The Black Crowes
April 11, 2013
House of Blues
The first time I saw The Black Crowes was in the fall of 1990 at a small barn in upstate New York called Saratoga Winners. Back then we didn’t know much about our favorite bands. You’d read the liner notes, catch a blurb in Circus magazine and maybe hear some dubious gossip from other fans.
Before that first show I only knew three things about the Crowes: the singer and guitar player were brothers; they covered a song by my favorite soul singer (Otis Redding); and they rocked. When I say “they rocked” I mean that they kicked my ass in a way wholly unlike any of the other musical options available at the time. On the airwaves we had terrible hair metal (pop/rock gussied up with self-indulgent guitar solos), the first strains of the grunge sound (a sludgy morass of punk/rock for depressives) and not much else.
Seemingly out of nowhere (or Atlanta, same difference to a northerner) came this band playing new music that sounded like the old music I loved. Some called it derivative. I called it a godsend. There was no one else at the time – including the classic rockers – making music that delivered that heady mix of blues, country and soul that I wanted.
That young band was a little sloppy, a little drunk and a hell of a lot of fun. They brought the energy and the crowd loved it. It was blues-rock with a danceable groove.
Here’s the funny thing about concerts – they haven’t changed all that much from the sock hops of the 1950s. The kids are just looking to shake their hips and have a good time. Even back in the ‘60s David Crosby and the Byrds realized that if they added a Beatle beat to a Dylan tune they could offer the best of both worlds – danceable music with real substance and meaning. Positive energy.
Consciousness awareness of a crowd’s energy is not a new thing. Jerry Garcia used to describe the feedback loop where the Dead would give energy to the crowd, the crowd would amplify and reflect that energy back to the band who would then feed off of that energy, elevating their performance to another level.
This feedback loop is so powerful that it can actually change the relationship between the crowd and the performer; instead of being a witness to the show you become a participant in the show. The show becomes a spiritual event. You live in the moment, lose yourself in the power of the sound and become one with the energy. Positive energy.
This brings us to Thursday night’s show at the House of Blues. Back from a three-year hiatus, the new-look Crowes reminded me very much of the original Crowes from 1990. You know, the Crowes that rocked hard, kicked ass, and kept the classic rock flame burning bright.
Returning to the stage are Chris Robinson (vocals, harp), Rich Robinson (guitar, vocals), Steve Gorman (drums), Sven Pipien (bass, vocals) and Adam MacDougall (keys), joined by newcomer Jackie Greene (guitar, vocals). Missing from the stage are former guitar player Luther Dickinson, percussionist Joe Magistro and the soul sisters. This is a leaner, meaner incarnation of the Crowes, in many ways reminding me of the late 1973 incarnation of the Dead sans Donna and Mickey.
From the opening strains of “Jealous Again” it was clear that we were going to get a high-energy, hits-laden set list. And while some long-time fans will complain, I say bring on, bring on. After 20+ years of refusing to play many of the songs that casual fans want to hear, it’s great that they’re finally delivering the hits.
Refusing to play your hits is not, in my mind, a sign of nobility or authenticity. I actually believe quite the opposite: it’s selfish to deny your fans the songs they love. Those songs are the precise reason why they love you. Every major act plays their hits. That’s part of the unspoken agreement between bands and fans – the fans listen to the stuff the bands want to play in exchange for getting the songs they want to hear.
And the thing about the Crowes is that they have a ton of great songs that people know and love. In my group at the show we had the full spectrum of fans represented: from the diehards who have seen every tour, to the most casual of fans. Everyone loved the show and everyone knew just about every song played.
The effect this hit-heavy set list had on the crowd was obvious: they loved every minute of the performance. The energy was up all night – peak after peak. The room was on fire. The vibe was great. Everyone was singing, dancing and happy. What more could you ask for?
Chris Robinson sounds better than he has in years. No longer a rock and roll screamer, Chris has matured into a bona-fide soul singer. Contrary to popular belief he is not from the Otis school. Otis was more of a shouter. Chris’s phrasing is smooth – how he comes in and out of lines – and he reminds me of no less than O.V. Wright. It’s great to see Chris back in the front man role, smiling, dancing and blowing some mean harp.
Rich Robinson is beyond underrated as a guitar player. Whether laying down a heavy riff or delivering a stinging solo, Rich’s playing is fantastic. He’s the bedrock of the band. He has a gift for getting exactly the right sound for each song out of his instrument.
Steve Gorman is a monster behind the kit, as always. The ass kicking starts with his performance, drums you can feel as well as hear. Coupled with his partner-in-rhythm Sven Pipien, the bottom is heavy but it swings, the way it ought to be.
Adam MacDougall is one of the best – and most flexible – keyboards players around. While not featured quite as prominently as he is in the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Adam can do it all. His solo on “Wiser Time” is a demonstration of his chops in action, as he goes from atonal jazz to slinky funk to space-like psychedelia in the span of five minutes.
Last but not least is the new guy, Jackie Greene. While still feeling out his new bandmates, especially in the transitions, his tone and feel are right on for the blues-rock Crowes. His tone is thick and substantial and his solos are full without crossing the line into the dreaded “shredder” territory. I can’t wait to hear where he’s at when he has 50 shows under his belt.
The nice thing about this slimmed-down version of the Crowes is their ability to pull-off multi-part harmonies between Chris, Rich, Sven and Jackie, negating the need for back-up singers (although creating the need for them to work up “And We Bid You Goodnight”).
Of the 19 songs played, 10 were from their first two albums – the ones that made them stars and established their image in the popular culture. They sprinkled all of their big hits throughout the show and filled out the set with lesser-known songs from the catalog and some covers.
As always, they managed to pick the right covers and elevate them to new heights. Their take on Traffic’s “Medicated Goo” was amazing, and somehow they pulled off the alchemic trick of weaving cheese into gold by inserting Deep Purple’s “Hush” into “Hard to Handle”. The closer “Oh Well” was great, very reminiscent of the 1999 version from the Jimmy Page era.
If I had to pick any nits, I’d recommend that they go back to the old arrangement of “My Morning Song”. The gospel thing is fun but this line-up would do justice to the classic version of the song. They also repeat the gospel breakdown in “Thorn in My Pride” so I’d keep those tunes separated.
I also love the idea of treating the encore as a mini-set for the diehards. Hopefully they’ll keep adding more deep cuts and obscure covers to close out the show.
I’ve seen a lot of Crowes shows over the years. I’ve certainly seen tighter performances. I’ve heard deeper cuts. I’ve dug into trippier jams. But I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a crowd more engaged and energetic, at least not since the very early days.
That’s the beauty and the magic of this iteration of the Crowes – they’re selflessly delivering a performance that is exactly what the audience needs and wants from them. I think my brother said it best after the show, “if they played a set like that every night they’d be selling out across the street at Fenway”.
THICK N THIN
GOOD MORNING CAPTAIN
SHE TALKS TO ANGELS
MY MORNING SONG
HIGH HEAD BLUES
THORN IN MY PRIDE
HARD TO HANDLE -> HUSH
- encore -
HOW MUCH FOR YOUR WINGS
BRING ON BRING ON
I’ve written a lot about The Black Crowes over the years. Click here to read more.