The Black Crowes Album Project: Amorica (1994)

The Black Crowes Album Project:
Amorica (1994)


Band Members:

Chris Robinson, vocals, harp
Rich Robinson, guitar
Steve Gorman, drums
Johnny Colt, bass
Marc Ford, guitar
Eddie Harsch, keys

Additional Musicians:

Jimmy Ashurst, mandolin
Eric Bobo, percussion
Andy Sturmer, assorted musical gifts
Bruce Kaphan, pedal steel

Produced by:

Jack Joseph Puig and The Black Crowes

Mitch’s Review:

The rap on The Black Crowes was always that they were a derivative band, dismissed by many critics as the unholy offspring of the Stones and the Faces – the former based on the sound of Rich Robinson’s guitar and the later based on the sound of Chris Robinson’s voice. To a certain extent the criticism was warranted. The Black Crowes have always embraced and celebrated their influences and their musical progenitors can be clearly heard on their first two albums, 1990’s Shake Your Money Maker and 1992’s The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. The irony, of course, is that precisely when popular culture stopped paying attention to the Black Crowes was precisely when they delivered the unmistakable, wholly-original and genre-defying collection that is 1994’s Amorica. Unfortunately, not enough people noticed to give them credit for their efforts.

Where Southern Harmony was a near-perfect example of “classic” rock music defined by the guitars – the big Rich Robinson riffs and the devastating Marc Ford solos, Amorica is largely defined by rhythm and percussion. The sound laid down by Steve Gorman dominates and drives most tracks on the album. Amorica is Steve Gorman’s masterpiece.

The songs on Amorica are uniformly terrific. There is no filler to be found here. While certain tracks like “Gone”, “She Gave Good Sunflower”, “P. 25 London” and “Downtown Money Waster” slightly miss the mark, they’re all still quite successful, as there are memorable aspects to every track on the album.

The best songs on Amorica successfully take The Black Crowes to another dimension. There’s an epic quality to songs like “Cursed Diamond”, “Ballad in Urgency” and “Descending” that is so powerful that the songs have lost no energy or magic even after 15 years. They’re timeless. Amorica also delivers the signature Black Crowes composition “Wiser Time,” which in theme, sound and performance is the quintessential Black Crowes song.

Amorica can’t be categorized into any specific musical genre. It alternates between being bluesy, funky, tender, heavy, majestic, soulful, angry, dark, sweet, soaring and beautiful. It’s just Black Crowes music. While Southern Harmony may be their most complete album, Amorica clearly represents their creative peak. It’s a risky and experimental album that wasn’t afraid to explore the dark shadows within the soul – but I’ll save that particular theme for our discussion of Tall in a few weeks. Final Score: 3.6

1) Gone: 3
2) A Conspiracy: 4
3) High Head Blues: 4
4) Cursed Diamond: 4
5) Nonfiction: 4
6) She Gave Good Sunflower: 3
7) P. 25 London: 3
8) Ballad in Urgency: 4
9) Wiser Time: 4
10) Downtown Money Waster: 3
11) Descending: 4

Don’s review:

When Amorica was released in the Fall of 1994, it was emphatic, undeniable PROOF that The Black Crowes had been mislabeled by critics as 70s poseurs. They were their own band, doing their own thing and they did not give a damn what anyone else thought. Looking back, it’s not the least bit ironic that this record, launched during the heyday of “alternative” music, actually may have been one of the most alternative of the decade.

Amorica was a sharp turn from the Stax-By-Way-of-Atlanta-Southern-Rock of Shake Your Money Maker and Swampy-Swaggering-Muscle Shoals-Sound of The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. It was so different that it took a few spins to get used to. But the more it plays, the more the listener appreciates the complex arrangements and brilliance of Rich and Chris Robinson. This is Chris at his lyrical peak and Rich at his most creative and ambitious.

Listening today, it’s impossible overlook the genius of Ed Harsch, whose keys are prominent on virtually every track, from the tear drops of “Nonfiction” to the poignant intro and coda of “Descending”. The rhythm section is also in top form, and the interplay of Marc Ford and Rich Robinson is right up there with any guitar combo in rock history.

Unfortunately, as the finished-then-scrapped album Tall revealed when released a decade later, the Crowes left much better songs on the cutting room floor than Amorica’s horrid “P.25 London” and “Downtown Money Waster”, the latter of which is infinitely better in its live arrangement than on this recording. Final Score: 3.2

1) Gone: 3
2) A Conspiracy: 3
3) High Head Blues: 4
4) Cursed Diamond: 4
5) Nonfiction: 4
6) She Gave Good Sunflower: 3
7) P.25 London: 1
8) Ballad In Urgency: 3
9) Wiser Time: 4
10) Downtown Money Waster: 2
11) Descending: 4

Previous Release: 1992′s The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion

Up Next: 1996′s Three Snakes and One Charm

To learn more about The Black Crowes Album Project, please read the introduction.

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The Black Crowes Album Project: The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (1992)

The Black Crowes Album Project:
The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (1992)

Band Members:

Chris Robinson, vocals, harp
Rich Robinson, guitar
Steve Gorman, drums
Johnny Colt, bass
Marc Ford, guitar
Eddie Hawrysch, keys

Additional Musicians:

Barbara and Joy – the choir
Chris Trujillo – congas

Produced by:

The Black Crowes and George Drakoulias

Mitch’s Review:

The combination of being on the road for a couple of years honing their craft and adding two virtuosos propelled The Black Crowes to the next level on their second album, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. There’s no sophomore slump here. The band is tight and polished. The music is complex and full of texture. Just cue up the middle of “Remedy” (3:19 mark) to hear the difference that Marc Ford & Eddie Hawrysch make. A searing yet short Ford guitar solo is followed up a soulful Hawrysch keyboard fill. No offense to Jeff Cease intended, but Marc Ford’s tone and timing is unmatched. His work on TSHAMC stands among the best recorded guitar work ever. Then again, we shouldn’t slight Rich’s playing either. TSHAMC is a testament to Rich Robinson’s growing composition skills. The 9 originals on the album stand among his best work. Chris’s performance –vocally and lyrically – is outstanding. He even busts out the harp for the first time. All of the other elements are excellent as well: Gorman and Colt are locked in, providing that heavy groove on the bottom, the soul sisters add even more depth and emotion to the mix and the production (live, analog feel) is exactly right.

The endearing sloppiness of SYMM has been replaced by sheer confidence. And why not? They’ve got the songs and the musical chops to pull it off. Southern Harmony is a perfect cross between soul and southern rock. It’s all space and atmosphere with songs that are stretched out and jammed out but never to the point of over-indulgence. It rocks hard with songs like “Black Moon Creeping” and “No Speak No Slave” but it also contains beautiful layered tunes like “Thorn in My Pride”. It’s my favorite album of all time, one of the greatest rock albums ever and only their insistence on covering a medicore Bob Marley tune prevents them from achieving perfection. Final Score: 3.9

1) Sting Me: 4
2) Remedy: 4
3) Thorn In My Pride: 4
4) Bad Luck Blues Eyes Goodbye: 4
5) Sometimes Salvation: 4
6) Hotel Illness: 4
7) Black Moon Creeping: 4
8) No Speak No Slave: 4
9) My Morning Song: 4
10) Time Will Tell: 3

Don’s Review:

In May 1992, the Black Crowes were the biggest band in the world. The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion was #1 on Billboard’s Album Chart. And, amazingly, they had become the best band in the world, for the songwriting and musicianship on their new record was a quantum leap forward even from the great Shake Your Money Maker.

