“IT’S US AGAINST THEM” The Black Crowes

The Robinson Brothers took on the music industry – and won. Meanwhile,
the latest leg of their 20th anniversary tour kicks off this week.

 

BY DAVID DOWNS

 

Gone are the days of acid. The
Black Crowes have picked up the fiddle.

 

Which is not to say that the
band-formed in 1989-can’t still rock. They can. Lead singer Chris Robinson is
just sticking to mushrooms these days.

 

“I think the more gentle
supplement of psilocybin is far more easily manageable in my forties,” he says.
“Taking acid is like planning a vacation to Europe
or something. Who has the time? It’s a little bit pushy, that drug.”

 

It’s been almost twenty years
since Robinson,, brother Rich (guitar) and drummer Steve Gorman-the core of the
Crowes-emerged from Atlanta, Georgia on Rick Rubin’s Def American Recordings
with “She Talks To Angels” off debut album Shake Your Money Maker.
Channeling the Band, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, Money Maker went quintuple platinum in the U.S.
alone, yielding the first of six Billboard 200 number one singles like
“Remedy”.

 

Twenty years, seventeen tours,
seven studio LPs and something like 20 million albums sold-plus all the
management lawsuits, narc arrests, and finally the break-up at the turn of the
century, after Columbia dumped them and they couldn’t stand each other-the
Crowe coda came straight from Almost Famous (2000) when Chris
Robinson wed actress Kate Hudson, had a kid and divorced. Roll credits.

 

On Aug. 31, the Crowes released
Before the Frost … Until the Freeze, a ballsy, experimental, bad-ass
roots double-album: half rocking jams and half hootenanny. Gone are the days of
acid. The Black Crowes now dabble in mandolin.

 

And goddam, if it isn’t good.

 

***

 

“We burned ourselves,” Chris Robinson
says, at his home in Topanga Canyon,
CA. There’s a tipi in the back
yard and 5,000 records on the wall. California
sunshine streams through the place. “Columbia Records was a fucking joke. Us
being at Columbia
at the end of the ’90s, then we go to V2 which is just another horrible joke.”

 

He’s talking about what led to
their 2001 hiatus, comeback in 2008 with LP number seven Warpaint, which
in turn led to this new album on their own Silver Arrow label.

 

“I wouldn’t chalk it up to
stupidity, I would just chalk it up to naiveté,” he says. “When Shake Your
Money Maker
came out, the sheer fact that that record sold seven million
records at the time was beyond our world. We just figured ‘Shit, man, you know.
Someone gave us sixty grand to make a record and then we can go on the road,
and I guess we’ll just move back to Atlanta and work at a record store, and
drink too much and get bitter … ‘

 

“And then this other part of it
took over, which was, on a personal level, strange-when you dream maybe of
being a rock star and then you get to be one, and you realize it’s really not a
very exclusive club. There’s a lot of douchebags that get to be rock stars,
too. I thought it would be more like The Beat Hotel with Ginsberg and Burroughs.
You’re like, ‘No. It’s Faith No More.’ Great. I fed the machine for years. It
was like, ‘Holy shit, these grown adult businessmen are making tens of millions
of dollars off us every week.’ It’s really blowing our minds and all we want to
do is get deeper into the groove and figure it out and write and play and get
high and be free and do all these things. And we’re making these horrible
business people millions of dollars and you wonder. Then you finally wake up
and go like, ‘Ohhh! This is a big game. This isn’t about us, man’.”

 

When Columbia dropped them in 1999, the Crowes
bounced to V2. “It’s the same old story. The guy who signs you is the president
of the label. You sign. The week before you go into the studio, he goes to
another label and you’re stuck with a bunch of douchebags who only see you for
what you could maybe generate them income-wise.”

 

Relations inside the band
weren’t much better, he says.

 

“It’s pretty much why we put
the band down for those years the early part of this last decade. The thing
about my brother and I is-we love each other very much. We just don’t like each
other, usually.” [laughs]

 

Long-time guitarist Marc Ford
along with a half-dozen other musicians entered and exited the orbit of Chris,
Rich, and Steve.

 

“I spent a very dark period of
my life in the late ’90s with those kind of things, because I just truly felt
sick in my soul about, ‘The thing that I love the most is the thing that is
making me so unhappy.’ And as a musician, the other thing is then you just
always have the ability to escape through drugs. More hard drugs, you
know-alcohol and coke and heroin and things like that. They don’t really bring
anything to your consciousness or your scene.

