The Black Crowes: Welcome To The Good Times

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By: Dennis Cook

The Black Crowes
The Black Crowes have never been a band overly obsessed with their past, resistant to endlessly sifting through the rubble to make sense of what’s been or refute claims about the band. For this long-lived bunch, the road ahead, the next curve, the next sunrise and song have always been the marks on the horizon that kept them moving. However, as they hit their 20th anniversary in 2010, the Crowes are explicitly examining what it means to be this band and no other.

Croweology (released August 3 on the band’s own Silver Arrow Records) culls 20 cuts from their voluminous catalog and gives them often radical acoustic reworkings. It’s a joyful reminder of what a rich songbook they’ve composed and a showcase for the chops and ingenuity of the lineup that’s gelled over the past three years – Chris Robinsion (vocals, guitar, songwriting), Rich Robinson (guitar, vocals, songwriting), Steve Gorman (drums, percussion), Sven Pipien (bass, vocals), Luther Dickinson (guitar) and Adam MacDougall (keys, vocals). This fall they’ve embarked on a lengthy, arduous live schedule, cheekily dubbed the “Say Goodnight To The Bad Guys Tour,” where they’re diggin’ into anything & everything in their repertoire and playing an acoustic set followed by an electric set most nights. After the tour culminates in a six-night run at The Fillmore in San Francisco in December, The Black Crowes are going on an indefinite hiatus.

So, how’s it feel knowing this is last haul for a spell?

“I feel great about it, but I’m probably the most adapted to The Great Unknown [laughs]. The abyss doesn’t scare me,” says Chris Robinson. “If anything, it adds to a focus and dynamics for the shows. I don’t think the band is going to go away forever or break up or anything, but there’s not going to be any new Black Crowes music out there for a time and we don’t have any plans to get back together. So, I think it’s just about enjoying this tour and having our moment of accomplishment for being just warped enough to stick around for 20 years and get into this music and celebrate it. Face it, it’s not about anything else but that.”

“[Greater perspective on our history] would require some sort of group Gestalt therapy [laughs]. We can go to Esalen and get into a hot tub and figure it out,” quips Chris. “Maybe it’s different for everyone else, but I’m having fun. If it was tedious I don’t think we’d have bitten off such a big piece [this fall]. No matter what our internal problems may look like or seem, we want to play music and we want to have the best shows we can. Within that, everyone is on the same page. Our musical brotherhood is pretty tight, and I know you don’t just walk away from this group, these songs or this mythology now. But, taking a vacation from it is just pragmatism at its finest.”

It’s heartening to find the band in such a positive place, which clearly hasn’t always been the case with the Crowes. This break emerges in striking contrast to the last time the group went on hiatus in 2002, which occurred under heavy emotional & creative stress. This time, the pause after the December shows at The Fillmore in San Francisco seems natural and necessary for the Crowes’ long term potential.

Rich Robinson by Josh Miller
“I think we’ve had a pretty interesting career. To do the things we’ve done and gone the places we’ve gone has really been a cool thing. I’ve really been very interested in looking at that. It hasn’t been just a flat fuckin’ line,” offers Rich Robinson. “We’ve made some tough decisions and stuck with it and it’s been pretty cool overall.”

Based on the evidence of Warpaint, Before The Frost…Until The Freeze, Croweology and a slew of officially released live material, the previous three year hiatus was nothing but ultimately positive for the band in creative terms. While it took a few years to shake things down to present circumstances, it’s clear to serious longtime fans that the Crowes have never been happier or more consistent in their music making than this current chapter. “The last few years, especially since Adam and Luther joined, have been SO progressive and SO fulfilling in so many ways. The last three records, to me, are as strong as anything we recorded at any time,” says Chris. “Adam and Luther come into the situation without any weird ego or resentments. It’s all out in the open and it’s about this musical conversation instead of this other bullshit. In those terms, it’s been the best. These last three albums were the best studio sessions we’ve ever had.”

“I think we’re ourselves for the first time ever in the past three years,” observes Steve Gorman. “Everyone was finally ready to say, ‘Fuck it,’ and embrace who we are and what we are. Everyone’s been there at different levels at times but we’ve never all been there at the same time before. This is the most cohesive this band has ever been, onstage and off. It’s a time in the band’s arc where things are more in sync than I would have thought possible even five years ago. This is as good as it’s ever been. I’m such a sports, team-minded person and there’s nothing better than playing together with one mind. That’s how you get something done. You don’t have to always see eye-to-eye, you just have to be able to look out in the same direction and say, ‘Let’s go there.'”