What most stands out on this album – 17 years and a thousand spins later – is THE SOUND. Producer George Drakoulias (the Crowes themselves share production credit) recorded the band live in the studio, with all the energy, spontaneity and bravado of a band that knew it was on fire. Yet the record is full of warmth and richness. Listening on headphones remains a delight. Percussive accoutrements like the cow bell on “Sting Me”, or the triangle on “No Speak No Slave” unveil themselves in every track. Soul sister backing vocals have never been recorded better on any album from the Crowes or any other band.

Clearly, the core of the band had grown significantly after 2 solid years on the road. But the addition of two truly incredible musicians catapulted them to greatness. Ed Hawrysch’s boogie-woogie piano and magestic Hammond B-3 organ organically meshed with the music better than Chuck Leavell’s over-dubbed keys did on Money Maker. Marc Ford’s guitar was a revelation. His performance on Southern Harmony remains shockingly incredible, especially considering many of his solos were first takes during his first week ever playing with the band. His tone was nasty and gorgeous at the same time.

As for the songs? Almost all are great. The only mild letdown being the hangover of “Time Will Tell”. But, actually, probably any song would pale after the impossible-to-top, 1-2-3 punch run of “Black Moon Creeping”, “No Speak No Slave” and “My Morning Song”, the latter finishing with a crescendo that gives me goosebumps every time I hear it live, and especially on this recording. Final Score: 3.9

1) Sting Me: 4
2) Remedy: 4
3) Thorn In My Pride: 4
4) Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye: 4
5) Sometimes Salvation: 4
6) Hotel Illness: 4
7) Black Moon Creeping: 4
8) No Speak No Slave: 4
9) My Morning Song: 4
10) Time Will Tell: 3

 

Previous Release: 1990′s Shake Your Money Maker

Up Next: 1994′s Amorica

To learn more about The Black Crowes Album Project, please read the introduction.

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The Black Crowes Album Project: Shake Your Money Maker (1990)

The Black Crowes Album Project:
Shake Your Money Maker (1990)

Band Members:

Chris Robinson, vocals
Rich Robinson, guitar
Steve Gorman, drums
Johnny Colt, bass
Jeff Cease, guitar

Additional Musician:

Chuck Leavell, keyboards

Produced by:

George Drakoulias

Mitch’s Review:

The heart of The Black Crowes’ signature sound – Rich Robinson’s big guitar riffs, Steve Gorman’s heavy drumming and Chris Robinson’s distinctive blues-rock voice – is established immediately on their debut album Shake Your Money Maker. What follows is an impressive set of music that effortlessly blends blues, rock, soul, and gospel. While their energetic cover of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” foreshadowed their unique ability to choose perfect cover tunes and the heart-breaking “She Talks to Angels” established their skill at writing beautiful ballads, it’s unheralded songs like “Seeing Things for the First Time” and “Sister Luck” that showed a young band writing and performing at a level far beyond their years. Only at the very end of the album does the momentum tail off with a couple of generic blues rockers. All in all, Shake Your Money Maker is an excellent debut with 5 great songs, 5 good songs, 1 filler tune and no clunkers. Final Score: 3.4

1) Twice as Hard: 3
2) Jealous Again: 4
3) Sister Luck: 4
4) Could I’ve Been So Blind: 3
5) Seeing Things for the First Time: 4
6) Hard to Handle: 4
7) Thick ‘n Thin: 3
8) She Talks to Angels: 4
9) Struttin’ Blues: 2
10) Stare It Cold: 3
11) Live Too Fast Blues/Mercy Sweet Moan: 3

Don’s Review:

The 1980s almost killed rock and roll. With frighteningly few exceptions (early REM and U2 most prominently), it was a decade dominated by hair bands, cheesy metal and power ballads. Contemporary rock was so bad that “classic rock” became the dominant rock format on radio.

Then, out of nowhere, along came Shake Your Money Maker to ring in the 1990s, an uppercut to the jaw for the genre. It’s no wonder this new band, The Black Crowes, were immediately typecast as descendents of the early 1970s-era Rolling Stones and Faces. They were the most pure rock and roll band to debut since. Plus, they looked and sounded the part and made no apologies for it. What overshadows this, looking back, is that when one looks and listens under the surface, The Black Crowes had made themselves one hell of a record and one of the best debut albums in rock and roll history. That’s no exaggeration, whether measured in sales, song writing or performance.

Shake Your Money Maker has aged well. Listening to it straight through for the first time in years, I was reminded why I fell for this band – the first of my generation who seemed to really understand what I loved about rock and roll. I remembered one of Chris Robinson’s quotes from their only Rolling Stone cover story. He mentioned one of his favorite lyrics from his record collection: “the sunshine bores the daylights out of me” from “Rocks Off”, the first track on Exile in Main Street. It happened to be my favorite lyric, too. Clearly, the Crowes got it. And so they got me, too.

The unmistakable riff from “Twice as Hard” opens an album full of surprisingly well-crafted songs that make even excellent recent records by bands clearly influenced by the Crowes, like Kings of Leon, sound like child’s play. When rating the songs, I debated whether a few tracks like “Sister Luck”, “Seeing Things” and “Thick ‘N Thin” were “great” or “good” and have decided that 4s should be hard to come by. That’s why I scored them as 3s. But almost 20 years later, “Jealous Again” remains one of the Robinson brothers’ best straight up rockers. “She Talks To Angels” is as good a ballad as any rock band has made since. And no one – no one – has ever made a better cover than “Hard To Handle”. Final Score: 3.2

1) Twice as Hard: 3
2) Jealous Again: 4
3) Sister Luck: 3
4) Could I’ve Been So Blind: 3
5) Seeing Things: 3
6) Hard to Handle: 4
7) Thick ‘n Thin: 3
8) She Talks to Angels: 4
9) Struttin’ Blues: 2
10) Stare It Cold: 3
11) Live Too Fast Blues/Mercy Sweet Moan: 3

Up Next: 1992′s The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion

To learn more about The Black Crowes Album Project, please read the introduction.

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The Black Crowes Album Project: Introduction

It’s no secret that The Black Crowes are my favorite band. I’ve spent the better part of the last two decades listening to the Crowes, attending shows, collecting b-sides, arguing about them on message boards and spreading the love to non-believers. At this very moment the band is wrapping up their temporary residency at Levon Helm’s barn in Woodstock, where they were recording their new sorta-double album (“Before the Frost…Until the Freeze”) live at a series of intimate shows. As I boldly predicted in “My Magnus Crowepus” it sounds like they’re definitely pursuing a more organic, cosmic country rock sound (not that I’ve heard the bootleg or anything.) No one knows when the new album is going to be released [9/1/09], how many songs will be on it [disc 1: 11; disc 2: 9] and whether it will be an “all-time classic” or merely “spectacular.” (Kidding, kidding – I’ll really try to be objective about it.)
  
