Concert/Album Review: The Black Crowes Warpaint in Somerville, MA 3/5/08

Double Fun Bonus Review:
The Black Crowes
Live: 3/5/08 at the Somerville (MA) Theatre
Studio: Warpaint, released 3/4/08

Music has been a defining aspect of my life for as long as I can remember. It’s a short-cut to my soul. Few things get to me faster or deeper than music. As long as I can remember I’ve been chasing after “the song” – the song that was playing before I was born and will keep playing long after I’m gone. And like a true addict I keep chasing that high, the high that can only be delivered through rhythms and melodies.

I first fell in love with The Black Crowes back in 1990. We’ve been through so much together: college, falling in love, career, marriage, children, creating a home, everything. Sure, there have been many other bands that I’ve loved, but none like the Crowes. For half my life the Black Crowes have provided my personal soundtrack. They gave me the albums that I played into the ground and the concerts that I’ll never forget – the first one in 1990 at Saratoga Winners, then opening for ZZ Top (before they got kicked off the tour), on to headlining, the festivals – HORDE & Further, doing Zeppelin with Jimmy Page in Worcester and so many shows at the Ol’ Orpheum.

And now you’re probably thinking: “Is he really talking about The Black Crowes? Do people still listen to them? They’re the “Hard to Handle” guys, right?”

Yup. Those Black Crowes – the “Hard to Handle” guys. And while they haven’t been popular in a long, long time, those of us that like them love them. And I mean love to an insanely obsessive level. Amorica or bust!

From the get-go the Crowes have been labeled as throwbacks; competent yet unoriginal classic rockers in the mold of the Stones and the Faces. While respected for their musical abilities, they’re also criticized for a perceived lack of originality.

Originality must be an overrated quality, because to my ears, the Crowes have used their talents for nothing less than the preservation and reinvigoration of a grand and dying musical tradition. They honor their influences. They proudly wear their influences on their sleeves. They transmit the beauty and grandeur found in blues, soul, country, folk, funk, boogie-woogie, rock and psychedelia. They’re modern-day troubadours that have traded commercial success for authenticity and integrity.

But the years haven’t been kind to our favorite band. Their first album (Shake Your Money Maker) gave them fame and notoriety. Their next three albums (The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion, Amorica, Three Snakes & One Charm) represent the greatest album trilogy in modern rock and roll – three gems, each of which would represent the career-defining achievement of any band. Then the hard times came – personnel changes, bad vibes, two lesser albums (By Your Side & Lions) and finally, fittingly, 2001 came and it was over. The end of an era. The end of the Crowes. The end of the song.

Hey, times changes, nothing lasts forever. They had a great run and they left us with an incredible catalog of music and a lifetime of concert memories. And the timing was pretty good anyway – we were growing up, having children and working. And the solo albums provided minor pleasures, to ease the pain.

But then the rumors started – rebirth! – and by 2005 they were back. Traveling to that first show down at the Hammerstein, Easter weekend in 2005 was amazing. It all came back. They were back.

2005 was great but by 2006 signs of trouble were evident. The bad vibes started creeping in again. Marc and Eddie were gone. There was no new music. And what should have been the year of rebirth was starting to look like the last gasp of a dying man. Well, at least we got that one last taste, that one last chance to live in the past.

It was with great trepidation that we learned that 2008 would bring a new album – Warpaint – and a new band. Staying around would be Chris Robinson (vocals, harp, 3rd guitar), Rich Robinson (guitars), Steve Gorman (drums) and Sven Pipien (bass). New additions would be Luther Dickinson (slide guitar, of NMAS fame) and Adam MacDougall (keys).

The unspoken question: will this, the 7th official album from the 7th iteration of this band, represent a new beginning or a final ending to the song?

The Crowes had one small surprise in store for us. They would unveil the entire new album, live, in a handful of cities, at small theatres, during the release week. We were barely able to scrape up a few single tickets to see them play an old movie house in Somerville. It was the perfect venue – old and worn-down, yet classic and brimming with history.

And the question hanging over us all: would the Crowes deliver?

I had made the conscious decision not to buy or listen to the album before the show. I had listened to the first single “GDOTR” but nothing more. I was going in blind, anxious and with no expectations. Plenty of hopes and fears, but no expectations.

Empty Mind. Lights down. No thinking. Stage lights up.

Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution: the opener, the first single, is a generic Crowes rocker. It’s enjoyable and sing-a-longable, but in all honesty it worried me a bit. It’s the kind of song that the Crowes could churn out in their sleep. So, while it’s a very good tune with a strong introduction to Luther’s sound, I was hoping that the whole album wouldn’t sound like it.

Walk Believer Walk: a dark rocker, straight out of the Tall sessions, it has an epic vibe and a heavy bottom end. I was forewarned that Sven was dropping big bass bombs on the album and this song definitely hits hard. Sven and Steve have clearly taken their game to a new level. They’re approaching sacred territory. I’m almost afraid to say this, but there’s a little JPJ/Bonham thing going on here. And right about this point I had a feeling everything was going to be alright.

