Over the next two weeks, The Black Crowes will play their last shows before taking an indefinite hiatus. 20 years on, the band finds itself in the midst of a creative hot streak that’s produced three outstanding albums in as many years and a consistently excellent live presence that scuttles any lingering reputation for combative irregularity. For today’s Crowes, the music is THE thing, and the proof of that resides in one of its most celebrated concert runs ever this year, which will culminate in a six-night blowout at San Francisco’s Fillmore starting December 12th. What’s striking about this impending break is how remarkably different it is from the Crowes’ previous 2002-2005 hiatus, which felt more like a fractious split than a breather.
Since the group’s current lineup – 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) – gelled in 2008, they’ve exhibited a pretty joyful engagement with their entire catalogue, fueled both by newbies Dickinson and MacDougall and the realization by the Robinson Brothers that they’ve crafted some pretty amazing fucking music in every era of their band’s twisted history. Like many diehard fans – this writer very much included – the Crowes seem to have fallen in love with what they do all over again. The result is perhaps the richest stretch in the band’s two decades together, where the new stuff is poppin, the old stuff shines anew and the whole band seems to be having a goddamn blast onstage.
That energy and creative gusto are manifest on Croweology (released August 3 on the band’s own Silver Arrow Records), a two-disc, 20-track distillation of the Crowes’ mojo done up (mostly) acoustic fashion. While the vast majority of “acoustic” sets are mere steps away from the lowest form of pandering/recycling (Christmas albums), Croweology serves double duty as a primer in all things Crowes and an intimate document of what these six guys – plus songbirds Charity White & Mona Lisa Young, percussionist Joe Magistro and former BR5-49 man Donny Herron on pedal steel, lap steel, banjo & fiddle – are capable of. Rather than a last minute money grab or tepid retread of past glories, Croweology shows a band in their prime with as rich a songbook as rock has ever produced.
We snagged Chris and Rich Robinson to discuss Croweology and present their thoughts on Disc One below. May they illuminate your listening as we head into the finale of the “Say Goodnight To The Bad Guys Tour”.
As we were doing it, the sort of obligatory Jealous Again, we wondered, “Oh shit, what’s this gonna be like?” But as we were doing it, a whole new life was breathed into these songs. The reason I like [this version] is it still has a lot of energy but it’s stripped down. It still kinda rocks in a weird way. (Rich)
Share The Ride
I’m such a super huge JJ Cale fan that I wanted to sort of straighten it out and use that old Roland rhythm machine. I was into changing the swing of the original version into something tighter, give it that Okie timbre, if you will, to quote The Mighty Boosh. That’s one of my favorite tracks we recorded because we got into this real syncopated handclapping and thigh slapping and stuff that gave it a really cool vibe rhythmically. Share The Ride could have been on Before The Frost or Shake Your Moneymaker, which is another reason I think it’s a good tune and why it found its way onto this collection. (Chris)
Same thing as Jealous Again, and I thought to do it in this acoustic setting was pretty interesting. The main thing I liked was the timbre between the acoustic instruments and the big drums. We didn’t overdue it; we just went in and did it. It’s a testament to the song that it can handle these kinds of varied presentations. (Rich)
It’s funny now that I have a daughter to sing the line, “If we had a child, I’d like a son not a daughter.” I also realize that when I sing, “I don’t know my telephone number,” that’s impossible now because everyone has a phone permanently attached to their hand. I guess it’s like when you wrote a song about putting a dime in the jukebox and the next year it was a quarter [laughs]. I think it’s a great rendition of the song. For years we’ve playing it with that dark outro jam and part of what I love about this album was to include some of our iconic pieces and do something different with them. I think Adam plays exceptionally well on this track. (Chris)
This turned out great. Chris had an idea to do it like Country Honk on Let It Bleed, and we thought it was a cool idea. It’s a little more up-tempo. It’s one of my favorites in the way it came out. (Rich)
I don’t know how this song got so popular. The record wasn’t that popular [laughs]. As a single it wasn’t that popular, but it seems to have become a Crowes highlight for some people. It’s one of my favorite songs and I think one of the best songs Rich and I have written. I liked changing it rhythmically to give it a more tribal feel. Corporate rock music has pretty much shed all its roots, and that’s why it’s fun to bring in gospel and other vibes. There’s great depth and dynamics to roots music that’s inspirational. (Chris)
Ballad In Urgency
To me, a lot of these songs are written acoustically, so it was interesting to see them as they are and to have all these songs be more organic. Sometimes with songs like Ballad In Urgency with all the effects, it’s cool but you get kind of get out there and it’s atmospheric. To bring it down to acoustic guitar is very grounded. Hearing these songs in this setting is very pleasing to me. (Rich)
To do an acoustic version of Ballad with the Ballad/Wiser jam we’ve done for many years was really cool for me. I think the whole thing clocks in around 22 minutes. Wiser Time kind of says it all in the lyric: “Ask me why another road song/ Funny but I bet you never left home.” We left home a long time ago and this song represents our commitment to the adventure after all these years. It also provides a place to spotlight Adam and Luther and Rich when we play it. It’s a fan favorite and one I never get tired of singing, especially to all the folks traveling around watching us. I feel a connection with these people. When I’m in a field with a bunch of people tripping and having a good time, well, I have a good time. (Chris)
It’s a song we all loved and was never released in a studio version. It showcases what we do now. The intro is really good, and it’s full of really cool stuff. I sort of wrote it in 2004 before we got back together. Chris and I were downstairs at their place in New York and we just kind of did it. We demoed it and played it a few times as a band in ’06 but never really did anything with it. To do it acoustic with the whole band involved was a great approach. It’s another one of my favorites on the record. (Rich)
Under A Mountain
It’s the first song on our strangest record. Three Snakes isn’t my favorite record but this version is representative of a song with a dark undercurrent, which is a part of what we do. That song was pretty much the welcoming gift basket to the house we made Three Snakes in. The vibe of what was going on is all in that song [laughs]. Some people will write dark stuff, even if they’re writing it on their laptop [laughs]. It’s not a song if you wrote it on a laptop. You need to scribble it down in the middle of the night as you’re wrestling your demons with your eyes bleeding. Now that’s a lyric!
We’re not a gothic band, but this is representative of what we were going through. People forget but all the grunge bands were super dark, and that period in the mid-90s was just weird in America. With kind of material, you’re either fighting it or creating something under pretense or you’re just letting it flow. I’ve always felt I could talk about anything in my language in a song, whether it’s beautiful or Thelonious Monk’s ugly-beauty, because other people have been there. Other people feel these things. It doesn’t matter that I’m onstage singing about them. People have had good trips and bad trips and that’s the way it is. We all love and we all lose. You can find a good place as a lyricist in that, being as autobiographical or cryptic as you want to be. I don’t think there’s any advantage to pretend. Trust me, if I was more clever I’d be writing jingles or pop songs [laughs]. (Chris)
We’ll have Part Two of this discussion of Croweology on Friday, and in the meantime you can check Dennis’ more wide-ranging feature on The Black Crowes here.
Some live Crowes clips to tide you over till Friday.