I recently had lunch with my friend Don Lane who is undoubtedly the biggest Crowes fan that I know. I’m ashamed to admit that he’s probably even more obsessed than I am. He was giving me his song by song review of the Cabin Fever session that he and his wife attended last Saturday in Woodstock and it occurred to me that I’ve never done a song-by-song, album-by-album review of the entire Crowes discography.
  
Well, now that the human genome project is finally finished I figured that I could spare some time on a project that’s actually useful: The Black Crowes Album Project. The best news is that Don is going to join me for this one, so you’ll get two opinions on each Crowes disc for the price of one.
 
Here are the rules to the game. Each week (or so) we’re going to re-listen to a Crowes studio album in its entirety and rate the songs. Live albums and solo projects might come later. We’ll go by official release order:
 
  1. Shake Your Money Maker
  2. The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion
  3. Amorica
  4. Three Snakes and One Charm
  5. By Your Side
  6. Lions
  7. The Lost Crowes 1 (Tall Sessions)
  8. The Lost Crowes 2 (Band)
  9. Warpaint
  10.  Before the Frost (9/1/09 release)

 

I spent a lot of time considering the most effective rating system. I wanted it to be numerical – so the albums could ultimately be ranked on a quantifiable basis – but I also wanted it to be simple. The ranking should take into consideration performance, musical composition, lyrics and originality. The goal is to listen with fresh, objective ears and score:

  • 1 point for a bad song (tune has few merits and is usually skipped);
  • 2 points for an okay song (tune has some merit but is album filler);
  • 3 points for a good song (tune is very well done and is always enjoyable to hear);
  • 4 points for a great song (tune is an all-time classic and exemplifies TBC’s best music).

Will Southern Harmony truly prove itself to be the best Crowes album ever? Will Lions or BYS score the worst? How does Warpaint stack up? Which lead guitarist will get the best score (okay, we all know that Marc will win that one!) All these questions and more will be answered during The Black Crowes Album Project!

Up next: 1990′s Shake Your Money Maker

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Concert Review: Ryan Adams & The Cardinals in Boston, MA 2/21/09

Concert Review:
The Cardinals
2/21/09
Orpheum Theatre
Boston, MA
(Listen to the show here: tapers rule!)

Ryan Adams is not a rock star

Sure, Ryan Adams may appear to be a rock star. He’s certainly got all of the trappings – a reputation for erratic behavior, the celebrity fiancée and a passionate fan base – but he couldn’t make it any clearer that he really does not want to be a rock star.

From the moment you walk under the Orpheum Theatre’s marquee that merely says “Cardinals” it is obvious that Ryan Adams just wants to be the lead singer for the self-described “professional rock band.” Even the way he sets himself up on stage – hopelessly alone on the right side, set back behind the monitors, legs twisted at an impossible angle, crouching and reluctantly attacking the microphone – highlights his discomfort with being a front man.

The Cardinals are anchored by the talented duo of bassist Chris Feinstein and drummer Brad Pemberton, who provide a heavy backbeat with minimal flash, except for Chris’s occasional strolls to the front of the stage. What really distinguishes the band’s sound is the amazing pedal steel guitar playing of Jon Graboff. Having Graboff’s slide presence instead of a full-time keyboard player gives the Cardinals a slight country twinge with a distinct sound for a rock band – while keeping the music guitar-driven. But the real MVP of the band is Neal Casal, a tasteful guitar player with a beautiful tone and an excellent singing voice. It’s the on-going conversation between Neal and Ryan – the vocally harmonies and the intertwining guitars – that truly energizes and elevates Ryan’s songs.

It’s quality songs that provide the fuel for a talented band to achieve lift-off and Ryan has produced an astounding catalogue of original material over the last decade. Ryan’s a true triple threat – singer, songwriter and musician – and he excels in every role.

Set One:

I See Monsters – a perfect opener, building to a full rock-out frenzy and setting the tone for an energetic night
Everybody Knows – muscular version with great harmonies from Neal & Ryan
Fix It – stellar guitar work on their first cut from Cardinology
Let It Ride – driven by Graboff’s steel, a nice country stomp
Two – a short and sweet version
Easy Plateau –this classic was stretched out, jammed out and featured the great a capella breakdown
A Kiss Before I Go – decent, if slight, country tune
Wonderwall – amazing performance of Oasis’s hit that built up to an excellent jam
Come Pick Me Up – a real treat with a beautiful vocal delivery
Cardinals Intros – one of the fun surprises of the evening, each band member was introduced with a unique mini-jam (four bonus songs!)
Peaceful Valley – this is a really dark, deep tune where the heaviness of the music is offset by the beauty of the harmonies – jammed out really nicely
>Beautiful Sorta – the Peaceful Valley jam led right into a strong, rocking version
Evening Joke featuring Jon Graboff – a terrible joke by Jon which made the whole bit even funnier
Freeway To The Canyon – a tender Neal Casal song, great melody and vocal delivery
Goodnight Rose – they turned this average tune from Easy Tiger into a platform for a truly Dead-esque jam (think “The Other One”). Ryan & Neal were completely locked in at this point, playing in tandem.
Ryan banter – a funny story about Taco Bell
Grand Island – another good Neal tune to end the first set.

I was honesty surprised to get a set break at this point, figuring they’d just play a long one-setter. It was only 10:00 but it certainly felt later. We already had 14 great tunes, some long jams and a lot of energy. The taps were shut off and Ryan promised to come back and play until curfew.

Set Two:

Shakedown on 9th Street – straight-up rocker to kick off the second set.
Rescue Blues – Graboff switched to guitar for a nice Rescue Blues. Could’ve used some keys, but was a treat nonetheless
Oh My God Whatever Etc. – a beautiful rendition with great harmonies
Stars Go Blue – nice subtle version
Magick – great rocker off of Cardinology
Oh My Sweet Carolina – the crowd went crazy for Carolina – great harmonies and pedal steel
Off Broadway – spacey and jammed out. Really nice.
Born Into a Light – good version
Down In a Hole – A heavy, perfect cover of this old Alice in Chains tune

Seconds after “Down in a hole” ended the house lights came up. Ryan wasn’t kidding – he played right up to the 11:00 curfew. It was a jarring end to the show, but the Cardinals can’t be blamed for Boston’s blue laws!

The idea that Ryan Adams may retire after this tour due to a painful inner ear condition seems both absurd and cruel. The Cardinals are absolutely at the top of their game right now. There was not one bad song or off moment during the entire 2.5 hour show. They’re a band with a very unique sound. They’re absolutely a heavy rock band – not for the faint of heart – but they also possess a very melodic, country feel. They’ve got a legitimate front man in Neal Casal, but they also have the monstrous talent of Ryan Adams. It’s hard to describe Ryan’s presence. He’s got incredible skills as a singer – he can modulate his tone and delivery to fit each song or arrangement. But he could also be the lead guitar player for a heavy metal band. When he wants to he can shred – big, sloppy riffs and solos. And yet he doesn’t overly indulge himself or frequently play the role of “guitar god”. He defers to his bandmates and that’s truly the secret of The Cardinals’ success – they’re a band. They listen to each other. They play together. They are a professional rock band.

If this is really their last tour then please do yourself a favor and catch one of their remaining shows. You won’t be sorry.

But Ryan, I’ve got some bad news for you, pal. You are definitely a rock star.

