at each other in a good-natured way.

None of this should suggest there's any less bite. The difference now is that an embrace of something more hopeful balances the bleaker moments. The cynicism of say "Evil Eye" (done in a swirling, massive fashion the final night) now turns on the refrain, "Do you have it in you to even try?" While clearly still skeptical, they seem determined to part the clouds rather than linger underneath them all the time.

With 57 originals and 27 well-plucked cover tunes performed over five nights, there were highlights galore. Everyone's will likely be different, but just focusing on the end of the run, here's a few bits for the memory box.

Black Crowes :: Fillmore '05 by Darren Ankenman
The perfect, completely surprising opener of the Grateful Dead's "He's Gone" on Tuesday fit their loose-limbed style and honored the 10th anniversary of Jerry Garcia's passing that day. The mostly acoustic "Bend Down Low," was their least Caucasian version of a Bob Marley song yet. Clearly, they love his work, but they often sound like a rock band, albeit a spirited one, playing his tunes. On this night, the strumming and chill vibe had the ring of bubbling authenticity. The true standout for the record-collecting nerds Tuesday was the premiere of the Faces' "Glad And Sorry," with Rich leading an empathetic exploration of one of Ronnie Lane's best songs.

Wednesday, they fully got a hold of Cocker's "Space Captain" in a way Saturday didn't quite get. They also premiered two more inspired picks - the Flying Burrito Brothers' "Sin City" and a blisters-on-me-fingers awesome encore of The Beatles' "Happiness Is A Warm Gun." The placement of The Beatles in the key encore slot three out of five nights (Friday – "Don't Let Me Down" and Sunday – "Yer Blues") is telling. The 2005 model of the Crowes wants to be regarded in the company of the best rockers ever.

Chris Robinson :: Fillmore '05
By Darren Ankenman
It would be one thing to competently reproduce other's past glories, but what really puts the Crowes in the same category as The Beatles and Rolling Stones is the quality of their own material. From the stank-funky "Young Man Old Man" to the quietly stirring "Title Song," Tuesday danced on light toes. If they weren't putting boot to ass with "Thick N' Thin" or a "Remedy" that reminded us how potent that one still is, they were making us pull out handkerchiefs during wholeheartedly lovely readings of "Girl From A Pawnshop" and "Bring On Bring On," which continues to resonate on new levels in its post-hiatus performances.

Wednesday's first set was all about hard rockin', starting with a spot-on "One Mirror Too Many," a cut that is notoriously hard to nail. The blunt force assault of "Paint An 8" and "Go Faster" assuaged any nerves that the Crowes were sliding into noodly jam band territory. In fact, the jams, while present and ever more fully formed, mostly avoided being nebulous and meandering; it's a real skill to dabble in psychedelia without giving into an opiate malaise. The entire second set was shoehorned with surprises including the rarely played "Darling of the Underground Press" and a first time performance of "Wyoming And Me," a treasured fan favorite from an unreleased album. Maybe most impressive is how well they put all this material across, especially given how new or dusty many of the choices were. Their love affair with music is in full bloom, and that, more than any specific moment, may be the best memory to put away from these shows.

This is a thoroughbred American rock 'n' freakin' roll band. The word that sometimes doesn't get the right emphasis with the Crowes is "band." The medulla oblongata in their body electric is unquestionably the Robinsons, but what lends them muscle and breath are the enormous talents gathered to make this monster move.


Ed Harsch - Black Crowes by Gary Evans
Long the unsung hero of the faithful, Ed Harsch is a force of endless imagination and energy, and quite likely my all-time favorite rock keyboardist. He's unique and uniquely part of the Crowes sound - a player able to interpret these songs in a way no one else could. Think Nicky Hopkins meets Pinetop Perkins, and you're almost there. Rarely does he court the spotlight, soloing some but not nearly as much as the guitarists. He humbly plays the signature piano and organ lines and always infuses them with weird roadhouse soul. It's this fervor to serve what the Robinsons have wrought that makes him so rare and wonderful. To give one's creative output to another's vision is a gift, and one celebrated at the Saturday show by a spontaneous chant for Eddie that quickly swept through the whole room, visibly moving the man. At any given moment in these concerts, if you tuned into what Harsch was playing you were bathed in a clear, baptizing liquid coolness. Limber and infused with a little laughter, Ed is a champion, pure and simple.

During an exhilarating jam out of "Hard To Handle" into Delaney And Bonnie's "Comin' Home" (which has bloomed to full pagan-gospel glory with the Crowes in 2005), a buddy who'd flown out from Georgia whispered, "How essential is (Steve) Gorman?" The answer, offered without reservation, is completely.

Black Crowes by Gary Evans
Gorman walks shoulder-to-shoulder with drum giants like Jim Gordon (Derek and the Dominoes, Leon Russell) and Charlie Watts (Rolling Stones). Capable of reserved delicacy and hurricane-force pummeling, Steve, like Ed, is everywhere he needs to be. He shares a near telepathic communication with Chris, where an elbow thrust or head toss brings on the perfect cymbal crash or snare snap.

