Lovers Lane
Copernicus Center

Cover Story: The Black Crowes

| October 30, 2009

The Audience Is Listening


Maybe you thought they’d capitulated. Since reuniting in 2005, The Black Crowes haven’t exactly sauntered onto Super Bowl half-time gigs or spilt their avian guts on “Oprah” (next day’s headline: “Brothers used to hit each other!”). Chris and Rich Robinson released the Freak ‘N’ Roll and Brothers Of A Feather live albums, then Warpaint on their own record label in 2008, and didn’t even make it into a proper recording studio for this fall’s Before The Frost . . ., whose second half, . . . Until The Freeze, they’re giving away to fans who purchase Frost.

Appearing: Thursday, November 6th at Riviera Theatre in Chicago.

And then you think, they were smart to get out when they did.

The years the Crowes left the building, 2001 to 2005, weren’t exactly kind to musicians stuck in the old order. The major labels decided to sue file sharers without looking forward, bands begged their fans to have a heart and buy records, and teenagers asked, “What, me pay?” This isn’t to say the Robinsons were sitting back there laughing. Frontman Chris’ marriage to actress Kate Hudson dissipated, he released some solo albums, and cut a soft-rock track for mom-in-law Goldie Hawn’s Banger Sisters film. Guitarist Rich dipped his feet in and out of the solo pool without ever issuing anything, learning how hard it was to support a band on a national tour. But when they came to, however, The Black Crowes realized their music still meant something while the last two labels they recorded for, TVT and V2, did not.

“You could see what was going on,” Rich Robinson insists. “[Peer-to-peer network-cum-label Internet arm] Napster changed the landscape 180 degrees. It just took a long time to grow into such a level. A lot of people believe, like I believe, that these fucking big record companies were holding on to the wrong belief and they fought the system so hard instead of trying to work with it, instead of trying to do something to align with it and figure out a way to coexist. They chose a more adversarial tactic. So they couldn’t keep up. You could see in 2000 and 2001 where this was going.”

While many people will argue that Before The Frost . . . Until The Freeze is symbolic of The Black Crowes’ classic-rock indulgences and a hallmark of the old order, the album(s) are, in fact, something the band wouldn’t have been allowed to make if it weren’t for the established viability of working outside the system.

“To put it out on our own label as we have with these last two records is incredibly freeing,” he sighs. “A) We own our masters, B) we get to make whatever records we want. To not have to deal with A&R, promotion, or marketing people? You get to be a band and do what you want to do.

“To give away that record?” he continues. “We had this double album and sometimes songs fit better than others. To me, the songs that are Before The Frost dictated a piece. Those songs created a whole album that really worked. Now, what do you do with these other 10 or 12 songs? Because we are in the position we are, you can do things like, ‘Here’s what it would have been like as a double album.’ To be able to do that is really cool. If you were on a label, they’d be like, ‘No, you’ve got to sell that. Let’s string it out. We’ll put it out in six months. B-sides compilation.’ To be able to do that the way we did it is a cool thing. It’s something the few people who would enjoy it can now get something out of it.”

And so the new material can either be purchased on CD or online as Before The Frost with a download code that accesses Until The Freeze, or fans can dig into the vinyl edition, which recasts the album as a more non-segregated, mixed set.

Some people will still scoff at a band as inextricably linked to jam bands and stoner rock as The Crowes putting out a two-record set. They’ll moan about an inability to make decisions, failure to take risks, and exploitation of a new medium to pursue a bygone era of rock stardom. They’ll do this without realizing it was one of the riskiest things they’d ever done.

“In summer of ’08,” Robinson recalls, “when we had some time off, Chris went up to Woodstock. He went to a ramble at Levon [Helm]’s, and he’d had this idea floating around but [then] it just hit him. They’re set up for this. They record all the live shows up there, but they don’t do them like we did. It’s literally for live shows. So by end of the summer we started honing what we needed to do.”

What he’s referring to is a barn in upstate New York where Helm, the former drummer for The Band, invites friends and lucky fans for jam sessions, which he records. It’s mildly evocative of the late-’60s sessions where Bob Dylan holed up in The Band’s [known then as The Hawks] Woodstock headquarters and recorded a glut of material, much of which was released as The Basement Tapes in 1975. After Robinson’s lanky, older brother paid a visit last year, it was decided: The Black Crowes would record their next album in front of that audience.

“We always come up with ‘where are going to record, what are we gonna do’ before we record, then we finalize the songs,” Robinson says. “Some of the songs are written on tour, but, for instance, [1992’s] Southern Harmony [& Musical Companion] we wanted to be an eight-day, knock-out record. Then when we made Amorica we really wanted to spend time on the sonics and it took a year. Three Snakes And One Charm we wanted to be an acoustic, organic, Led Zeppelin III sort of album, and there’s a broad spectrum of elements on there. Each record we have an idea of how we want to make it, then we write the songs and they’ll fit based on how we choose to record it.”

“How we choose” is an interesting choice of words, given the myriad variables confronting them: arrangements, acoustics, crowd interaction, momentum. That, and there was no real template on which to base this production.

He says, “We can’t think of anyone who’s done it like that.

— Steve Forstneger

For the full story, grab the November issue of Illinois Entertainer, available free throughout Chicagoland.

Tags: , ,

Category: Features, Monthly

About the Author ()

Comments are closed.