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My Magnus Crowepus

(Quite Possibly the Longest Meditation on the Black Crowes in the History of the Internet)

Preface

A few seconds after turning on the Rolling Stones’ “Sweet Black Angel” in the living room my wife implored “please, no more Black Crowes.” Sadly, I’ve burned her out on the Black Crowes after overplaying them for the last 18 years.

My immediate reaction, however, was to say “thank you.” I thanked her on behalf of Chris & Rich Robinson for confusing the intro to “Sweet Black Angel” off of the Stone’s masterpiece Exile on Main Street for a Black Crowes’ tune. I couldn’t imagine a higher compliment to any contemporary rock and roll band.

You Know it’s True

You see, it’s true. No Black Crowes fan will admit it in polite company, but it’s what we all secretly believe – that the Black Crowes are the reincarnation of the Rolling Stones. The parallels are stunning. Let’s list a few:

– Blues-based rock and roll band that deftly incorporates elements from practically every music style;

– Vocally-gifted and charismatic lead singer and lyricist (Mick Jagger/Chris Robinson);

– Open-G tuned rhythm guitarist that writes the music and provides the insanely catchy riffs (Keith Richards/Rich Robinson);

– Seething tension between aforementioned singer and guitar player;

– Oft-overlooked but world-class drummer that holds it all together (Charlie Watts/Steve Gorman);

– Incomparable lead guitar player that took the band to new heights but couldn’t stay in the band out of creative frustration and was never nearly as good outside of the band (Mick Taylor/Marc Ford);

– Three back-to-back-to-back album masterpieces largely driven by aforementioned lead guitar player (Let It Bleed-Sticky Fingers-Exile on Main Street/Southern Harmony-Amorica-3 Snakes);

– Hell, they even shared a piano player! (Chuck Leavell)

Now, let’s be honest. The Stones came first. They were much, much more popular (it’s not even close). They were more culturally-important. They wrote more “classic” songs. In all those regards, the Stones dwarf the Crowes.

But the Crowes are a better live band. The Stones are a glorified garage band and their live playing tends to be sloppy and sped-up. Mick tends to shout more than sing. The Crowes, at their peak (’96-’97) provided a transcendent live experience. Even today, a post-peak Black Crowes is still the best live band in the galaxy.

Post-Peak?

Well, obviously the Black Crowes are past their peak. How long can any artist produce at the highest level of their craft? By 1997 the Black Crowes were at the top of their game. Consider this: their debut album – Shake Your Money Maker – the album that brought rock and roll back from the depths of hair metal and filled the airwaves with hit after hit (‘She Talks to Angels’, ‘Hard to Handle’, ‘Jealous Again’) was their worst album by ‘97. Most bands have difficulty following-up their debut with quality material. The Crowes’s sophomore album, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, is one of the greatest rock albums ever produced. They followed Southern Harmony up with the genre-shattering Amorica and the psychedelic masterpiece 3 Snakes & One Charm. They had a 7 year run of brilliant songwriting, four excellent albums and unparalleled live performances. Expecting anyone to maintain that level of performance is insane.

The Point Is

You see, the point is that comparisons inevitably lead to suffering. It’s unreasonable to expect the Crowes to match their peak performance again and it’s wrong to compare everything they do for the rest of their careers against that golden period. Of course the new stuff won’t measure up. Nothing ever could. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t write great songs or put on amazing shows anymore. 1997 died 12 years ago. Just try to judge the present moment on its own merits.

Magic 8 Ball Says…

The angry, aggressive heavy rock days for the Crowes are long gone. The Black Crowes are now a country rock band. And I’m truly sorry for the diehards that don’t like that aspect of the band. Look, it’s always been in the mix, but now it’s dominating. Think about it – Luther and Adam fit that style perfectly. Follow the evolution of the song from The Band to New Earth Mud to Warpaint (hell, you can also include Chris & Marc at the Malibu Inn or Wooden Family if you’d like.) It’s all there, right out in the open for everyone to see.

Goddamn Reunion

It’s that goddamn 2005 reunion that ruined everything. Sure, at the time it was amazing. The anticipation was incredible. Marc coming back, Steve coming back, Sven fitting in perfectly – it was all too good to be true. Hell, I even bought tickets for the night before Easter at The Hammerstein, not knowing how I’d get from Boston to NYC. (Great show, by the way!)

But in retrospect the reunion was not the beginning of a new chapter. It was a nostalgia ride. We all got so swept up in the excitement that we didn’t realize that we were just living in the past. I’m not surprised that they didn’t record a new album or even come up with any great material in that period. They couldn’t – they were playing music as their former selves. They weren’t being true to themselves or the present moment. They could recreate the magic but they couldn’t banish the demons.

Don’t blame Chris & Rich. Don’t blame Marc. Don’t blame Angelus. Just accept reality – they were reliving the past and we all went along for a fantastic ride. But once it became apparent that there was no future it all fell apart.

Progress at Last

But there’s still hope. The new iteration of the Crowes shows incredible promise. Warpaint was a great album showcasing their best new material in years. Luther Dickinson and Adam McDougall are both incredibly talented musicians that will help propel the band in a new direction. What’s that you say: they’re good on the Warpaint songs and the new covers but they struggle with some of the old catalogue?

Exactly – because the band is moving forward. So what if Adam struggles with the ‘Wiser Time’ solo or Luther doesn’t hit ‘No Speak No Slave’ quite as forcefully as Marc used to. I’ve heard ‘Wiser Time’ and ‘No Speak No Slave’ 10,000 times! Yes, they’re great tunes. Yes, the old line-up played them better. Guess what? That’s what the soundboards are for.

Here’s a hypothetical for you: Would you rather have a line-up that plays the old songs perfectly but struggles with new material or would you rather have a line-up that struggles with a few old songs but produces compelling (but different) new material?

Wait a minute – that’s not a hypothetical. That’s 2005 vs. 2008.

Delusions of Grandeur

Here’s the thing. You can’t play the “what would Warpaint sound like with Marc & Ed” game because there would be no Warpaint if Marc & Ed were in the band. The classic line-up was back together for 18 months and they couldn’t/wouldn’t/didn’t produce any new material that stacks up to the songs on Warpaint. “Oh Josephine”, “Walk Believer Walk”, “Movin’ on Down the Line” and “Wounded Bird” are all great songs. And you might want to get used to songs like “Locust Street”, “Whoa Mule” and “There’s Gold in them Hills” (which I love) because that’s the future sound of the Crowes.

But please don’t confuse your dislike for a musical genre with the decline of the band. This is a natural evolution.

Take a Few Spins

If you haven’t delved into country rock (or cosmic American music as Gram called it) here are a few recommendations for you:

The Flying Burrito Brothers
Gram Parsons
The Band
The Byrd’s “Sweetheart of the Rodeo
The Grateful Dead’s “American Beauty” & “Workingman’s Dead
Bob Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding” & “Nashville Skyline
Neil Young’s “Harvest” & “Comes a Time

Postface

The Black Crowes may have started out as the reincarnation of the Rolling Stones but they’re ending up as the reincarnation of the Flying Burrito Brothers. And I think that’s pretty cool.

(Unless Cabin Fever sucks.)

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Favorite Album by Decade

One of my beloved co-workers has initiated an important research project at the office that I have deemed valuable enough to participate in. The game is simple: one person suggests a topic (usually pop culture-related) and the rest of us have to make a list ranking our favorites. Then we have lunch to divulge and defend our choices.

