Here’s a question: Should the Black Crowes eventually be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Before you start choking on scoffs, consider: In 2000, the Atlanta outfit was joined by one of the few people still alive on rock guitar’s Mount Rushmore, Jimmy Page, for Live at the Greek: Excess All Areas, a double-disc set chronicling a two-night stand in 1999 that brought the Crowes into somewhat rarified air merely by being associated with such an iconic rock figure. A quick glance at futurerocklegends.com, a website dedicated to tracking artists’ chances of eventually landing a spot in Cleveland’s Big Triangle, lists the band’s outlook as more promising than most for induction when they are up for eligibility in 2015. And, maybe more telling than anything else, the song with which the group is most associated, “Hard to Handle”, has a pretty impressive pedigree itself as Chris Robinson and company used the melody of Buddy Guy’s “A Man of Many Words” underneath a track originally written and performed by Otis Redding.
This, of course, is in addition to a loyal and somewhat large fan base that has seen the band through a plethora of lineup changes and two subsequent hiatuses. Believe it or not, the Crowes’ blend of Southern and straight rock-and-roll is a sound that has become novel in its simplicity. The approach has landed them some pretty good gigs over the years, from headlining massive festivals to sharing stages with such royalty as the aforementioned Page, Tom Petty, the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, and countless more. To think that they have done it all without much help from mainstream radio… well, it’s almost astonishing.
Such is what makes their four-LP latest set (on 180g for all you vinyl lovers), Wiser for the Time, an impressive lesson in resiliency. Recorded during the band’s 2010 five-night run in New York City right as they were about to go on their second hiatus, it features 26 songs and more than 160 minutes of the Black Crowes at their loosest. And while the first 15 tracks are listed as the “acoustic” portion of the release, there is no denying the electricity that bleeds through each performance in such a stunning manner that one has to wonder why these guys were so focused on taking a break in the first place.
Album opener “Cursed Diamond”, from 1994’s Amorica, is buttered in hot acoustic soul as Robinson ping-pongs between an empowered shout and poignant tenderness. “I lose myself /I forget myself / Sometimes I fault myself / I might fight myself / But then I make amends / I freeze myself / Rain on myself / OK, so I stone myself / And I might even find myself / But then again what happens if I do,” he emotes over a single stripped guitar, and with what is known of his band’s sometimes tumultuous history in mind, it’s hard not to believe every letter of every word. “Smile” and “Better When You’re Not Alone” bring the rest of his laid-back band (including his brother Rich and drummer Steve Gorman) into the mix more prominently, and the result is a mixed bag. Though not completely acoustic, the songs sometimes lack the fire of the set’s first track and bring to light both the subtle discrepancies in their live shows, as well as strengths that can sometimes be buried.
Case in point: “Jealous Again” and “Soul Singing”. The former creeps its way toward sloppiness throughout a shaky initial two thirds before succumbing to full-on disappointment by the time the last 90 seconds of jamming come around. It’s a shame, too, because of how much of a standout the tune typically sits within their wide-ranging catalogue. Here, however, Rich Robinson’s guitar lacks the necessary confidence, and not even the help of otherwise-fantastic female backing vocals can save the performance from its inevitable demise. That said, “Soul Singing”, the band’s most forgotten radio single (and also probably its best) is without question the strongest the Crowes get during the album’s first half. It’s impossible to turn away from how the supporting ladies’ voices lock in beautifully with Chris Robinson’s inspired chorus and though Gorman’s tom-tom-heavy beat is understated in its time-wavering, the imperfections actually make the song more empowered and sincere. It’s a diamond in a patch that isn’t quite rough, though also not particularly clear.
That’s okay, though, because as the final dozen songs come to life, Wiser For The Time becomes exponentially more interesting. Guitars turned up and energy running rampant, the Black Crowes prove that they very well might have been the best Southern rock band to come out of the 1990s. “No Speak No Slave” is five minutes of pure adrenaline fueled by an escalating guitar line and a double-time groove on a ride cymbal that envisions a fugitive running through the woods under dark skies. Accentuating the urgency is the elder Robinson’s demonstrative voice as his enunciations of each word narrate the story perfectly, as though Mark Twain was able to read the more biting parts of Huck Fin for a book on tape. It’s nothing if not authentic.
The energy only continues on the gospel-influenced “Only Halfway to Everywhere”, where the band sprawls out into a flurry of sound when the track eclipses ten minutes and the atmosphere and connection of a live show bleeds through the speakers. “Make Glad” is surprisingly funkier than one may expect with the help of Adam MacDougall’s keyboard and the voices of those aforementioned soulful ladies. And then, as if an inspired take on “She Talks to Angels” isn’t enough, Little Feat’s “Willin’” turns out to be the perfect way to end a collection of performances that seemingly wanted to encapsulate the career of a band that, as time would prove, weren’t ready to walk away from music quite yet. “I been from Tuscon to Tucumcari / Tehachapi to Tonapah,” the chorus says. “Driven every kind of rig that’s ever been made / Driven the back roads so I wouldn’t get weighed / And if you give me weed, whites, and wine /And you show me a sign/I’ll be willin’ to be movin.’”
Turns out, there isn’t a single lyric Chris Robinson relayed all night that could have been more true. Because as Wiser for the Time affirms, the Black Crowes will always be willing to stay on the move, even if it takes a few years away from the truck to remind them that they are at their best when the suitcases are packed and the road ahead needs traveled. Is that commitment to their craft enough to get these Atlanta, Georgia, natives a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Only time will be able to answer that. As for now, we should feel fortunate that there remains a band so true to its initial roots-filled form more than 20 years after its incarnation. Remember—the Black Crowes came to prominence after the 1970s Southern rock boom ended and before the indie twang resurgence of the 2000s began. Therefore, time, ironically, has hardly ever been on their side. Still, these 26 tracks serve as proof that, above all else, the brothers Robinson and friends are far wiser for it.
And rarely does battle-tested intelligence sound this inspired.