The Black Crowes' complex recipe for surviving the cold


It’s such a simple sound.

It’s 2005 on a frigid December night in Springfield, Mass., and the opening strains of “Wiser Time” are actually the closing transitional notes from the previous “Ballad in Urgency,” for those of us weaned on years of listening to the Amorica album. On this little stage in this old theater, the Black Crowes are washing the drums and guitars in this gentle, cascading noise to announce the show and a song that changes just enough each night to always keep thrilling this ode to life on the road.

I was standing about six rows back from center stage that night, but with temperatures dropping below what any sane person would enjoy this past week, I’ve been diving back into my Black Crowes archives, live and studio alike, reliving these scattered moments and finding new wrinkles and passages to keep myself engaged. And they’re not hard to find.

I’ve noted before that I tend to like the Black Crowes when it’s cold. They have all the tools and sounds to be an amazing summer band, too, whether it’s outdoors at a show or just whipping out of the car stereo, through the window and onto Route 24. But the cold calls for a lot of hours hunkered down indoors, double socks and slippers, sweaters and flannel shirts, hot coffee and cocoa. It leads to a lot of catching up on movies, lots of reading and, by the nature of this little writing exercise, lots of listening.

As has been the case for the past few years, this always starts with their double opus Before the Frost … Until the Freeze and all the twists and turns their unique blend of Americana reveals through those two LPs. It’s a statement that sits alone in their catalog, their most ambitious project by far and arguable their greatest artistic achievement. If the radio-friendly pull of their early albums are absent, what remains is a complex but subtly simple touch on the songs. They crafted an album that reveals more and more on every listen, and they had the gall to record it in front of people, confident in their ability to nail every bit in the moment.

It’s the moment where the soul of that band lives best. Last year’s live box set, Wiser for the Time, collects four LPs from their acoustic/electric shows at New York’s Beacon Theatre that capped their 2010 tour. It’s not necessarily an album for the casual fan, but whenever it’s on and the unconverted are sitting in the living room, the Southern charm of the band and their roots-based take on the music is hard to ignore, whether it’s an updated take on “Jealous Again” or a countryish rarity like “Thunderstorm 6:54.” It’s nothing specific, but the way Chris Robinson’s soulful voice blends in with brother Rich Robinson’s tight rhythms, how Steve Gorman always seems to make his presence felt without overwhelming the song. It’s nothing specific and everything all at once.

For some of the new listeners who I’ve forced this upon, it grabs them. For me, its the search within the comfort of the familiar, the aural answer to a thick blanket and a warm mug. On top of the albums stored digitally and the LPs taking up weight on my record shelves, there are hours of live recordings to wade through and so many details hidden in the spaces on their studio albums. I have playlists of their loudest, fastest tunes and of their quiet, deliberate meditations alike. Again, it’s the idea of the “one song” the band so often talks about, grabbing their piece of it and seeing where it can go. Even when they’re not working, those moments can still serve as compelling listening. Songs blend and endings are hazy. It’s all part of one long expression.

The Black Crowes are entering the second year of their latest hiatus, and with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood on the road and Rich Robinson busy, it’s a safe bet that they’ll stay on the shelf for a while. But beyond the side projects, there’s the huge archive of all the sounds they’ve already got in the can, the grooves and hooks all bunched together.

Some start with a flash, some a slow jam, some with a conclusion, the casual waterfall of notes left over from the night before, one song ending and another beginning. Some nights, it’s hard to tell where everything lives. It’s such a complex sound.

Jan. 11, 2015

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