Naturally, I thought that it would be fun to include the rest of you in the game.

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Topic #1: Favorite Album by Decade

Official Rules:

• Name your favorite/most important (based on what they meant to you) albums by decade released; one for the 60’s, one for the 70’s, one for the 80’s, one for the 90’s and finally one for the 00’s.
• Feel free to include a runner up for each album… I will be!

My interpretation:

Just like voting for the baseball MVP, this challenge is more difficult than it initially seems. Is the MVP the best player or the most important player to their team? Should I pick my favorite album or the album that meant most to me at the time?

I’m going to go with the album that had the biggest impact on my life at the time – in other words, the game changers.

1960s

Winner: The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
Runner-up: Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

I was born in 1971 and became a music freak early. The first album I remember owning was a vinyl copy of KISS’s ‘Rock and Roll Over’ when I was in elementary school. I always received records as birthday presents for as long as I can remember.

Terrible KISS albums aside, the most important band of my childhood was (surprise, surprise) The Beatles. I can remember listening to Strawberry Fields Forever during cub scout meetings. I took a music class in middle school that studied all of the “Paul is Dead” clues (I still remember most of them.)  I loved early Beatles, psychedelic Beatles and late Beatles. Rubber Soul is probably my favorite Beatles album but Sgt. Pepper’s was my first.

When Dylan released Highway 61 Revisited, rock and roll grew up. When I first heard it, I did too.

1970s

Winner: Led Zeppelin – IV (1971)
Runner-up: Al Stewart – Year of the Cat (1976)

Picking a favorite album from the ‘70s was nigh impossible. I always thought I was a ‘60s guy but this exercise proved me wrong. I can’t believe how many amazing records were released in the ‘70s. That said I’m not sure if I ever loved an album more than ‘Zoso’. To quote Ian Faith: “The music….every cut on this album is a hit.” I drew the runes everywhere. I had the fuzzy blacklight Hermit poster. I made endless trips to the old ‘Stairway to Heaven’ store in Downtown Crossing back when Downtown Crossing was really seedy {ed. note: still is!} I don’t know much, but I do know that Led Zeppelin is the greatest rock and roll band there ever was or ever will be.

I first heard ‘Year of the Cat’ on an unlabelled cassette in a stranger’s apartment in Tel Aviv in 1987. I haven’t stopped listening to it since. The album is flawless, the playing is sublime and the production is beautiful. Al Stewart is a wonderful musician with a long, impressive career full of great records but ‘Year of the Cat’ is his masterpiece.

1980s

Winner: Tom Waits – Franks Wild Years (1987)
Runner-up: Bruce Hornsby & the Range – The Way it Is (1986)

No artist had a greater impact on my developing personality than Tom Waits. My whole beatnik-Kerouac-bohemian obsession started with Tom Waits and I ‘discovered’ Waits through the crazy, beautiful, avant-garde masterpiece that is ‘Franks Wild Years’. Waits is the most challenging artist in my record collection. His early albums go down easy, full of emotions and melodies while his late albums require time to wear me down. But after about 5 years I always wonder why I didn’t get them sooner. He’s truly a genius.

I loved Hornsby long before and long after it was cool to do so. He’s a piano virtuoso and a brilliant songwriter/performer that probably kept Jerry Garcia alive for an extra 5 years. His debut album is wonderful and the title track is undoubtedly one of the greatest pop songs ever written.

1990s

Winner: The Black Crowes – Shake Your Money Maker (1990)
Runner-Up: Pearl Jam – Vs. (1993)

While most people credit Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ for restoring integrity to rock, it was really a group of scruffy teens from Georgia that killed hair metal with the release of SYMM in 1990. From the first time I heard ‘Jealous Again’ on the radio I was hooked. Finally a contemporary band was making new music that felt and sounded like real (‘70s) rock and roll! On November 29, 1990 I saw the Crowes for the first time in a ramshackle barn called Saratoga Winners in Cohoes, NY and they’ve been my favorite band ever since. Improbably they’ve made better albums since, but none had the cultural or personal impact that SYMM did.

I didn’t get Pearl Jam when ‘Ten’ first came out. It was too loud and too fast for my delicate tastes. Vs. changed all that in a big way.

2000s

Winner: Ryan Adams – Cold Roses (2005)
Runner-up: The Black Crowes – Warpaint (2008)

I had never heard of alt country hero Ryan Adams when Phil Lesh started playing with him in 2005. And to be honest, Ryan was a messy disaster during his brief stint as a ‘friend’ and most deadheads rejected him out of hand. But some vigorously defended his work and I decided to check out his brilliant double CD “Cold Roses”. Since then I’ve gobbled up ‘Heartbreaker’, ‘Gold’, ‘Cardinology’, ‘Easy Tiger’, ‘Follow the Lights’, ‘Love is Hell’, ‘29’ , ‘Demolition’, ‘Jacksonville City Nights’ and lots of shows (thanks to the RA archive.) I still can’t believe how talented he is – as a musician, songwriter and lyricist – and I can’t understand why he isn’t more popular. One day I may regret saying this, but I honestly think that he’s on the Dylan level. That’s how good he is. Don’t believe me? Buy ‘Cold Roses’ and find out for yourself.

I never thought that we’d get another great album from the Crowes but we did in 2008 with ‘Warpaint’. It’s an older, more mature sound for the band, which suits me just fine – I’m older (and perhaps slightly more mature) myself.

Timeless

Francis Albert Sinatra

I can’t pick a singular album from Frank because I grew up listening to his box sets: Columbia, Capitol & Reprise. But when you’ve loved and lost like Frank has…well you know the rest. Frank is the greatest artist of every decade. All music begins and ends with Frank Sinatra. He is the alpha and the omega.

One of my greatest regrets in life was not seeing Frank when he opened the Knickerbocker Arena on January 30, 1990. Yes, he was old and decades past his prime. Sure I was young and broke. But I should have sold a kidney or something to get into that show.

Mitch’s Favorite Albums by Decade:

1960s Winner: The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
1960s Runner-up: Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
1970s Winner: Led Zeppelin IV (1971)
1970s Runner-up: Al Stewart – Year of the Cat (1976)
1980s Winner: Tom Waits – Franks Wild Years (1987)
1980s Runner-up: Bruce Hornsby & the Range – The Way it Is (1986)
1990s Winner: The Black Crowes – Shake Your Money Maker (1990)
1990s Runner-Up: Pearl Jam – Vs. (1993)
2000s Winner: Ryan Adams – Cold Roses (2005)
2000s Runner-up: The Black Crowes – Warpaint (2008)
All-time: Francis Albert Sinatra

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Top 10 Grateful Dead Studio Songs

Love them or hate them it is impossible to deny that the Grateful Dead was one of the most important bands in the history of rock and roll. Even though they never achieved the mainstream popularity that many of their peers enjoyed, their long-term impact on music certainly exceeds most. How many other bands spawned an entire genre of music? And while none of the contemporary jam bands have reached the height of greatness that the Dead achieved (yeah, I’m talking to you Phish!) 20 million wookies just can’t be wrong.