 

“You’re masking how much it
hurts. And by the time you’re in a real working rock and roll band for over a
decade, no matter how much you love each other, you never break down and stop
and say, ‘Guys, I’m hurting. This isn’t right.’ You just kind of have that,
‘Fuck it, we’re too tough to die’ kind of mentality. It doesn’t matter how
sensitive you are on the inside, those things don’t come out in terms of the
group scenario. It’s just like, ‘There’s the dates. We’re going to trudge on.’
And that hurts as well.”

 

The band parted ways and it
wasn’t until 2005 that music drew the Crowes – who were all doing solo projects
and touring – back together to perform. Dates with Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page
followed.

 

“The only way we can really
communicate is through music and I don’t even think-I wouldn’t even get New
Agey and say it’s a healing thing. It’s like it’s truly the only thing we have
in common. We’re on the same page when we’re making music,” he says. “I think
now we’re way closer to what we both feel is compatible.”

 

So they got together in Woodstock in 2008 to
record Warpaint, which they released independently on Silver Arrow. It
was a critical hit and commercial success, and a crucial phase change occurred
in the band.

 

“I think having Warpaint debut
in the top five Billboard [200] album [chart] was shocking. There’s no music
business and we did it ourselves,” he says. “Warpaint and saying, ‘Fuck
it, we’re doing it ourselves’ has been the best thing that ever happened.

 

“It’s a counter-culture trip:
rock and roll. It is us against them. And I don’t trust people in suits
and I don’t like lawyers and I didn’t like A&R people and I didn’t like
anybody who called records ‘products’ and that shit. These people, they’re not
like us. They’re not artists. They’re not weirdos. They’re not misfits. They’re
not outcasts. They’re playing the game and we weren’t interested in competing.”

 

Warpaint led to another
big tour: the foundation of the Crowes’ longevity, and the thing to which they
attribute everything they have.

 

“That’s where you’ll make the
connection with your audience, and hopefully-we all have growing pains-but
hopefully, they’ll stick with you because you weren’t full of shit,
explains Robinson. “I’ll go out and run into someone who’s like, ‘Dude,
tonight’s my 95th show.’ You are fucking kidding me.”

 

“I’ve played with them,” says Warpaint producer Paul “Strange Boy” Stacey, who met Robinson through Oasis, and
toured with the Crowes. “It’s as strong as it gets.”

 

Energized by the Warpaint tour,
Robinson conceived of something more grandiose. “Maybe it is because I’m 42
years old and I’m obsessed with records and vinyl and stuff,” but he made a
decision. The Crowes would write and record a double-album live in three weeks
flat. It would be rootsier than ever. The only question was “where”?

 

***

 

February in Woodstock involves frost and freezes, and
producer Stacey was the first to arrive on the 20-acre property owned by Levon
Helm from The Band. Out in a woody field next to a large, bass-filled lake
beneath Overlook Mountain, Helm had built a famed wooden
and locally quarried bluestone barn, held together with wooden pegs. The barn
fits 200 and is decked out with Apple G5s and MCI Analog two-inch 24 tracks,
Fender Rhodes pianos and tube amps. It’s where the world’s best musicians come
to Ramble.

 

Stacey’s first order of
business was attending a famed Ramble, a traditional, late-night hootenanny
from the days of traveling minstrels and involving much booze, bawdy lyrics and
dirty dancing. “I had to drive home that night and I didn’t know what my name
was on the way back to the hotel,” Stacey says. “I kept saying to myself, ‘I
hope I don’t get pulled by the cops because I don’t know what my name is’.”

 

Helm  has resurrected the Ramble with world-class
musicians like Larry Campbell, plus guests like Elvis Costello, Dr. John,
Emmylou Harris, and, yes, Chris Robinson, who in August 2008 had a similarly
smashing good time. “I got there and it just hit me like a ton of bricks,” he
enthuses. “‘Holy shit, this is the place. This is exactly what we are talking
about.’ This homegrown event and Levon’s personality and the music that he’s
been involved with-it’s all together in the barn there in Woodstock. It’s set up for it. You can have a
couple hundred people but it’s also a studio setting. And that really bowled me
over. ‘Wow, this is it. It’s right here.’ The next day we drove over and hung
out with Levon and told him what my idea was and he was like, ‘Well this is the
place to do it.’ And he was fully on board. ‘Ya’ll come on. When ya wanna do
it?’,” he says. “We booked the time and sold the seats and we were ready to
go.”

