The Black Crowes: Shine Along
It’d be difficult to be more removed from industry standard than the long-lived group’s eighth release, Before The Frost… Until The Freeze (released August 31 on Silver Arrow). The double record, semi-conceptual opus was birthed in front of live audiences at Levon Helm’s Barn Studios in Woodstock, New York earlier this year, and presents 20 new originals that find the nearly two decade old band exploring sincere country, high gloss funk, pastoral folk and other textures that move them well away from the “classic rock” tag that got attached the moment their first single hit in 1990. It’s a brave, creatively charged collection, and one that handily announces a band once again hitting their stride.
The atypical approach to recording the new album – original material (save for a boffo cover of Manassas’ “So Many Times”) presented and captured in front of an audience – taps into one of the band’s greatest strengths, i.e. their immense concert prowess, and may be the smartest move the Crowes have made in a long time.
“It’s pretty funny when you do something that makes so much sense. You turn around and go, ‘Why in the hell didn’t we do this earlier?’ It seems like such a radical thing but our band doesn’t do the obvious very well. We can’t and I wish we did sometimes; it’d make our lives a lot easier. We get these bizarre notions and if we don’t try to shape them too much, if we just let them be what they are, we tend to pull them off better,” says drummer/co-founder Steve Gorman. “One thing we learned – and we haven’t had this conversation in a linear fashion as a band at all – is that momentum is to be held onto. You have to just enjoy the ride because you can’t shape it. You have to hold on with a very loose grip.”
“We laughed about it after it was done. Could you imagine talking to a record company in this day and age about what this was going to be? ‘It’s gonna be cut live as a double album. So, hook it up! [laughs].’ It’s a unique situation for us. We play what some people would consider traditional rock music but we do it different, from the compositions down to how we go about our world, our touring, our lives. There’s something unique about it that makes it different. As time goes on many bands just slow down or rely on their hits. That’s not us,” says Robinson. “When we finished the record and I got the mixes back from Paul [Stacey, producer], I was definitely proud of this group and the work we put in. There’s not a lot of people pulling off something like this, at least in terms of the scale and how we did it. We weren’t in a rehearsal space for months [laughs]. We just set up, learned the songs and did it.”
Fork In The River
There’s the feeling of a strong wind in the Crowes’ sails on Before The Frost… (see the JamBase album review for more details), and one senses something special is going on, some corner turned or necessary distance achieved.
“It’s like someone just gave Columbus a compass: ‘Here, dude, this will make the next few miserable months of life on the ocean easier.’ I think Warpaint was that compass. And I have no problem saying I don’t think that compass had been in place since sometime around 1998,” continues Gorman. “We were still in pretty good shape when we recorded Band but then Columbia [Records] said ‘no’ and dictated what we had to do on the next album. We aren’t good at that. We gave it our best try but the ensuing two years were not us being us. That was us being dictated to and cornered with literally no way out. It took a toll and we didn’t see the effect of it until Lions.”
With a bundle of new corridors to explore with this double record, The Black Crowes have created a series of jumping off points that will allow them to fully engage with all the facets of their musical personality. While moving things ever further away from the soundbite definition of the band based on “Hard To Handle” and “She Talks To Angels,” this set is a wholehearted embrace of all the currents running within them.
“We’ve attempted to make records with as much breadth and not been as successful. It really is a matter of things lining up, us sensing that AND not fucking it up,” offers Gorman. One sizeable leap of faith for some fans has been the dirty disco vibe of “I Ain’t Hiding,” but dissenters should know the Crowes were equally uneasy about it at first. “We allowed ourselves to feel a little weird about it for a while, but we didn’t get weirded out by the fact that we were weirded out. It’s not the end of the world either way. Trust me, the looks on the faces in those metal chairs [at the Barn performances] when this would start were priceless. I’m looking down because I don’t want to start laughing, and I’m peeking out at all these familiar faces with complete ‘what the fuck?’ faces, but not in a bad way, just genuinely like ‘wow.’ By the time the song ended they realized it’s fun. When I talk about being patient [in this band] these days part of that is not dismissing a song immediately, realizing it’s fun and seeing if it’s fun enough to make itself comfortable.”
Got Live If You Want It
So together is the playing and production on Before The Frost… that it’s almost a surprise when a burst of audience applause comes in at the end of each track. Some critics have been annoyed by this aspect but for the Crowes it was just being honest.
