Older Crowes, new tricks | AspenTimes.com

Older Crowes, new tricks

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times WeeklyAspen, CO Colorado

Josh CheuseThe Black Crowes, 2010.

In 2009, the Black Crowes shook things up for their album, “Before the Frost … Until the Freeze.” The album was recorded in a studio – the Woodstock, N.Y. studio operated by Levon Helm, formerly of the Band – but in front of a live audience of hand-picked listeners, as a way to bring their fans into the process of making an album. Also invited into the music-making was Larry Campbell, an influential artist whose presence, as well as his array of string instruments, couldn’t help but have an impact on the album. The band had written plenty of the high-powered Southern rock which had been a signature for nearly 20 years, including the catchy “Good Morning Captain” which would ultimately be the opening track on “Before the Frost.” But there was also the heavily melodic “What Is Home,” which bore a Crosby, Stills & Nash influence, and the low-key acoustic blues ballad, “The Last Place That Loves Live,” making it the widest-ranging album in the Black Crowes discography. Rich Robinson, the guitarist who had founded the band with his older brother, singer Chris, in the late ’80s, seemed to take the lead in the innovations, using a lot of finger-picks, and, for the first time, writing a song on sitar. But it also seemed to be a coming-out party for Luther Dickinson, the guitarist from the North Mississippi Allstars who joined the Black Crowes late in 2007.The album – which was divided into the CD “Before the Frost,” and the digital download “Until the Freeze” – was greeted enthusiastically: an eight and a half rating from Ultimate Guitar; four and a half stars from Allmusic. The British magazine Mojo called it “Two fine records without a duff track between them.”The Crowes weren’t done exploring. This year, to commemorate the 20th anniversary since releasing the debut, “Shake Your Money Maker,” the band shook up their back catalogue. “Croweology,” another two-disc set, released earlier this month, offers new versions of hits (“She Talks to Angels,” “Jealous Again”), B-sides, a new song, and a cover of Gram Parsons’ “She.” But while the album is nominally acoustic, it doesn’t sound stripped down, not with the gospel choir, the abundance of juke-joint piano from Adam MacDougall, and Chris Robinson singing full-blare. It doesn’t sound like a band out of gas, not with the palpable sense of exuberance. Pop Matters noted that the Black Crowes, a band often said to be rehashing ’70s rock, “show signs of moving forward” on “Croweology.”And it sure doesn’t sound like a band that is winding things down. But “Croweology,” while marking an anniversary, is also a parting gift. The Black Crowes, after two decades – with time off for a hiatus from 2002-’05 – are looking at hiatus number two. The vacation begins after the close of the current Say Good Night to the Bad Guys Tour, which hits the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival on Sunday, Sept. 5.Artistic exhaustion might have been a good part of the reason for the first hiatus. Before breaking up, the Crowes had released the 2001 album “Lions,” which earned mixed reviews at best, and gripes that the band was overly influenced by Led Zeppelin. This time, however, it has to do a lot with babies. Both of the Robinson brothers, as well as Dickinson, have new additions to their families.”It’s just the need to stop for awhile,” Rich Robinson said from a tour stop in St. Louis. “We all have babies. It’s just a good time to stop and be with them.”Also lurking over the decision is the experience of the first hiatus. The band had earned a reputation as a feuding bunch – the lineup has changed frequently, with 16 musicians having claimed membership in the Black Crowes – a hard-partying group, but also a hard-working one.”The first 11 years was tour, make records, tour, make records. It got the best of us. It ended in a bad way,” said Robinson, who at 41 is two and a half years younger than Chris. “So we’re basically just going to see what happens. We decided not to have any plans.”•••• Changing directions in mid-stream, despite professional success, may be a trait of the Robinsons. Rich and Chris’ father had been a Bobby Darin-type singer in the ’50s, had a top 40 hit and appeared on “American Bandstand.” But he was swept up by the folk movement of the early ’60s, and formed a band, the Appalachians. At the family’s Georgia home, however, the elder Robinson didn’t limit his listening to any particular style, and the boys were turned onto Joe Cocker, Sly & the Family Stone, Leon Russell and Mose Allison.That was the foundation for an intense period of self-discovery. Chris was the rabid go-getter, gobbling up whatever was coming out. “Chris is really good about delving into new music,” Rich said. “He was the impetus, bringing stuff into the house, saying, ‘Listen to this; listen to this.'”Rich had a different personality and a different approach to music, looking to go deep into one thing before moving onto the next. “When I got into it, I got really into it, figuring out all the parts, looking at everything the music was doing, immersing myself in it,” he said.Eventually, though, it added up to a lot of music. After getting into P-Funk and AC/DC, the Robinsons went through a period dominated by their home-state sensations, R.E.M. After an L.A. phase of Dream Syndicate and Rain Parade, and a short punk stretch (X, the Ramones, the Clash) and an even briefer flirtation with hardcore punk, the Robinsons went back in time, uncovering old albums by the Byrds, the Velvet Underground, and what would become a strong and enduring influence on their writing, recording and stagecraft, the Rolling Stones.When Rich Robinson picked up guitar, at 15, it seemed like he was ready to rock. Almost immediately, he formed his first band, a punk-rock group with Chris and a cousin of theirs. Soon enough, though, they moved away from punk. When “Shake Your Money Maker” came out, the sound was an Americanized version of the blues-rock played by the Stones and the Faces. Their cover of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” was a hit, as was the original ballad “She Talks to Angels.”The success continued with the 1992 album “The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion,” which debuted at number one. Over time, though, the record sales slowed, band members were shuffled in and out, and the Robinson brothers had their differences.The differences between Rich and Chris become obvious after a few seconds of seeing them onstage. Rich is along the lines of John Entwistle, the late bassist from the Who: steady, still, very much focused on playing his instrument. Chris is flamboyant in dress and movement and expression.”That’s how we are. We never try to be what we’re not,” Rich said. “He’s a frontman, great energy, loves to talk to people. And I just try to play the music.”Rich said the opposing personalities have worked well over the long haul, but also created some tensions. Now they get a break from one another. Rich said there were no specific plans for the hiatus, although he expects to make a solo record, play with other musicians, paint, and try his hand again at film-scoring, having written music for the 2002 film, “Highway.”Robinson said he wasn’t concerned about the Black Crowes being grounded just as they have hit a second artistic peak. The prospect of winding things down for awhile has already paid dividends. The reworking of songs for “Croweology” “has brought new life into these songs we’ve played for so long,” Robinson said.”Bringing the band to that level, that will be there when we come back,” he continued. “This is the band and when we break off and come back, it’s always better. People are more interested and rejuvenated.”So the Black Crowes will be back?”Probably,” he said.stewart@aspentimes.com