Retrorockets fired and burned on the Black Crowes’ Lions
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
It went like this:
The cassette adapter plugs into the headphone jack of the CD player, which sits in the passenger seat. The cassette part goes into the car stereo. The stereo itself turns on. I hit the tiny “play” button on the discman. And then “Midnight From the Inside Out” blares like a siren out of a green Saturn sedan somewhere on the backroads of southern Massachusetts.
This was a ritual that began on May 7, 2001, and continued unabated throughout that summer, and often enough through the years until I upgraded to a car with an actual CD player and didn’t have to jump through the hoops of making sure the wire running from the cassette to the discman wasn’t too tangled. The Black Crowes released Lions that day, I bought it immediately and basically breathed it for the next four months. And it’s hard not to think of that time when, for the past week or so, I’ve resumed playing that album again, at times for hours on a loop.
How it got to this isn’t much of a mystery. Seeing the Magpie Salute twice in a week and practically living with their High Water I record since its release made that frequent journey back through the Crowes’ catalog inevitable. But it had been a while since I tapped that deeply into Lions. The album gets lost within the period after Marc Ford’s departure and before the 2002 hiatus, and unfairly gets lumped in with 1999’s lackluster By Your Side. It’s not from that stoned classic period in the mid-1990s, so it must not be worthwhile, or so goes the basic argument.
And that’s a shame. It’s very much unlike any other album in the Crowes’ oeuvre, and it more than has enough moments that congregate to make this a weirdo-groove classic that was also unlike anything else in its era.
For an album that plays as nearly one long, continuous piece thanks to some clever sequencing and beat matching, the music itself flies all over the place. It winds up being an instrumental tour-de-force for Rich Robinson — he played bass on the album as well as nearly all the guitar parts, with Ford’s replacement Audley Freed only playing on three songs and Craig Ross taking the solo on “Greasy Grass River.” In that way, his stamp is all over this, but it’s clearly a band effort. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Chris Robinson getting away with the hip-hop/funk vocals of “Ozone Mama,” for instance — if he does at all.
But he shines here in a way he couldn’t over the gloss of the previous album By Your Side. “Lickin’” is not any kind of lyrical masterpiece, but as a bit of performative sleaze over a nasty, fuzzed-out guitar line, it’s note perfect. And that comes up again on “Greasy Grass River,” which again fits its churning, charging music. And the stripped-down version of the band gives plenty of room for drummer Steve Gorman to strut his stuff while he pounds away with a bottom-heavy approach that swings as much as it pummels. Listen to him go at it again on “Cypress Tree,” another fantastic example of what the band could pull out of the air at this time. It shifts from a slower, ringing riff to a hard-charging stomp, all powered by Gorman and the younger Robinson’s guitar, locked in and firing, while Chris Robinson wails.
“Young Man, Old Man” is a piece of extended funk that would get an extended coda live that could tear the place down — Chris Robinson’s “does anybody want some?” refrain at the end would stretch out into a jam that saw some of the best interplay between Rich Robinson and Freed the band would ever experience. Paired up with it on the record is “Cosmic Friend,” and they returned to that matchup often enough in concert. And as another stop-start piece of funky brilliance with one of each feet in glam and jam, it worked. All that swirling melody arguably worked best on “Soul Singing,” the closest thing Lions had to a hit. It’s open-guitar refrain underpinning one of the catchier songs the band ever wrote.
And then there are the quiet moments. “No Use Lying” is understated but still punctuated by biting guitars, but those guitars turn acoustic at the start of “Losing My Mind” before returning. “Miracle to Me” works as one of the better ballads the band ever wrote, but this all comes to a head on “Lay It All On Me,” sort of the Crowes’ answer to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man,” but without that song’s heavy hand. Propelled by Rich Robinson on piano, we get a plaintive plea at the end of a swirling 55-minute journey. Listen straight through, and it’s an intense experience.
It’s not all roses in this period. On a long car ride this weekend, I put on the Live album that came out in 2002 during the band’s hiatus, and while it too had moments, something about the entire project hit me the wrong way. The recording is a little tinny and the leads that Ford once sang out on guitar sounded flat with Freed taking them. It doesn’t ring with my memory of seeing that version of the band.
But what does deliver on that document are the Lions songs. “Lickin’” gets an extended coda that turns into a Zeppelin-esque vamp, “Miracle to Me” is led by some acoustic guitars that ring out through Boston’s Orpheum Theatre (where the album was recorded) and “Greasy Grass River” sounds as tight and sleazy as it ever has.
And then there’s that opening. Rich Robinson hits that opening ring of distortion, Gorman’s drums kick in and “Midnight From the Inside Out” is off. At a time when all I wanted was a good, honest riff, played as loudly as possible and with as much groove as anyone could muster post-1975, that song delivered as well as anything could. That time was the summer of 2001, and not surprisingly, that time is also sometimes now. It still roars and it still gives me chills. And it went like this.
Sept. 23, 2018
Email Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org