Hanging in the lounge at Hotel My Home along one of those gently curving, multi-consonant streets that crisscross Amsterdam, I felt rock ‘n’ roll’s heathen gospel goodness seep into my pores. Stoned as a First-Century Christian, I was watching bootleg films of the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street tour. It seemed the ideal way to prepare for the Crowes shows, beginning the next day.
The ‘72 Rolling Stones—those wooly, blood-hungry, foot-stompin’ dynamos—were not like today’s fissure-faced mimics who slog it from stadium to stadium, dragging their heritage through the mud and milking the last juicy drops from fame’s teat. The Stones of old were missionaries, true zealots consumed by rock’s power to inform and redeem. They made music that to this day stands as a wall against the Bon Jovi-fication of a genre that got its name from the earthy rumble of human bodies. 1972 found the Stones balancing intense focus with shambling abandon. You can hear this dance in every controlled outburst from Mick Taylor, in Jagger’s upward cry, in Keith’s black-eyed ferocity. This period is often seen as the benchmark for all things ragged, and also right, in rock.
While the Stones left this mojo behind, three decades back, there is a kindred spirit finding their truest, deepest incarnation. At a venue that’s more church than concert hall, the 15-year-old Black Crowes proved they are every bit the equal of the Stones at this lofty peak.
The Paradiso is a beautiful stone building with well-aged wooden interiors. Touch the walls and you can feel history vibrate under your fingertips. Everyone from Patti Smith to My Morning Jacket and Public Enemy has performed here. Once past the lobby, the most striking feature hits you: a subtly twisted stained-glass window directly behind the stage. Backlit so it shines even in the nighttime, it stretches to the third-story balcony and has something undeniably holy about it.
That feeling of sanctity was amplified by the Crowes’ opener, “Wiser Time”, whose chorus goes “On a good day, it’s not every day/ We can part the sea/ On a bad day, it’s not every day/ Glory beyond our reach”. This page from the Crowes’ hymnal inspired outstretched hands and a kind of Pentecostal shine. While band never gets specific about its spiritual bent, there are forces at work that go way beyond mere pop ditties.
“Wiser Time” set the tone for a pulsating array of moods spread over six sets in three evenings. For the people who’d come from around town (and also as far away as New York and California), this was a tent revival with wine and reefer. Within seconds you could feel the outside world slip away as the music climbed towards the high, curved ceiling, creating a joyous haze that continued unabated until the last notes died out.
Throughout their career, the Crowes have been labeled retro rock. Most press have painted them as an amalgamation of the Stones, Allman Brothers, the Faces, and any number of other ‘70s acts that once wore velvet, liked the blues, and played songs hippies could shake to. It’s never been a fair appraisal of their sound and still isn’t. In a culture built around snippets of ideas, unrepresentative soundbites often get frozen early on. In reality, the Black Crowes are a bouillabaisse of southern rock, ‘60s soul, Maggot Brain-era Funkadelic, Sun Studios brashness, and ‘70s country, all sprinkled with a liberal dash of psychedelia and anchored by an unerring knack for infectious hooks.
From the time of 1992’s The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion it’s been fair to say that the Crowes have sounded like no one but themselves. What they’ve cultivated combines meaty riffing, layered vocals, and a surprising sensitivity in what is often an intimidating wall of hard, complicated emotion. It’s the sonic equivalent of a Rodin marble with an unmistakable, humanizing crack severing its form—achingly beautiful and flawed in the best of ways.
Since returning to the road in March 2005, after a four-year hiatus, the Crowes have resembled a more lysergic version of Dylan’s infamous Rolling Thunder Revue. Beyond their own voluminous catalog, they’ve become a one-band history lesson with a range that includes Devendra Banhart, Clarence Carter, Pink Floyd, Buck Owens, Tony Joe White, Neil Young, Jimmy Rodgers, a healthy dollop of Dylan, and vinyl-era obscurities like the Grease Band. They crawl inside the music of others and inhabit it, illuminating and changing the songs in organic ways.