While one tried to be charitable to fill-in drummer Bill Dobrow during the first stage of their return, so many sentences were missing the right punctuation. To be fair, it's tough to replace a guy who not long ago played the John Bonham part in the short-lived collaboration with Jimmy Page AND knows this music better than anyone not named Robinson.

A sign the band recognizes Gorman's value were the satisfyingly ludicrous drum solos he took during the three performances of "Thorn In My Pride" at The Fillmore. While most drum solos are detestable wastes of time, Steve is so bloody musical it's a trip we're willing to take. While everyone stood back, he offered up a mini percussion workshop that harked back to the crackling solos of Art Blakey and Buddy Rich. Yeah, he's got that kind of power and glory in his sticks.


Chris Robinson :: Fillmore '05 by Darren Ankenman
If Gorman is the heart, then Sven is the pulse. To be honest, until bassist Sven Pipien joined up on the By Your Side tour, I'd always considered the four-string aspect of the band to be their weakest. Original bassist Johnny Colt (now in glossy FM staple Train) looked and moved like a natural born rocker but was rarely in sync with Gorman or the songs the way Pipien is. When Andy Hess (now in Gov't Mule) briefly replaced Sven on the Lions tour, it was serviceable but always felt like Hess was a bit distant. Since March, Pipien has consistently shown a knack for interesting, appropriate bass work that fits the sometimes fractured, willowy pathways that the Crowes wander. These gigs cemented the sense that this is the right guy for the job. He's the appropriate giraffe height to run with this collectively tall gang, and much like his pliable evocation of John Paul Jones on the Page tour, Sven operates in an organic, funky mode that dovetails beautifully with everything else happening on stage.

It's hard to imagine Chris Robinson without a brown-skinned chorus lifting him like a one-man congregation. Thankfully, we don't have to. Back-up singers Charity White and Mona Lisa Young produce an abundant, churchy spirit that more and more fills things in. They also bring much needed estrogen to the testosterone-heavy mix on stage. As the whole huge thing veers into "My Morning Song" or "Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye," the ear is drawn to their feminine filigree decorating the edges. As the catalog expands to include a very Gram Parsons rendition of Dan Penn's "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" and other range-expanding numbers, Young and White are increasingly integrated into the front line vocal punch. For the more straight-up rockers, the ladies leave the stage, letting the boys do what the boys do well. Without so much as a whisper, they return on cue to add an essential but often under-appreciated facet.


Rich Robinson :: Fillmore '05 by Darren Ankenman
Sure, there are ditties about the hand, the eyes, and everyone's favorite muscle - the heart, but rarely do you hear praises for the deep brain structures dealing with emotions, motivations, and various autonomic functions. But just try and function without a limbic system. Ruminating on Rich Robinson for five nights lends me to believe he performs this function for the Crowes. Having written much of the music they play, his contributions - outside of his unpredictable, inspired guitar work – aren't always apparent. As much as Chris's lyrics and band-defining vocals, Rich gives underlying design to their sound. He's the one who plays the recognizable guitar lines and reigns in jams when they begin to wander off. It's Rich who pours on the rhythm in heavy sections and communicates with the others using only his eyes. He's so deeply woven into the musculature of what they are that you might just miss how important he is.

There's a tendency for some to give the lion's share of the credit for the Crowes guitar sound to Marc Ford, who is one of the most undeniably gifted natural guitarists of all time. What's missed is the fact that Robinson frequently builds the platform from which Ford launches. I think it's unwise and maybe a bit unfair to score one guitarist over another. Sure, they both have especially "on" nights (to wit, Rich's blow-out-the-doors brilliance at the Saturday show and Ford's jaw-dropping, emotion-filled pyrotechnics on Tuesday). But the real truth is together they make a divine guitar racket. For some of us, this pair is our favorite guitarist - sharing two bodies but a darkly mingled spirit that sways between unity and tension in an ongoing, complex conversation.

As Rich takes more lead vocals and doesn't sidestep the spotlight when it comes his way, which he did a bit in the past, people will start to realize that the blond fellow standing next to the hyper-charismatic Chris is also behind this strange, wondrous thing called the Black Crowes.

When the band reemerged for a second encore the last night, many were certain they'd play "Sometimes Salvation." It is everything one loves about the Crowes in a hallelujah nutshell. After long minutes of frenzied stomping and cheering brought them back, it seemed only right they'd play it at least once while in SF. Instead, they gave us a particularly wistful "Willin'" that I know made Lowell George smile wherever he is. The absence of "Sometimes Salvation" made me realize how key the first word is in the title. Sometimes we find salvation. Mostly we're out there looking for it. The Fillmore shows are not the end of the Crowes story. They are a shining chapter that nearly anyone who hears them will wish they had been a part of. Their salvation, and our own, waits somewhere in the distance, but we got five nights that assured us it's out there somewhere and we're gonna find it someday.

Amen to that.

Read Part 1 of The Black Crowes Fillmore Feature No Shame.

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[Published on: 9/2/05]

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