Steve Gorman by Josh Miller
“Personally, I play better with this band [today] than I’ve ever played because I’m able to. I couldn’t listen and play and predict and feel in the moment in 1997 the way that I can now. It’s night and day. I couldn’t give that band half of what I’m able to now, just as a musician,” says Gorman. “There’s a lot that goes into that. It’s not just Luther’s better than Marc or anything like that, it’s that everybody onstage is dialed in with everybody else onstage in a way we never were before.”

Stripped of the majority of its hindering baggage these days, the Crowes’ focus remains resolutely on the music they make together, with the songs and their care being the central hub. Independence from record labels, industry suits and the like has done nothing but firm up their always-independent streak, with the result being one of the richest, most extended stretches of growth in the group’s history.

“I feel everyone has reached a place where we just kind of accept each other. That’s really what it is,” says Rich. “It’s been tumultuous [since we returned from the hiatus] but I think it’s been cool. We’ve gotten to focus on who we are. After 20 years you have to ask, ‘Who are we?’ Are we jam band? A classic rock ‘n’ roll band?’ No, we’re really just The Black Crowes. It’s really hard to be individual in rock, and a lot of the time we didn’t make the easiest decisions for our success. But we are the way are because of that. Although we had huge success when we were young, we’ve always had an independent spirit that really came more from an alternative headspace than anything.”

Today, The Black Crowes give off a distinct sense of pleasure in simply making music that permeates every note, as obvious in the studio as it is in the flesh.

“I couldn’t agree more,” says Chris. “Why force your hand? A snake can’t crawl on glass. You know what I mean?”

Continue reading for thoughts on the current tour …

Bad Guys On The Trail

Chris & Rich Robinson by Josh Miller
One clear sign that the Crowes aren’t content to rest on their laurels after two decades is the challenging course they’ve set for this final tour before the hiatus. With most headlining shows clocking in around three hours, they are actively challenging themselves to push into every aspect of their musicianship and material.

“Everybody in a band has their list of what they’d like to see happen, and it’s a matter of how much each person can get of their wish list. Saying that, I couldn’t ask for more [right now] because I know what the reality of what could happen is, which is my may of saying, ‘The shows are going great,'” chuckles Gorman. “Physically, it’s not a challenge. The acoustic set just slides by. It’s physically very easy, and if anything, it’s tough to be restrained, which comes back to the mental thing. I have to be so completely present but it does fly by. What I’m doing back there on the drum kit sets the dynamic way more in an acoustic set than an electric set. So, the acoustic set ends, you take a quick break, feel totally refreshed, do the electric set, and the show ends and I feel fine until 5 minutes later when my brain just shuts down. It’s that sort of exhaustion.”

The current tour reflects the Crowes’ enormous range, as well as showing off the dividends of their lengthy, intense sound checks where they hash out details, add filigree and otherwise thoughtfully tweak things. Their legacy seems important to them now in a way it may not have been in years past, and their dedication to high-level craftsmanship supercedes any lesser concerns in 2010.

“It’s going really well. It took a few shows to really figure out pacing and things like that. It’s a great way to build a show. The setlists have been really great. We’re trying to touch on everything, so we’re not shying away from old, new, unreleased songs, anything, ” says Rich. “It’s funny but we’re so kind of insular that we don’t really see what’s going on beyond us. We’ve always been on our own island but even more so these days.”

Chris Robinson by Josh Miller
“At the double shows, I feel a serious level of excitement, not just from us but from the audience. It just adds to the texture and dynamic of what we can do,” says Chris. “It highlights the musicianship and capabilities of this band, and it gives the songs a different space to mean something different – same melody, same lyrics, same key but a different exploration, if you will, a different feel. But of course, if we were in showbiz I guess we’d try to replicate the same thing for 20 years. When we set up everyday and fire up the electricity, it could be the best show you’ve ever been to that night with that given set of people and our set of electronic circumstance. You never know what’s gonna happen, and that’s the adventure that’s still relevant to us.”

“There’s still little things that happen on a very regular basis for the first time in this band, a certain turnaround or something that nobody else notices but we do, and it gets us off big time,” says Gorman. “Saying that we’re taking a break has also taken off a lot of pressure. Everyone’s enjoying their time onstage more than in years. We know we’re in a good place, and by design this [current] tour acknowledges that.”