So it’s long overdue for us to try to pick our Top 10 Grateful Dead songs. This is an impossible task. My short-list of essential Dead tunes ran to about 70 songs – not including the many cover tunes that they truly made their own. In order to help whittle down the list here are the ground rules for the game:

1) Pick your 10 favorite Dead tunes – not the most popular or culturally important – just your personal favorites;
2) The song must appear on one of the 13 official Grateful Dead studio albums. I know, that means no Dark Star. Sorry, but it’s the only way to cull the list.
3) The song must be an original – no covers allowed. So, bye bye Minglewood!

I’m going to go first and long-time touchhead and show buddy Kenny B. will provide his list. Here Goes:

Mitch’s Top 10 Grateful Dead original songs that were released on a studio album

First, let me say that this was an impossible task and I hate myself for having to make these decisions. It was like Sophie’s Choice times a million. And I cheated big-time with the “studio only” rule – obviously “Europe ’72” is the greatest album that ever was or ever will be produced by modern man and I could have made a top 10 list off of that collection alone. Okay. Here’s the list in chronological order based on the stupid rules:

1) New Speedway Boogie (Workingman’s Dead): A beautiful example of Garcia/Hunter’s version of cosmic American music, this shuffle blues has it all – a prominent lead, space for soloing and huge sing-a-long potential.

2) Box of Rain (American Beauty): After all of these years I still have no idea what a box of rain is, but I know that it’s Phil’s most beautiful composition – a love song to his deceased father.

3) Stella Blue (Wake of the Flood): Sometimes Jerry exposed his vulnerabilities in songs of naked emotion, where his guitar and voice intertwine and elevate a simple song into something tender, soulful and otherworldly – and Stella Blue is the prime example of that type of song. It gives me chills every single time that I hear it (unless Warren is singing.)

4) Eyes of the World (Wake of the Flood): I’ll admit now that I’m primarily a Keith-era Dead fan. He brought the jazz to the Dead and Eyes is their jazziest composition. Of course, we’re all biased by the transcendent version featuring Branford Marsalis.

5) Weather Report Suite (Wake of the Flood): Bobby fans are people too! I love the cheese, I was always a Bobby fan, and I’ll die a Bobby fan. Working in the huge shadow of Captain Trips, Bobby is the most underrated songwriter of his era and WRS is his masterpiece.

6) Unbroken Chain (From the Mars Hotel): Another Phil song and the Dead’s most musically ambitious composition. The changes in this song are unreal. Phil is a genius.

7) Scarlet Begonias (From the Mars Hotel): Scarlet Begonias is the ultimate mood-lifter. You can’t help but get into a good mood when listening to it. It’s the quintessential Deadhead song – bouncy, trippy and jammy with great lyrics about hippie chicks and gambling. And when it’s paired with Fire on the Mountain it’s to die for!

8) Ship of Fools (From the Mars Hotel): Yet another song from Mars Hotel, yet another great Jerry ballad. Mars Hotel may be their best album (excepting Money Money, of course.)

9) Help on the Way/Slipknot!/Franklin’s Tower (Blues for Allah): Yeah, I’m cheating on this one and combining three tracks into one. Help/Slip/Frank is too perfect, with the iconic opening of Help, the face melting jam of slip and the twirl inducing Franklin’s. It’s so good it hurts.

10) Feel Like a Stranger (Go to Heaven): Nothing says “tour” like Stranger and when Bobby and Brent trade off at the end you just want to burst! This song really captures the strengths of Brent-era Dead for me – his organ, his voice, the disco!

Closing thoughts: the Grateful Dead are even better than I thought and I really, really love the Keith era (10/19/71 – 2/17/79).

Kenny B.’s Top 10 Grateful Dead original songs that were released on a studio album

I compiled this while eating a grilled cheese sandwich (except mine cost $6.50 and it wasn’t gross at all) in my office…ironic? I’d say so.

It’s hard to narrow down my favorite Dead tunes, even harder when the rules of this little game require that they A) be Grateful Dead originals, which eliminates all of the solo stuff and B) have to have been released on a Grateful Dead studio album…which means no Jack Straw, no Playin’ in the Band, Looks Like Rain, So Many Roads, Scarlet Begonias (ed. note: wrong!), or Self Defense (just checking to see if you’re paying attention).

A couple of things came to mind as I looked through the Dead’s discography. First, they really put out a lot of studio albums. Second, some of them suck (I’m talking to you Anthem of the Sun and Built to Last!). And finally, because almost all of the stuff we listen to is from live shows, there were a couple of albums that I’ve overlooked. Everyone knows American Beauty and Workingman’s are great, but Mars Hotel and Wake of the Flood are loaded with gems!

So here they are, listed from 10-1. Enjoy.

10) “Stella Blue” from Wake of the Flood

It’s funny to start with this one because I just told Mitch yesterday it wasn’t going to make the cut. Then I listened to two different versions on the ride home last night and I realized how wrong I was. This list was a great idea if, for nothing else, it made me look back through the archives to rediscover some lost classics.

9) “Lost Sailor” from Go To Heaven

We’ve said it so many times before, “I like my ‘Sailor’ extra sappy and my ‘Saint’ extra cheesy.” Well, the Sailor part is my favorite. I don’t know what to make of this guy but he’s been drifting around chasing the dream for like 30 years. But when Bobby tilts his head to the side and squints his eyes to scream “you’re a LOOOOOST SAI-LOR” it just makes me happy.

8) “Touch of Grey” from In the Dark

What is there to say? Jerry almost dies and goes into a coma, comes back in December of 1986 and just rips it up in Oakland, opening the show with 30,000 people singing along “WE-WILL-SURVIVE!” Aside from that, it was the Dead’s only top 10 hit and the song that introduced a whole new generation of music fans, including you and me, to life on the bus.

7) “Ship of Fools” from From the Mars Hotel

I’m not even sure what the hell this song is about, but I love the melody and I think you get some of Jerry’s best ballad solos from some of the ’74 and ’77 shows.

6) “Weather Report Suite” from Wake of the Flood

This is on the list because RatDog has taken it to a new level. An obvious masterpiece from a musical standpoint, WRS was always a second tier favorite of mine…and then Kenny Brooks came along (who Bobby once called “better than canned beer”). Adding the sax brought so much more depth to an already deep piece. And to be honest, I’m not even that big a fan of the “Let it Grow” portion of the suite. But the rest of it is so freakin good it more than makes up for it.

5) “If I Had the World to Give” from Shakedown Street

Robert Hunter had such unbelievable talent for writing love songs. This one was only played 3 times in concert (I looked that one up on the Wiki), all in 1978. I bought Shakedown on cassette in 1986 and immediately realized that anyone who sang this to his girl-du-jour would be getting very, very lucky that night. Unfortunately, I was so incompetent back then with the opposite sex (ed note: back then?), the song was no good to me whatsoever. Now that I think about it, maybe I should take it off the top 10.

4) “Brokedown Palace” from American Beauty

“It’s a fargone lullaby sung many years ago, mama mama many worlds I’ve come since I first left home.” I remember this one so vividly from December 6, 1992. It was a gorgeous Arizona afternoon and the boys were awesome! Opening with the first HCS in 18 years, two solid sets, and a sweeter than sweet Brokedown for the encore. Something about that particular one put it on my permanent top 10 forever.

