The Black Crowes reclaim their song
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK editor
For years, most of the Black Crowes — namely, Chris and Rich Robinson and Steve Gorman — spoke about the importance of "The Song." The Song, they explained, was the continuous sound that began with cavemen banging rocks together through lutes, Mozart, the Beatles and last week's show at T.T. The Bear's in Cambridge.
They grabbed hold of their piece of The Song at the onset of the 1990s, barreling through their version of rock and roll with a fervor not seen since the demise of the Faces in the mid-70s. In between then and now, they’ve seen mutations, shifts in style, endless shows, lineup changes and then, after more than a decade, a hiatus.
In nearly text-book style, solo albums followed that were clearly less than the sum of their parts, and in 2005, the band reformed and began barnstorming theaters, clubs and arenas across the U.S. Fans flocked to see the band that year, which culminated in a New Year's Eve show at Madison Square Garden, their first appearance at the legendary venue.
The clamor for a new studio album began in earnest midway through that year, but it didn't come. It didn't come in 2006, either, and by the end of the year, lead guitarist and fan-favorite Marc Ford was once again out of the picture. Long-time key wizard Ed Harsch was gone, too. And 2007 saw yet more touring, though in some of the smallest venues of the band's career.
So, here we are, finally, March of 2008, a full three years after the band's return, with the long-awaited studio album, their first since 2001's Lions, firmly in hand. After all the turmoil following their hiatus, what was waiting for listeners on a record was anyone's guess.
What appears on Warpaint, after all this flux, is the work of a seasoned rock and roll band who took the time to reclaim their sound through three years of furious touring. And the results really do speak for themselves.
Moreso than on any Crowes album since 1994’s Amorica, there is real and obvious growth present. The band, a little more than 10 years ago, were crafting records and shows that blended all of their influences into a single, distinct sound. But they changed course quickly following Marc Ford’s first departure, and a tour with Jimmy Page turned them into a pile-driving rock band with incredible sonic ability. 2001's Lions opened with a blast of feedback and distortion, and the Crowes plowed through several amp-twisting songs, featuring debauchery, funk and classic rock balladry. It was good, to be sure, but the southern soul was gone in favor of hitting 11.
Instead of the sonic highs, what's present on Warpaint is a sound that's striking for its craft, the most mature work by the band to date. There are elements of all their influences — blues, country, rock and roll — and they're all finely honed and tuned to the band's strengths. "Oh Josephine" and "Woah Mule" has easy country vibe that made Gram Parsons a legend, while "Walk Believer Walk" and “Evergreen” display the tough, nasty blues that gave the band their edge from their earliest outings. Clearly, new guitarist Luther Dickinson (of North Mississippi Allstars fame) took to his new surroundings nicely, and proves an effective foil to rhythm guitarist Rich Robinson’s tough, open-tuning riffing. The Crowes show off their love and knowledge of the blues on this album perhaps more than they ever have in their career.
The band is at their best, though, when all of these influences come together. “Goodbye Daughters of the Revolition,” opening with the silky runs of Dickinson’s Coricidin-bottle guitar, announces that band, riffs and all, are ready to bring the country, soul, rhythm and blues back home. “Movin’ On Down the Line,” which I’ll just start hailing now as one of the band’s greatest songs, takes the psychedelic touch of the Beatles and pushes it into the country with gospel touches and plenty of slide guitar. The way the track moves and covers so much ground in just under five minutes is remarkable.
It’s this kind of commitment to the music that makes this album so impressive. This is not a band resting on their laurels or just releasing an album to keep touring a viable option. They believe in the music they’ve created here. It’s American roots music at its best — there’s plenty to remind you of what came before, but enough to push it all in a new direction.
To say the least, it’s not bad for an album that looked as though it may never come. It had been too long, but the Black Crowes have grabbed hold of another chunk of The Song. And, from the sound of it, the ground covered laid the path for what was to come all along.