 

Stacey had just five days to
prep a barn for a nonexistent album by one of the world’s biggest rock bands,
which would be performed live. “It’s just like, ‘Oh, shit, we’re making a
record and we don’t even know what we’re doing.”

 

The brothers Robinson flew in
the next week with rough songs at the ready, because material has never been
the band’s problem.

 

“The music always takes care of
itself. It’s the brothers,” says Stacey. “Are they getting on? Are they getting
off? Are they fighting today? All that stuff.”

 

The two worked on rough tracks
and Stacey emailed sketches of the work to guitarist Luther Dickinson, bassist
Sven Pipien, and Gorman, who were all scattered throughout the continent.

 

“We don’t need three weeks rehearsal.
These guys are good enough to pick this up and to have it become a piece of
them to express themselves,” says Robinson. Adds Stacey, “There’s hardly any
bands that can do what they do. I kept saying, ‘People are coming to see you do
this live. Are we going to have enough?’ And of course there always is.”

 

The next week, the full band
spent five days learning a dozen new songs for the weekend’s show. “Talk about
people who have made ADD really work for them,” is how Robinson puts it.

 

Their looseness – backed by
years of experience with each other – is integral to the sound, says Stacey. “They
do it in their gigs. They do sound checks and sometimes just run four new tunes
very quickly that they kind of hardly know. But when it comes to the gig, they
play them like they’ve known them for a while. They have this authority and
commitment that you expect from great players. They don’t freeze up. They don’t
get lost or scared.”

 

Still, the night of the show,
Stacey recalls that they looked as nervous and jittery as he’s ever seen them.
“Before I left the dressing room I said, ‘If I was a fan of this band, which
I’m not, but if I was a fan, this would probably be the most exciting and the
most incredible experience for me. Watching you, as a fly on the wall in Levon
Helm’s barn.'”

 

Robinson gave a little speech,
defusing the tension by calling the experience experimental and occasionally
stopping songs after a mistake, and laugh it off. “The first one of course was-‘Does
everyone know what we’re doing?'” Robinson laughs.

 

But 20 years of Crowes kicked
in.

 

“It’s not a click-track type
thing,” says Stacey. “It’s a movement of meter between those three guys. And
they have that instinctively as a normal conversation. People should appreciate
it more.”

 

The show opened with Rich
Robinson playing sitar on “Aimless Peacock,” a studio-quality jam made more
phenomenal when the audience erupts into cheers on the final note. Guitarist
Luther Dickinson plucked prior to Warpaint” from the North Mississippi Allstars, delivers intricate finger-picking and
soulful one-off solos, and even plays mandolin. Bassist Sven Pipien throws down
on the doghouse bass. The legendary Larry Campbell-master of all stringed
instruments-also graces the sessions. The mood swings from rock to blues to
boogie to country to bluegrass and back with Chris’ lyrics hinting at the
baggage they all carry. “All the mythology is in there. Everything we’ve been
through as a band.”

 

The Black Crowes pegged it the
first weekend, but they learned twelve more songs and did a second weekend of
recording live anyway. These recordings comprise much of the double album. “The
second weekend was just more relaxed and broad,” says Stacey. “It has more
swagger.”

 

 

“Who’s done a record like
this?” he muses. Stacey knows of no one else that could have pulled it off like
they did. “They definitely put themselves in a corner of real risk. They took a
huge risk. The one thing about that band is that they do that anyway.”

 

“This era, and what we’ve been
doing the last couple of years,” Robinson says, “I’ve never felt more
fulfillment and satisfaction, creatively and socially and in a business sense.
It’s a dream come true for the kind of vibe, the kind of freedom of expression
and also the recognition of what we are.”

 

So, gone are the daze of acid.
Clear-headed, the Crowes are messing with the dobro. And yes, it’s only rock
and roll, but we like it.

 

[This article originally appeared in the 8th issue of BLURT.
The Black Crowes are currently on their 20th anniversary tour and
recently released an acoustic career retrospective,
Croweology. In August they’ll also commence the “Say
Goodnight to the Bad Guys” tour that will conclude in December, after which a
“lengthy hiatus” is planned. Details, tour dates and more at BlackCrowes.com.]

 

 

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