For many of the band’s deepest fans, it’s their concert energy and ability to pull off amazing shows throughout their 20-year history that defines them far more than their studio output. Even without the splashes of audience cheer at the end of each track, Before The Frost… carries a healthy measure of that live-in-the-moment vibe.
“In a pragmatic sense, it’s the only way to cover that much ground, in terms of amount of material. If we’d made a conventional album in a conventional studio setting then we would have run into problems. We’re not improvising as we would in a jam, but the first weekend we played 13 brand new songs. 13 new songs in the studio in a month,” chuckles Robinson. “It’s definitely some sort of kinetic editing system, where something will fall flat on its face and the air will come out of it if it doesn’t have some merit, not just right now but in terms of the scope of what you’ve been writing for 20-something years. Without the writing there’s nothing, and that’s been the story with this band since about 1985.”
“Rich [Robinson] and I were in Woodstock for about 10 days before the band arrived with Paul, and there were some bits and pieces that fell by the wayside. For me, it’s a lyric piece as well as a musical one. I did the majority of the lyrics over a period of four or five days. It’s a loosely based, thematic thing – will the ‘Aimless Peacock’ find his way to ‘The Last Place Love Lives,’ with the idea of this rural place, a magical hollow or whatever. A person grows up in this environment and then leaves,” offers Robinson. “That’s why it’s funny to try and describe ‘I Ain’t Hiding’ to people who don’t get it. Well, on the vinyl edition, on Side 3 the character from these songs finds himself in an urban place like New York, where the girls are different and the drugs are faster. ‘Make Glad,’ ‘Lady of Avenue A,’ ‘Kept My Soul’ and ‘I Ain’t Hiding’ are the little foray into the city. Of course, by Side 4, like all true poets and wanderers, we find ourselves back in the place that had so much magic for us in the first place, but we come back with different lenses, different perspectives.”
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These differences include the vinyl and CD version, where the narrative arc of the double LP is lost in the reshuffling for CD format, where one purchases Before The Frost… and gets a free download code for …Until The Freeze.
“As we move into the next decade of this century it’s interesting to ask, ‘What is a rock ‘n’ roll band? What is a rock star? What do these things mean?’ In my mind, it always comes down to the music. This album hits on all the things, all the influences that we are. This is the music we’re inspired by. This is the music we love,” continues Robinson. “I think Warpaint was an arrow pointing in this direction, whether it’s [revealing our passion for] Judee Sill or The Stanley Brothers or Wes Montgomery or whatever. When Rich is playing a sitar then people know we listen to classical Indian music and the Incredible String Band.”
Even the cover of the new album, an inviting pastel colored scene of wild country and low foothills, is a different visual statement than the band’s often robust imagery.
“By calling an album Warpaint, with that freaky posse rolling in on the cover and the version of the crow face from that era, that was definitely us saying, ‘We’re on our way,’ visually. But, I think everybody is going to love the artwork on [Before The Flood…]. There’s a genuine sense of people needing some fucking comfort in the modern day, and this cover is inviting. It’s not, ‘We’re running towards you,’ it’s, ‘Come over here.’ There’s a lot to that. I’d like to go to that cabin in that picture,” says Gorman, obliquely touching on some of the new album’s delicacy, a trait that’s always been present to one degree or another in the Crowes, though rarely as nakedly pronounced. “I don’t think anyone does slow material better than us. That’s just such a part of our wheelhouse. ‘Appaloosa’ is my favorite new track. I did a drum interview and I said that and the reaction was, ‘Really?’ Hey man, that’s the best I can do. There’s so much understated drumming and ghost strokes, but it’s not just my part, it’s the whole band. There’s a lot going on with ‘Appaloosa’ and it all fits together nicely. That’s a song I will never ever tire of doing. We were all saying it’s like a George Harrison tune. I think it’s Chris’ best vocal take on the record. That’s the best song he’s ever written, in my opinion. We resisted every urge to make it like nine-minutes long. It’s so pretty you want it to be two-minutes. That’s some McCartney 101.”
