Two decades after the Black Crowes debuted with Shake Your Money Maker in 1989, the band is hitting a new stride with Before the Frost…Until the Freeze, a double-album of new songs recorded live last spring for an audience gathered at Levon Helm’s barn in Woodstock, New York, home to his Midnight Ramble shows. Given that this new project comes hot on the heels of last year’s return to form, Warpaint, and its subsequent tour—from which a live CD/DVD was released in April—Before the Frost… is an experiment audacious in both concept and prolificacy. What’s more remarkable is that the heated pace has allowed for such a strong set of songs, especially as vibe and groove have largely supplanted hooks and melodies on every Black Crowes album of the last several years.
The idea to release a set of new originals as a live recording is a logical move for a band that has earned its stripes as one of America’s hardest-touring and most consistently-fine live acts. Life on the road in the ‘90s gave the Robinsons & Co. a loose, shambolic swagger, moving their Stones and Faces classic-rock boogie closer to the freewheeling jamness of the Allmans. Considered kindred spirits to the jam-band scene, the Crowes got increasingly hirsute, flaunted their devotion to smoking copious amounts of weed, and stretched out songs into an eclectic roots-psychedelia, a sound that didn’t translate especially well to studio recordings; as a result, albums like 1996’s Three Snakes and One Charm and 2001’s Lions were full of tough playing and singing but lacked memorable songs like “Jealous Again”, “Remedy”, and the other hits from their first two albums.
Still, the Black Crowess never perfectly fit the jam scene. First, they pulled back from the all-out wankery of the endless, 256-bar electric mandolin solos of, say, the String Cheese Incident. Plus, they had something that Phish, Widespread Panic, and the like didn’t: an excellent singer—Chris Robinson has held up to be a force of range, taste, control, and power, and he’s never sounded better than he does on the new album. Moreover, Chris and his brother, lead guitarist Rich, have written their strongest set of songs in years, perhaps ever, and their sharp, effulgent performance of them, after what was apparently a brief rehearsal period, is an impressive feat. The recording, produced by frequent collaborator Paul Stacey, wisely keeps the audience out of the mix—applause is heard just barely between tunes—so that the record achieves the clean lines of a studio album while maintaining the loose spontaneity of a live show.
Before the Frost… opens with the ripsnorting “Good Morning Captain” (a title nicked from either “Muleskinner Blues” or Captain Kangaroo), with its barrelhouse piano, ringing slide guitar, and rustic lyrics. It’s an instant classic with the grit and flash at the heart of the Black Crowes’ best moments, and there’s plenty of the Band (think Cahoots) in the barn-dance ruckus of this one, setting a formidable bar for the rest of the album to clear. But the band is deep in the pocket throughout, striking a deft balance of greasy roots-rock stank and catchy melodies, and the band sounds more engaged with each other than ever, if not having jazz-like conversations, then at least locked into the fluid exchanges and collective arrangements of the songs.
Rich Robinson puts on a roots-guitar clinic, particularly on the first record, setting off sparks during gritty ramblers like “Been a Long Time”, as he’s turned loose on an extended solo of snarling runs and switchbacks, or on the mesmeric blues lines in the mid-tempo gem “Appaloosa”. A major hand, as well, for recent addition Luther Dickinson, of the North Mississippi All-Stars, and his immediately obvious contributions to rounding out the Crowes’ guitar attack, playing blue-streak slide leads and swampy thwacks that counter Rich’s riffs and Adam MacDougall’s first-rate piano phrases. And, perhaps the biggest key to this set’s success, Chris Robinson turns in the performance of his career. Like other legendary hard-blooze singers—Steven Tyler and Robert Plant, for instance—whose tradition he extends, Robinson has terrific rhythm, and he sings these new songs with flash and fire and all kinds of southern-fried shimmy. On “Kept My Soul”, he hits big notes but lets his growl mingle with a ragged vibrato, while at other times, as on the gorgeous “Houston Don’t Dream About Me”, he recognizes the importance of sticking to an indelible melody—eschewing his usual onstage habit of improvising melody lines—and achieves his most soulful moments of the record.
Rich takes a turn on vocals just once, on the acoustic “What is Home?” a song that wouldn’t sound out of place on the second side of Led Zeppelin III. But, overall, the 11-song first record hits hard: the give-and-go rhythmic dervishes of “Make Glad”, full of Brothers Johnson funk and Stax punch; the ‘60s-rock boogie-bop of the celebratory “And the Band Played On”; the nifty disco-rock trick of “I Ain’t Hiding”, all flangy guitar burple and bitchy vocal charge. Before the Frost… ends with a lovely acoustic mountain-gospel number, “Last Place That Love Lives”, which starts with the brothers only, pushing Chris’s voice way up front, and ends with a Last Waltz-style fiddle-and-mandolin coda, pointing the way to the second record.
The Crowes could have stopped there, and, as with any two-album simultaneous release—from Springsteen’s Human Touch/Lucky Town combo to Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion I and II—it’s tempting to pick the best of each record for a boiled-down single LP. That would be a chore here since there’s no weak song on either album, and although the second record, the nine-song ...Until the Freeze, is a countrier, steel-guitar-laced affair, every song feels like an important contribution the album’s overall cohesive structure, a point reinforced by the vinyl release, which shuffles both records together into an altogether different tracklist.
In any case, …Until the Freeze contains some of collection’s most indispensible cuts, including the pastoral lilt of “Greenhorn”, seven minutes of wistful beauty, and “Lady of Avenue A”, a stellar lovesick ballad about good times and lost nights on the Lower East Side. It’s interesting to see the Crowes get so country, moving farther down the roots road than they’ve ever gone and bringing along Dylan sideman Larry Campbell to supply pedal steel, fiddle, and banjo. Check out “Roll Old Jeremiah”, part Dead, part Buckaroos, or better yet, “Garden Gate”, an olde-tyme clogger with Campbell’s fiddle dueling with Rich’s electric flatpicking. The album’s sole cover is here, too, a take on Stephen Stills’ “So Many Times”, a deep cut from the second Manassas album—it’s a great Gram Parsons-y find that showcases the album’s tightest vocal harmonies, another aspect boosted by the involvement of Dickinson.
The turn to all-out country may be a side effect of this project’s idyllic setting, but it feels like a natural progression for a band that pushed an organic sound even during the hair-metal years and is following the pattern of the similar twangy turns during the middle periods of the Robinsons’ heroes like the Stones and the Byrds. As steeped in traditions as the Crowes have always been, drawing heavily from the heydays of classic rock and Americana history, the band has, after 20 years of sweaty integrity, added to the lexicon rather than simply borrowed from it. Indeed, no other band combines these traditions in 2009 as effectively and authentically as the Black Crowes, a reverent musical blend that, according to their host, Levon Helm himself, when describing it to Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz, brings country music down to the cotton belt where it mixes with rhythm and dances: “Then you got a combination of all those kinds of music—country, bluegrass, blues music, show music.” What’s it called? “Rock ‘n’ roll.”