3) “Attics of My Life” from American Beauty

I don’t know what to say. I just really like this one. I think it shows that trying to label Grateful Dead music into some sort of box is impossible (unless it’s a box of rain, duh!). You can’t call them a rock band, or a jazz band, or folk, or bluegrass. They just are what they are and if they want to do an (almost) a capella piece, damn it they’re doing it.

2) “Shakedown Street” from Shakedown Street

You hear those first few bars… WHOMP, WHOMP, WHOMP…whomp-whomp-wha-wha-WHOMP and it’s immediately recognized as the disco-era hit. Shakedown was always a fan favorite (especially when paired with a good Estimated Prophet) but also was so much more because of the parking lot antics of the same name. Every time I heard Shakedown live I thought to all of those outside hawking god-knows-what for gas money to Red Rocks.

1) “Eyes of the World” from Wake of the Flood

The Grateful Dead’s greatest masterpiece. A great rhythm, good tempo, solid lyrics, and depending on the version (this song can ONLY be listened to live) you get the very best that Jerry Garcia could give you! Add to that the two times that Branford Marsalis sat in (1990) and Kenny Brooks now shredding it on a weekly basis with Ratdog, and “Eyes” has become a treat each and every time you hear it.

{Final ed. note: A 20 year friendship and I don’t even really know you. “If I had the world to give”? Seriously? What is wrong with you? But we legitimately agree on 4 out of 10, so that’s reassuring. We’ll have to do this again with the bottom 5. Oh wait – that’s too easy – Money Money, Never Trust a Woman, Samba in the Rain, Blues for Allah & What’s Become of the Baby.}

Okay, if anyone else wants to play along please feel free to link back to this entry or to leave your list/critique in the comments.

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Concert Review: Bob Weir & RatDog in Boston, MA 11/08/08

Concert Review:
Bob Weir & RatDog
The Orpheum
Boston, MA
11/08/08

Do you remember that “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” bit from Tennyson? Well, that’s the theme for today’s RatDog review. As you’ll recall, 3 short weeks ago I was raving about seeing the Black Crowes at the Boston Opera House and moving our pre-show festivities to Silvertone’s. Well, on Saturday night we were back at the Orpheum to see Weir and we returned to Fajitas & Ritas for the pre-show. And the same description can be applied to both locales: dirty and disappointing.

RatDog on the other hand can be described thusly: some good, some bad and a whole lot of cheese. In other words, it was your average Saturday night with Bobby and the boys!

The good news was that Mark Karan was back on guitar, looking good and playing fine, after his successful battle with cancer. As nice as it was to see Steve Kimock play with the band when Mark was sick, Mark fits Bobby’s vision for the band better. People forget that RatDog is primarily a jazz band and Kimock hews closer to Phil’s 1968-esque psychedelic vision of the post-Jerry Dead. Bobby is all about the jazz. And the cheese. Always the cheese.

Onto the songs…

Set 1:

Jam-Jack Straw: Let the record show that I predicted this opener on Friday and I have the e-mail to prove it. Actually, I was psychically tuned in all night and called just about every song correctly. Some among us may claim to have called songs first, but there’s a big difference between guessing what song is next and calling it off of the opening chords. Jack Straw was excellent as always.

Easy to Slip: And the cheese comes early! This is an excellent Bobby solo (cover) tune and it was a treat to catch live again. Nice version. I was hoping for a Supplication jam, but was apparently getting ahead of myself.

Bird Song: RatDog, buoyed by Kenny’s sax, does a creditable version of Bird Song, but this song’s strength always came from Jerry’s delicate vocal and playing. I’m not sure that anyone can capture that same spirit. And credit to Kenny B., he predicted a mellow show and the Slip-Bird combo definitely set the tone for a mellow night. Unfortunately, the jam got a little Jazz Explosion-y at the end.

Book of Rules: Damn you, Bobby! Look, I respect that you honor your influences, but no one wants to hear that weak-ass Heptones reggae shit. PB time.

All Along the Watchtower: And now we’ve officially entered the first set dead zone. Coming after Book of Rules I was fully expecting the reggae breakdown at the end, but thankfully we were spared. Honestly, unless Hendrix rises from the grave I don’t need to hear Watchtower anymore.

Lazy River Road: Now some may make the case that Bobby has been overplaying LRR the last few years but I really love this song and I’d be happy to hear it just about every night. RatDog just owns this song – the tempo is perfect, the vibe is great and the multiple solos are beautiful. I’m always happy to get a Lazy River Road.

Supplication Jam: There’s that Supplication jam that I was expecting! It’s a great jam, traditionally paired with Lazy Lightning but more recently with Easy to Slip.

Bertha: A good, high energy closer to the set and a well-played version at that.

Set 2:

K.C. Moan: the acoustic portion started with a great K.C. Moan, always one of Bobby’s strongest cowboy songs.

Friend of the Devil: another strong acoustic number, FOTD is one of those overplayed songs that you can still enjoy hearing live.

Masters of War: Yikes! We sure got the short-end of the Dylan covers tonight. Hey Bobby – newsflash – Obama won! We don’t need the 10 minute anti-war folk dirge anymore! Masters is a classic, but it’s Saturday night and the war criminal party just got voted out of office. How about a Silvio-Tequila instead?

West L.A. Fadeaway: West L.A. is one of those rare songs that RatDog does better than the GD ever did. I enjoyed this version, but you’ll note that we got yet another long, slow song dropped on us. Energy flagging…

Good Lovin’: …and the energy is back! Good Lovin’ is a song that I’d never go out of my way to hear, but Bobby rocks it and they played it quite well – and finally we got an upbeat number. Let’s hope for two…

Stuff: Aw crap, is it time for Stuff (a.k.a. Jazz Explosion mach 2) already? Alright, I’m sitting down and zoning out for this one.

Days Between: By Great Phil’s Ghost, another long slow song! WTF, Bobby? I like Days Between but it’s the kind of song that you want to hear at home, not during a Saturday night show. And you just know what’s coming next…

Bird Song Reprise: Just in case the first 15 minutes of Bird Song didn’t put you to sleep…it’s back!

One More Saturday Night: Unlike others, I’ll never complain about the OMSN second set closer. It’s part of the RatDog fanboy contract – just check your fine print.

E: Ripple: I always love the Ripple closer, a suitably chill song to round out a surprisingly mellow night.

As you can guess, it was another epic show.

Just kidding. It was an average show at best – too low energy for a Saturday and no real gems. In fact, Good Lovin’ and Days Between were the only RD first timers for me, and neither was all that special. The playing was good (these guys are seasoned pros after all) but not inspired.

But, hey, I’m not complaining. Even with the weak setlist and terrible seats (from mail order, no less!) we all know that what we’re really getting for the price of admission is a brief journey back in time – a chance to hang out with friends, listen to the music we love, soak in the patchouli and remember when every day was like a Saturday night at the dirty old Orpheum.

There were days, and there were days
And there were days I know
When all we ever wanted
Was to learn and love and grow
Once we grew into our shoes
We told them where to go
Walked halfway around the world
On promise of the glow
Stood upon a mountain top
Walked barefoot in the snow
Gave the best we had to give
How much we’ll never know
We’ll never know

(But next time, Bobby, could you please play the Opera House?)