The Singer And The Song
“Part of that [change] is just what happens after 20 years of singing rock music. I felt [similarly positive about my singing] during New Earth Mud and there were fans of [the Crowes] who didn’t want to accept my singing like that, where it’s not always like Tina Turner or Steve Marriott [Small Faces, Humble Pie] or any of the singers I’ve really loved,” says Robinson. “I think I’m closer to something today that’s more me – not that I was ever someone else or a character or anything – but this is definitely much closer to the bone, closer to what my soul really is.”
This soulfulness emerges strongly on his recent love songs like “Greenhorn” and “Locust Street,” which exhibit a depth the 20-year-old Robinson couldn’t have come up with. Now, there’s real empathy and respect for the loss and work inherent to love, which tempers the romance and sentiment. As the group’s core fan base ages along with them, they are providing soundtracks that befit lives with significant water under the bridge.
“For a writer there’s tons of inspiration, not just the world within us. As time moves on, your perception changes. You know a lot more about being in love when you’ve lost it and been in it and had what you thought was love but didn’t, at least as long as you have an active process with your own history and mythology and mental state,” Robinson says. “In your personal life you have moments of clarity and moments of confusion. It gets back to getting through joyous things and traumatic things, which allows you to tell stories in song or just create some wordplay that strikes an emotional chord. William Burroughs did that by cutting things up and putting them back together, and it still resonated. With music it’s the same thing; if you put the wrong word in the wrong spot you’ll get the wrong vibe.”
“The fact that people love different eras in the band is great. I have total respect for people who take time out of their day to get on a message board and rant and rave about how it’s not what it should be. What fuels that is passion for what we do. That’s how I feel about it,” Gorman says. “In a perfect world, I wish every album had sold huge and the band had never had a change – I mean, on paper. But, everything’s been great the way it’s gone. Everything finds itself. That said, as much as I respect everything everybody’s given to the band, I love what we’re doing now. The Black Crowes to me are what we’re doing in 2009. 2008 doesn’t even really enter into it except when I stop to think about what got us here. Where we are everyday is where we are.”
“We knew [this lineup] was going to work the minute we went into the studio for Warpaint. The first track we cut the first night was ‘Movin’ On Down The Line.’ That was how we began the Warpaint sessions. That’s a pretty heavy piece of music to whip out. We were setting up gear and planning to start in the morning but we thought, ‘As long as we’re sitting around let’s see how this song goes.’ Four hours later we’re listening back to [‘Movin'”], thinking, ‘Holy shit!’ And the first song we did for the new record was ‘Shady Grove,’ which was another nice template to start with,” says Gorman. “With ‘Movin’ On Down The Line,’ Adam is just sitting there and writes that intro. We had that part but weren’t sure of the arrangement, and that whole spacey intro is Adam throwing out ideas and we all jumped on it. And the piano pass on that song is just spectacular; if you ever get a chance, listen to it on headphones. Then, ‘Shady Grove’ has this interplay between Rich and Luther throughout. And again, it was like, ‘Good lord, listen to this!’ There’s a lot of reasons that [the new material] is being accepted, but there’s maybe a subconscious acceptance that this is who the band is now.”
“There’s always some people on a nostalgia trip, but for the most part people coming to shows are up to date. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if we weren’t making original music and were just a greatest hits package,” scoffs Robinson, who shares this writer’s feeling that Dickinson and MacDougall really shine on the new stuff. “I think they did on the last one, too, but as time moves on they’ve definitely found their place. But that will change, too. It’s dynamic material and there’s architecture for them to inhabit. Luther is dynamic and soulful and masterful on anything. One of the things I really like about the new record is how strong Adam is on it, how expressive and strong his playing is.”
“It’s exciting to see how that progression keeps going, even after just 20 shows or so [on the current tour],” says Robinson, who also appreciates that the stockpile of new tunes means that old warhorses like “Jealous Again” will come around a bit less frequently. “Totally! We’re having a blast really focusing a lot on the new record, though still inclusive of the entire catalog. It allows us a chance to play ‘Peace Anyway,’ ‘Title Song,’ ‘Tied Up and Swallowed’ or whatever, where we can get deep into the catalog. The more you stretch out, the more the idea that there are no rules sinks in, then you realize how much more gratifying and fulfilling all the little things are. You realize, ‘Oh yeah, we can do that.’ Sometimes you have to stop and remind yourself.”
The Black Crowes are on tour now; dates available here.
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