Say goodnight to the bad guys
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
It started with a low rumble, chunk guitar chords and touches on a very deep, ’70s-era organ. It had a fat groove, the kind that only rears its head after years of seasoning on a rough road, full of soul. It was recognizable nearly instantly, but I tempered my enthusiasm and my hunch. I didn’t believe myself.
I finally leaned over to my friend: “Dude … I think it’s the Stones.”
Sho’nuff, as the band would say, the Black Crowes were channeling an exiled gem, the Rolling Stones’ “I Just Want to See His Face.” Distorted vocals, bluesy rhythms, bass drums pounding. It was, even for this band, remarkable how they were able to transport this theater, in between two highways in Connecticut, back to Keith Richards’ chateau in the south of France, circa 1972.
Though this was a cover, the Black Crowes have made a career out of reviving all that was old, giving these rhythms room to breathe, grow and live again. They are not a nostalgia act, though. They are the keepers of rock and roll Americana, writing songs equal parts lovely and smashing, criss-crossing the country as many times as the year allows, storming theaters, clubs and stages wherever they can be had.
For the second time in their 20-year career, the Crowes are staring at another extended hiatus. They’ll wrap up with a five-night stand at San Francisco’s Fillmore in December, a fitting locale for a band so dedicated to the weird. But this will be their last swing through the Northeast before they call it a night. This was my chance to say goodbye.
I don’t believe they were every my favorite band, per se, but by the end of high school, I felt like the Black Crowes were mine. Pearl Jam, my first love, was still included in every article written about Nirvana, and even then were the last soldiers in the fight for meaningful music on the airwaves. Radiohead was busy rewriting the rules on how to be a rock band, racking up accolades at a record pace. Otherwise, I felt virtually no connection to nearly every other active band I’d come in contact with at that point.
The Beatles were magnificent wax memories. The Rolling Stones were a stage revue. Led Zeppelin was a myth. The Who hadn’t yet re-stoked the fire. Most of my heros were gone.
For my friends and I, the Black Crowes were ours. They were our secret, a hard-working band who knew the value of learning the ways of Otis Redding and Elmore James, who toured constantly, and who legitimately didn’t seem to care that they weren’t on the radio anymore. They sounded cool, looked cool, wrote stomping songs, said funny things, and their “Behind the Music” was the best hour of TV Vh1 had ever produced.
I read up. I hunted down their videos (much harder to do in 1998, mind you). I spent an insane amount of time trying to track down at least one version of every obscure composition, b-side or cover they’d played. I called them “the blueprint band,” the kind of band I just wished I could be a part of.
I first saw them on July 2, 2000, with Jimmy Page in Mansfield, Mass. They tore through a significant chunk of the Zeppelin catalog and gave a hard-edged read on some of their own tunes. It was the second concert I’d ever been to, and it’s left an indelible mark. And I remember having to tell other concert-goers that night the names of the non-Zeppelin songs, the original Crowes numbers. “Gone.” “No Speak, No Slave.” “Remedy.”
Ten years later, on this night in Connecticut, I’m reprising the role a bit for some of their newer songs, like “Cold Boy Smile,” “What Is Home” and “Been a Long Time (Waiting on Love).” Their last two records were remarkable. After a long break in recording, it was stunning to hear how much they’d grown and how many good songs they still had in them. But these new songs somehow feel like a secret.
Even now, I still feel like they’re mine.
These two shows, at the House of Blues in Boston and the Palace Theater in Waterbury, Conn., are three-hour, two set extravaganzas, part of their “Say Goodnight to the Bad Guys” tour, with the band romping through the first set acoustic and the second set plugged in.
The acoustic sets provide some real gems — the joined harmonies of the Rolling Stones’ “Torn & Frayed,” Steve Gorman thumping along on a marching drum on “Downtown Money Waster” and “Hotel Illness,” the country weariness of “My Heart’s Killing Me” and “She.” There’s an incredible depth to their abilities, how they can breathe so much life into such gentle tunes. In this setting, it’s obvious how they’ve grown into a modern-day version of The Band, able to tackle the scope of American music with skill and sincerity. Chris Robinson’s voice is as rich and soulful as it has ever been. Rich Robinson is still the creative force behind a band that has chops to spare. Drummer Steve Gorman is still the engine, even in a stripped-down set.
