When does a band go from being “new” to “classic”? From hot newcomers to grizzled veterans? I suppose it all comes down to longevity. If you stick around long enough in any business, you’ll surely wind up beloved in some circles and irrelevant in others.
In my mind The Black Crowes are still young, even though they’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of their debut album Shake Your Money Maker. It’s probably because I was a kid of just 13 years old when the band hit, with a sound that mixed and melded iconic artists like the Rolling Stones, The Faces and The Allman Brothers Band. Open G chords, sweet southern Soul, gospel singers backing up the battling Robinson brothers, singer Chris and guitarist Rich; in 1990 the sounds they lifted weren’t unique, but the band most certainly was. Even if you weren’t a fan, I’m pretty sure you’d recognize the licks that open songs such as Remedy, Jealous Again or She Talks To Angels. Over the course of their first decade in the public eye, The Crowes evolved into a jam band along the lines of Phish and The Grateful Dead, which helped cushion the blow when they started selling fewer albums as their career continued.
But sometime in the past decade, in the midst of band member chages, break-ups and reunions, The Black Crowes transformed from young imitators to road warrior icons, along the way finding new ways to reinvent their music. Their recently released album Croweology is a 22 song set of older material, reworked acoustically in a studio setting. It is the exact opposite of their last album of new material, 2009’s Before The Frost…After The Freeze, which was recorded live in front of an audience in Woodstock, New York. It’s also an essential piece of The Crowe’s catalogue.
How can this be though? An acoustic album of mainly old material? Isn’t that the sure sign of a band coasting rather than remaining relevant? In the case of The Black Crowes, it’s been a long time since anyone would ever accuse them of being relevant. There music was just never highbrow or revolutionary enough to stake that claim. Instead, this band of imitators have reached the point where they’re in a certain elite echelon now; fans mention them in the same breathe as the artists The Crowes first were accused of imitating all those years ago. Listen to the nearly 19 minute long stretch that make up Ballad In Urgency->Wiser Time and you hear a band that recalls the acoustic beauty of the Grateful Dead circa Reckoning. Keep listening and you’ll hear the slightest hint of the Allman’s Dreams in there as well.
Throughout an album of exquisite beauty and serentity, one of the things that stands out the most to me is that there’s nothing forced or tentative about the playing. This is a band that’s made their living on the road the last few years and you hear that sixth sense that can only come from musicians who are actually listening to one another, who are sympathetic to what their colleagues are playing, not just their own instruments. Throughout Croweology the band’s core approach of two guitars, bass, drums and keyboards are punctuated with violins and pedal steel, filling out a sound that’s never been lacking in the first place.
From young pups to old dogs, The Black Crowes have become the legends they always were lumped in with. And like the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band before them, The Black Crowes have always known that when done right, with honesty and integrity and purity of spirit, music can be the ultimate trip. Whenever I put on Croweology, I feel like I’m flying.