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Concert Review: The Black Crowes in Boston, MA 10/17/08

Concert Review:
The Black Crowes
The Opera House
Boston, MA
10/17/08

Drama and Black Crowes fandom usually goes hand in hand and the start of Fall ‘08 tour has proven to be no exception. Some pressing questions: Was Chris’s voice shot? Could Luther play the back catalog material? Would Adam butcher the Wiser Time solo?

Find out the answer to all these questions and more in the next thrilling installment of Days of our Crowes!

The Pre-Game

Not wanting to smell like a dirty cantina for the rest of the evening, we abandoned tradition (Fajitas & Ritas) and upgraded to Silvertone Bar & Grill for the official pre-game festivities. It was an inspired choice and a good omen for the rest of the night. Silvertone’s is a great bar with a nice menu full of comfort foods – like the mac & cheese that I tastefully paired with a few well-deserved Harpoon IPAs.

The Opera House

Speaking of upgrades, for the first time ever the Crowes played the recently restored Boston Opera House. It’s a gorgeous building with excellent sound and a very relaxed vibe. At first I was surprised that they’d even let hippies into such a classy joint, but I think the venue brought out the best in the Amoricans, as the sold-out crowd was bursting with positive, well-groomed energy.

The Band

Looking relaxed, happy and slightly less bearded, the Crowes are still an 8-piece line-up consisting of: Chris Robinson (vocal, harp, guitar), Rich Robinson (guitar, vocals), Steve Gorman (drums), Sven Pipien (bass, vocals), Luther Dickinson (guitar, mandolin), Adam MacDougall (keys), Charity White & Mona Lisa Young (vocals). Congratulations to the Crowes for almost going a whole year without a line-up change!

The Lights

Normally I’d never comment on the lighting at a rock concert but on Saturday night it was exceptional and all of the credit goes to Chris Kuroda. It’s a shame that he’ll be rejoining Phish next year, but I guess those tweakers need the fancy lights more than we do.

The Sound

As always, the Crowes were up to 11. We were directly in front of Rich about 12 rows from the stage so I was worried that the wall of sound would collapse on us, but fortunately the sound was mixed pretty evenly. It was a little muddy at full volume but otherwise clear. Earplugs were not necessary.

The Songs

Wounded Bird: Although I was hoping for a Good Friday opener, Wounded Bird was a nice start that the crowd embraced warmly. It was well played and a little higher energy than the version from last March in Somerville. A nice, if not exceptional, start to the evening.

(Only) Halfway to Everywhere: As always, Halfway was excellent and it reminded me of its debut at the Orpheum back on 2/23/99. Luther and Adam were on fire for the coda jam. Little did we know that we’d be in for three treats from 3 Snakes and One Charm over the course of the evening!

Evergreen: Dipping back into the new material, Evergreen was also energetic and rocking. It’s a somewhat standard rocker until the bridge, but once that bridge hits it feels like classic, face-melting Crowes. Chris’s vocals delivered – his voice was strong and there were no apparent lingering effects from the “laryngitis.”

Wiser Time: It’s one of the greatest road songs of all time, but unfortunately Adam still drove the solo into a ditch. He just has to forget everything that Eddie ever did. Look…I know Eddie Harsh. I’ve heard Eddie Harsh play and Adam is no Eddie Harsh. He’s a talented player but he’s trying to fill impossibly large shoes, especially on the Amorica material. Fortunately, Rich smoked his solo at the end of the song to get things back on track. You know, Riff Robinson just doesn’t get enough credit for what an amazing guitarist he truly is.

Bring On Bring On: The transition jam between Wiser and Bring On sounded new to me and it was quite good. Bring On was a real treat, well played and beautiful. At this point, 5 songs in, I realized just how high-energy, tight and solid the band has become. They were great back in March, but they were absolutely on fire at the Opera House. Any fears that the glory days are over are completely unfounded. This is an incredible band at the height of their powers.

Whoa Mule: Commencing the countrified section of the program, Steve grabbed a bongo, Chris grabbed a harp and the harmonies flowed. The crowd responded really well to Whoa Mule, as well they should have.

Poor Elijah/Tribute to Johnson: Okay. Now I can die. This may be the greatest song ever played in the history of music. The original Delaney & Bonnie version is good, but the Crowes version is just…beyond (just like Obama’s brisket!) I couldn’t love this song any more if I tried. Luther’s solo during Poor Elijah was sublime and Rich’s solo during Tribute to Johnson was amazing. I’m still smiling about catching this tune in person.

Locust Street: Locust Street is a beautiful song that I enjoy immensely. Luther’s mandolin playing is spot on, but it was also the perfect opportunity for a trip to the bathroom.

Quinn the Eskimo: After the bathroom we actually skipped the beer line upon hearing the opening notes of Quinn (now THAT’S high praise!) It’s such a fun song, the Crowes play it so well and Rich sings like a real grown-up boy now! Go Rich!

How Much for your Wings: Rich kept right on singing as HMFYW started (although we all know that it’s Chris’s backing vocals that drive the first half of the song). But it was the jam at the end that took it to another level: heavy, trippy, layered, textured and just incredible.

Downtown Money Waster: It’s funny how such a slight song can become so much more when played live. They crushed DTMW. Dirty road house blues and the upscale Opera House somehow fit together perfectly.

Thorn in my Pride: It wouldn’t be a show without a Thorn. (Go to a show with me and I guarantee that you’ll get a Thorn.) And it wouldn’t be a Thorn without Steve’s drum solo. But if there’s any drummer than can pull off the cheesy drum solo, it’s Mr. Gorman and his heavy sticks. The post-drum solo harp blues jam was tight and impressive. Ah, Thorn, just when I think that I’m sick of you, you pull me back in…

Hard to Handle: A radio hit! An actual hit! As you’ve probably noticed by now this was a great set list for the hardcore Crowes fan but not so great for the casual fan looking for radio hits. A snappy version of H2H corrected that. Even after all of these years the power of that song is still evident.

Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution: From the oldest hit to the newest (relatively speaking) GDOTR is somewhat formulaic but it really captures the signature Crowes sound. It’s definitely growing on me over time and I actually enjoyed hearing it again. This version was speed up (the spirit of Audley returns!) and that made it even better.

E: The Shape I’m In: What other group would have the balls or the skill to bust out this Band classic? What other band could play it so well? Adam sounded great on this one. Hell, everyone sounded great on this one. It was a treat. It was perfect. It was over far too soon – bring back the two-setters!

(On a side note, my personal post-hiatus encore roster now includes: “The Shape I’m In”, “Don’t Know Why”, “Hey Grandma” , “Willin’”, “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” & “Hot Burrito #2” No complaints here!)

The Summary

I know that I have little credibility when it comes to objectively reviewing the Crowes, but they really are incredible. They are simply operating on another level. I’m happy to report that the new guys are fitting in just fine, the band sounds tight and they look happy. The new material blends into the set list effortlessly and keeps their sound fresh and contemporary. They’re jamming out hard while never crossing the threshold into the dreaded ‘noodling’ zone. I don’t think that I could love a band more than I love the Crowes right now. There is literally no other band in the world that has the chops, the musical sensibilities, the energy or the stage presence that the Crowes possess. The new songs, the catalog songs, the covers – it all blends together into a transcendent experience. Go see them if you can, you won’t be disappointed.

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