O, Josephine: And now I knew that everything would be much better than alright. I almost wanted to cry, hearing the Crowes drop another classic power ballad on us. It’s gorgeous. It’s the first accessible song that could be a huge hit. It’s right out of the She Talks To Angels-Girl From a Pawnshop playbook…sweet and beautiful but also rich and textured. Oh my god. They’re really back.

Evergreen: a guitar-driven rocker that proves one of my favorite maxims: average songs from great bands are still better than great songs from average bands. In lesser hands this would be unremarkable. But the Crowes masterful use of atmosphere, space and time changes makes it interesting and enjoyable.

We Who See the Deep: This mid-tempo rocker is kind of a mix between British rock and psychedelic rock. It’s the first song where Adam shines with a little roadhouse piano. It’s a fun, slight tune.

Locust Street: And here’s hit number 2. It’s an inspired decision by Luther to go for the mandolin here, but it’s really Chris’s vocal treatment and the backing harmonies that set it apart. Somewhere Gram Parsons is smiling, hearing his vision of California country rock live on for another generation.

Movin’ On Down The Line: As soon as the organ intro started I laughed, with the obvious, and perfect, copping of the Zeppelin opening. The vocal intro evolves into a guitar intro and then it just blows up into some crazy late-period Beatles pop. It’s a tremendous, ambitious, infectious mixture that really captures the Crowes sound.

Wounded Bird: A southern blues rocker that has a surprisingly optimistic feel to it as a result of Luther’s slide mimicking Chris’s vocals. Textured and well-crafted, this one will age well.

God’s Got It: Steve comes out in full marching band regalia with a big bass drum and the band proceeds to tear the roof off with some old school tent revival gospel. Their rendition of this cover tune (Rev. Charlie Jackson) is so enjoyable and compelling that it (almost) tempts one to hit a Sunday morning service.

There’s Gold in Them Hills: Another laid-back beauty, this one gives an indication of how New Earth Mud songs would sound if they were recorded by the Crowes. I adore cheesy Chris back-porch lullabies and this one is no exception – especially with the compelling bridge.

Whoa Mule: As if they decided to squeeze everything about the band’s sound into one song, this gem reminds me of the best description of the Grateful Dead’s genre of music – it ain’t blues or folk or country or jazz or ragtime or rock, nope, it’s American music, nothing more and nothing less. It’s a great song and a perfect closer for the album.

(Note: this is the end of the album, the rest of the concert review will continue below.)

They did it. They really did it! After all of the years, after all of the miles, after all of the hopes and disappointments, they came back with an album full of new Crowes classics. It’s a majestic work of beauty, made with abundant love and devotion by master craftsmen. And while it captures their influences and their history, it also clearly points to the road ahead.

You know, I probably would have been okay with a decent album of new material. And deep down inside I feared that they didn’t really have it in them anymore. Let’s be honest – it’s been 10 years since their last great album. I was afraid that there was too much history for them to have a future. But the Crowes are back, playing our song, the eternal song that transcends time and place and burrows down deep into your soul.

Yes, it’s just music. It’s just a rock band playing rock and roll music. But it’s my band, playing my music.

They’re back, baby!

After “Whoa Mule” the Crowes played 5 more songs. Now, you would assume that after dropping 11 new tunes on the audience that they’d come back with a few greatest hits, but not so fast. They played one old song and 4 covers:

Mean Town Blues: (Johnny Winter) was a strong blues number most recently played by Luther & Rich’s side band Circle Sound and it’s a great showcase for the Crowes. Very enjoyable.

Thorn in My Pride: is a classic Crowes gem and a live show staple. The new guys put in a good effort and of course, we got the Spinal Tap-esque drum solo from Steve. Usually the drum solo annoys me, but I was happy to indulge the band after such a great night.

Girl from the North Country: (Bob Dylan) is a perfect song for the Crowes and it’s great to hear Chris and Rich trade verses. This one was a real treat.

Don’t Know Why: showcased the Crowes amazing ability to update and jam out classic soul and Motown songs like “Dark End of the Street” and “Do Right Woman.” Yet another influence from the musical stew lovingly represented.

Hey Grandma (Moby Grape) finished the evening off with more strong country rock. They were playing so well, so energetically, that it didn’t matter whether you knew the songs or not.

And all too soon it was over. But it didn’t feel like an ending; rather it felt like a new beginning. Sure, the show could have been a little longer. And I could have used a little more Rich and a little less Luther in the mix. And I’ll never stop missing Weird Ol’ Ed. But perhaps it was a good thing that the Marc-Ed version of the Crowes never recorded any new material. That line-up represented the past, and they may have struggled with trying to remake their iconic material. Luther and Adam bring a new edge to the band and it shows. And make no mistake, this is a band. They were listening to each other and playing as a unit. The whole was much greater than the sum of the parts.

Since the show ended I’ve listened to nothing but Warpaint. I’ve gone through it at least a dozen times and I’m not sure when I’ll stop. Perhaps I’ll look back in a few years and think less of the album. But right now, after a magical night in Somerville and a few days with this album, I’m devastated. Blown away. The cosmos is smiling. The tradition lives on.

I guess what others call retro is what I call timeless.

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