Highlights of their record crawl at the Paradiso included a yodel-inflected assault on Free’s “Ride On A Pony”, a breezy romp through “Song of Love” by Stephen Stills’ Manassas, a hard run through Robert Johnson’s “Steady Rollin’ Man”, and a suitably weepy take on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Sin City”. The Beatles covers included a trippy “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” balanced by a flesh-in-the-teeth nasty “Yer Blues”.
In Amsterdam the Crowes played 61 tunes, repeating only four songs and two of those, “Soul Singing” and “Thorn In My Pride”, featured startlingly different instrumental jams. One senses the band is working double-time on keeping things interesting, both for themselves and their audience. Having played close to 150 shows last year and already working into double digits in 2006, they’re immersed in an active, wildly awake examination of what they love about music—both their own and that of others. Their method shares similarities with what the Grateful Dead and any number of contemporary jam bands but is far more rough and tumble, inspiring a Dutch couple in their fifties to splash their drinks all over me the second night while screaming “Midnight Rambler!” in guttural English.
Put bluntly, folks lose their shit to this music. It’s a wondrous thing to behold—folks free and freaky, if only for a few hours. The nubile ocean up front undulated and swayed with moist intoxication every night, and only a ghoul with anti-freeze in its veins could miss the smell of pheromones in the air. If you didn’t get laid after these shows it wasn’t for lack of aphrodisiac. Me, I came back to the States to discover my wife and I are going to have a baby. That’s how powerful this stuff is!
From the balcony railings you could see one of the longhaired roadies seated next to drummer Steve Gorman. His head-nodding, thigh-slapping gusto didn’t let up for three solid nights. I watched him loosen vertebrae while he wore his jeans white with palm grease. More often than not, I found myself using him like some human metronome, resetting my internal clock to the Crowes’ rhythm. Their music is experienced as much as it’s heard. The body absorbs the waves and ideas, transforming them into existential nourishment. Sound like crap to you? Well, go back and watch live footage of ‘50s Elvis Presley or the beginnings of Beatlemania and tell me folks aren’t being hit in the spirit.
Amongst those swept up in their cosmic hoedown were Amsterdam resident and U.S. expatriate poet John Sinclair, a noted blues and jazz scholar, modal linguistic ninja, former MC5 manager, and founder of the White Panthers. Sinclair joined the Crowes twice for free-form rambles through his poems “Monk in Orbit” and “Fat Boy”. With the boys cooking like a battered steam engine full of coal, Sinclair wondered aloud, “There’s something about the American mind,” which inspired Chris Robinson to later toss out the tie-dye chestnut, “A mind blown is a mind shown.” Sinclair’s presence is a nod from the past that the Crowes are carrying forward something that began in the heat of Vietnam and social upheaval, a kind of low-key consciousness-raising in the guise of a badass party, where assess are indeed freed and minds follow.
Amsterdam proved the perfect city for the Black Crowes. Both are steeped in tradition but dappled by inquisitive freshness, built brick solid but angled by a healthy disrespect for orthodoxy. Appropriately, the last encore of the run was a bouncing off-the-rails version of the Stones’ “Happy”.
After a four-year respite where their future seemed anything but certain, the Crowes have returned, stronger, wiser, and more anxious to please than ever. Behind them lie the drugs and drama that sometimes marred their music. Hearing them bark Mick and Keith’s line “Never blew a second chance, oh no!,” one felt they understand how precious it is to be a successful traveling band who gets to rip it up wherever they go. They seem aware of the own blessings in a way that better lets them pass that blessing onto us. Half a world away from my home near San Francisco, I yelled along with a couple thousand others, feeling the simple truth behind the chorus “I need a love to keep me happy!” As far as rock ‘n’ roll is concerned, I know who to turn to when I want a slice of that happiness.