But plugged in, they’re as much a force as that first night I saw them, 10 years earlier. “Been a Long Time (Waiting On Love)” shook the Palace Theatre. “P. 25 London” had a boogie vibe that wouldn’t quit. And the spacey exploration through “Ballad in Urgency” and “Wiser Time” was breathtaking both nights (with the band actually abandoning the acoustic guitars midway the second night). Back to my teenage thought of them as the blueprint band, there’s very little they can’t seem to do. Certainly, everything they’ve tried, they’ve mastered. Rock and roll, blues, country, and soul, all have become calling cards for the Robinsons.
All told, I’ve seen the Crowes play 106 unique songs over 11 concerts. They played 66 songs just once over those shows. I was lucky enough to see them play my favorite song, “Wiser Time,” nine times. The three next most popular songs were “Thorn in my Pride,” “Remedy” and “Soul Singing.” I also saw them play with four different lead guitarists (Audley Freed, Marc Ford, Paul Stacey and Luther Dickinson), three keyboardists (Eddie Harsch, Rob Clores and Adam MacDougall) and three bass players (Greg Rzab, Andy Hess and Sven Pipien). While the cast rotated (and, respective to their positions, Ford, Harsch and Pipien were my favorites), the Robinsons and Gorman held it all together.
But for some time, it felt I’d let an opportunity to see them more slip through my fingers. My friends and I caught them at the Providence Performing Arts Center on Sept. 29, 2001, for a rocking show that saw them whip through a good chunk of their catalog. They were playing shows soon after in Springfield and, on Halloween weekend, in Boston, but I decided not to go. To check them out would mean going solo, something I wasn’t prepared to do at any concert. I just didn’t have the confidence then.
Their gigs at the Orpheum Theatre on Oct. 30 and 31 were later immortalized on their Live album in 2002. It also appeared to be their swan song. Two months later, they announced that they were taking an indefinite hiatus. Chris Robinson was releasing a solo album. Gorman had left the band. I was crushed.
The guilt lasted for three solid years, every concert by any band a reminder of the ones I’d missed, the ones where I’d taken the Crowes for granted. It fueled me to see every band I could, within finances and reasonable distance. In those three years, I caught Pearl Jam, Neil Young, the Who, Ryan Adams, Radiohead, Queens of the Stone Age, the Rolling Stones, the White Stripes, Wilco, and several more I can’t recall at the moment. There’s no substitute for live music, so if a band or an artist really meant something to me, I did everything I could to see them.
In 2005, the band thankfully reconvened and somehow sounded better than ever. That first night back in Boston, on May 10 in the Orpheum, they kicked off with a gospel-tinged “Greasy Grass River” and tore through the set. They jammed, they eased up, they pushed the throttle. The Black Crowes were back, and I was in heaven.
“We got one more Black Crowes number for ya…”
The final song of the night was “Thick N’ Thin,” another one that I love, but frequently forget about until someone plays it. I know every word, I love every break and every run, but I never think of it on my own. It’s just one of many of their tunes that I regard as classic, even if it sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. They buzzed through it, took their bows, waved goodbye, and as we walked back to the car, we saw their bus pull away.
To sing me home on this 2 1/2-hour drive, I dialed up the Stones’ Exile on Main St. There was a light, constant drizzle coating mostly-empty highways through Connecticut, Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts. I thought about their set that night, about my relationship with them since discovering their music as a junior in high school. And I thought about how I might organize my thoughts for print, what I might write following these two concerts.
I’ve written about this band a number of times. They have been mix-tape stalwarts since I was 16 years old. They have accompanied my road trips, papers, projects and deadlines. They’ve been responsible for many of my favorite concert memories. And I may have just pulled away from one of their shows for the last time.
This time around, though, there are no regrets. I’ll listen to “Wiser Time” and “Good Friday” knowing that I was able to get everything I could out of these guys. I don’t think much about the shows I missed anymore, but I do relish the ones I caught. Maybe I’ve seen them for the last time. Maybe the bad guys will ride again.
If they play again, I’ll be there. But I won’t need them to play again. I have the music and the memories. I’ll have another song for another mile.