The Black Crowes: Warpaint Live

By: Dennis Cook

A delicious impoliteness touches the opening notes of “Goodbye Daughers of the Revolution,” instantly announcing this ain’t the same animal as last year’s studio release. While The Black Crowes have made some of the sturdiest, more classic sounding albums of the past 25 years, their natural habitat, their “wheelhouse” as drummer Steve Gorman is fond of saying, is the concert hall, testifying and half-steppin’ before a bubbling crowd. And while the focus of this set may seem a touch narrow at first glance, Warpaint Live (arriving April 28 on Eagle Rock/Silver Arrow) represents where it’s at today with this long running rock institution. Paired with the studio counterparts of these eleven tracks, this collection presents a band in the throes of a positive creative fire capable of blazing a path forward for them.

First off, previous official Crowes live releases have tended to offer good but not necessarily great portraits of their concert prowess, perhaps internal strife or the awareness of rolling tape throwing them slightly off their best game. Live Warpaint, captured on March 20, 2008 at The Wiltern in Los Angeles, is a very fine night from the boys (and girls). The surge of enthusiasm coming off the stage at these seven “play the entire new album” shows was special, a tangible sense of collective renewal, a recommitment to their cause, flag held high, comrades pulled close, at least where it counts – the music. Too much has been written about the travails and tragedies of the Crowes but within their personal maelstroms lies the grist and chug of these new tunes, which hum with truly lived-in understanding and no small measure of compassion, for others and even for themselves. That in mind, offering this material up live for the first time was an intensely personal public airing, and the band delivered things with suitable passion and gravitas. They also sounded like they were having more fun than anyone had seen them have in many a year. And all those immeasurably important intangibles have been caught, in some respect, on Live Warpaint.

From the billowing modern psych of “phosphorescent love song” “Evergreen” to the open tenderness of “Locust Street,” there is great sweep to the Crowes’ latest batch, and this tour ender finds them dialed in, forcing huge gusts of air into the lungs of the beast they build together – a large, many limbed thang with a few heads but one heart. This recording allows us an intimate P.O.V. on things, where support vocalists Charity White and Mona Lisa Young rise from the thick mix on appropriate wings and the sharp tang of Rich Robinson‘s increasingly strong singing is felt more readily than inside a venue. Hopefully by the time the organ run at the end of “Oh Josephine” hits the naysayers will cram something in their cakehole and recognize that keyboardist Adam MacDougall is a lethal addition to the band, less apparent than much beloved Ed Harsch but already putting his stamp on things. The subtleties of Gorman’s percussion are easier to pick out without the big amps, and anyone who doesn’t get how many pistons in this thing Gorman pushes is a dunce. Further, put on headphones and the undulating bass of Sven Pipien works its way into your synapses, slithering below the terrific guitar interplay between Rich and Luther Dickinson, who reminds us here that he’s a much different axe man with this bunch than with the Allstars. One of the virtues of the Warpaint focus is this is the first stuff this lineup has worked up together. There’s no history, no ex-member hauntings, no tentativeness or resistance (for whatever reason) and the force of this performance should be enough to convince anyone these guys like playing music together. Many limbs, sure, but all grasping at the same brass ring as they swing and wail.

Like the Warpaint shows, the second disc here is mini-set/encore icing – tasty enough but not the main dish being served. It’s great to have their ace covers of Delaney & Bonnie’s “Poor Elijah/Tribute To Johnson” and Moby Grape’s “Hey Grandma” at one’s fingertips, each guaranteed to put a lil’ snap in your trouser. Clapton’s “Don’t Know Why” and the Stones’ “Torn And Frayed” add further sugar, and treasured b-side “Darling of the Underground Press” has rarely been better handled. However, few cuts illustrate the difference between 20-something Chris Robinson and 40-something Chris than the “Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye” included here. His mighty scream isn’t what it used to be, and frankly I could care less. The singer emerging on the newest material is a nuanced, interesting evolution of the always-in-the-red young man that made us love Otis Redding all over again. Chris remains one of greatest lead singers ever (and my personal fave for close to 20 years), and if one thinks of what he does in jazz terms and not rock’s youth obsessed way then maybe they can let go of expecting to hear the same dude they heard on Southern Harmony and Musical Companion.

Thankfully, The Black Crowes of today aren’t about recreating anything. There is an upward arc to the band right now, and if 2008 said anything about them it’s that there’s more music to come and it’s likely to be some of their best yet based on the evidence of Warpaint and Warpaint Live.

See JamBase’s review of the S.F. Warpaint show here.

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