“Chris voice is so, so, so strong right now. It’s like 1993 onstage these days,” says Gorman. “We did ‘Morning Song’ one night and when it hit the big rave-up he let a scream go that, honest to God, I haven’t heard in 15 years. When I came over, I told him, ‘Nice scream.’ And he said, ‘Oh really. You liked that?’ I joked, ‘I thought you twisted your ankle or something.’ Then later we did ‘Seeing Things’ and he did another one and looked back at me and winked. I thought, ‘You gotta be fucking kidding me.'”

Continue reading for thoughts on the group’s coming hiatus…

The Pause That Refreshes

The Black Crowes by Josh Miller
Inevitably, it’s nervous making for anyone’s favorite band to stop, even for a spell. It raises a huge question mark over the future and leaves fan appetites for new music unsatisfied. But, these are human beings and like any of us, a break from one’s daily grind is always invigorating, often in unpredictable ways. Where the sudden stomp on the brakes in 2002 came as a shock, the coming hiatus, announced long in advance, seems like the healthiest, smartest choice the band could make after one of the busiest, most productive stretches they’ve ever known.

“I can’t wait to get my hands into some other stuff,” says Chris. “To me, it’s about writing and my energy for that remains at a certain intense level. If I’m not sitting on six or seven new pieces at a time I’m little wigged out. Right now, I have about 15 new songs, which starts to look like a meaty thing to get into while the band takes time off. Knowing that we have this break coming does give a cult-focus to what we’re doing now in the band.”

“I’m gonna try and produce and hopefully get back into scoring again, which is what I’d love to be doing more than anything,” says Rich. “And possibly make another solo record. Not sure about that one. I like the music on Paper, but I’ve learned a lot about singing since then. I think I bit off a lot producing, writing, singing and all that shit. But it was worth it for what I learned. If I did something now, I think I’d understand it a lot better.”

Rich Robinson by Josh Miller
“Chris really wants me to sing. He really pushes me to do it, and I’m happy to oblige,” says Rich, who’s really shined on some of the Grateful Dead tunes the band has tackled in recent years. “I think there’s a vulnerability to Jerry’s voice that people have told me I have, too. I don’t know. Andy from Jellyfish told me that I sound like Gram Parsons sometimes. I think it’s really just that vulnerability present in my voice. Chris has such an amazing voice that it’s a good juxtaposition. Having both of us sing just gives us more layers.”

Layers are fundamental to this band. More than ever, today’s Black Crowes reflect a real understanding of the history of rock ‘n’ roll and it’s fundamental roots in country, blues, folk and jazz. In their own creations and smart cover choices, the Crowes represent the best that this gutbucket mélange has to offer by being wide-eyed and nakedly passionate about music in the broadest, lustiest sense. For this band, Moby Grape, Skip James and Django Reinhardt are living influences, seemingly disparate forces that somehow find common ground in the Crowes.

Chris Robinson by Josh Miller
“If you listen from Southern Harmony to Amorica to Three Snakes it’s all over the map, but we’ve still maintained our sound, and that’s because of Chris voice, the way I play guitar and write songs and the way Steve plays drums. The three of us have such a thing together that’s really kind of unique to us,” says Rich. “And I think Sven is the same way. He’s been there with us all along, even if he wasn’t in the band for the first 10 years. His approach to music is pretty unique as well.”

“Since we were growing up in the same household, Chris has always been the catalyst for new music. He’s the one who’s delved deep in the past,” says Rich. “He’ll bring things in and I’ll like some things but not others. But, the ones I do like I get into SO much and absorb myself into the music and the process of it. He’s encyclopedic in his music knowledge and he really brings it around and it’s great. He really is responsible for shaping a lot of the music I’ve learned and loved.”

One of the sad facts of modern culture is a seemingly relentless need to make hierarchies and dissect every detail of art in a way that assumes too much, gripes about facts that can’t be changed and otherwise refuses to embrace a thing as it is in favor of what it was or might be. Few bands know the ass-end of such thinking like The Black Crowes, whose every lineup shift, careless word and internal drama has been blown up and mulled over in our increasingly catty-chatty Internet culture.

“You’re missing a good story, you’re missing a good show if you’re doing that,” says Gorman. “For people that can take The Black Crowes for what they are in 2010, I think they’ll be pretty sated. For people harping on the old days, go put on a DVD or video. This is what’s going on right now. And five years from now those same people will realize what they’re missing out on. That’s their right. It’s not my job to straighten them out. It just seems sad that they’re going to miss this because they can’t get their head around it.”


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