Black Crowes: Freak N Roll… Into the fog

[19 November 2006]

By Michael Franco

When the Black Crowes released Shake Your Money Maker in 1990, rock ‘n’ roll was in desperate need of saviors. With hair metal still ruling the charts, rock had become a parody of itself, a real-life version of Spinal Tap where music was a side product of excess and fashion rather than the reverse. Think back, if you can remember, to the year of “Cherry Pie”, Warrant’s not-so-subtle tribute to the womenfolk, and a song that perfectly sums up the state of rock circa 1990: pretty, pseudo-dangerous, and pathetic. Only Guns N’ Roses was making music that possessed swagger and substance, but even the Gunners were too consumed with the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle to maintain their focus, or last beyond a few albums.

So when Shake Your Money Maker dropped, it dropped—right on the permed heads of all the Sunset Strip poseurs who were too dense to realize that dressing up like a woman was an artistic statement when Bowie and the New York Dolls did it. Though it didn’t bury the hair metal bands for good—that wouldn’t happen until Nirvana released NevermindShake Your Money Maker signaled that a sea of change was coming, that music fans were sick of rock that was only out-glossed by the lips of the “rock stars” on MTV. Soulful, raw, and earnest, the Black Crowes’ debut sounded like Sunday morning church service in the South; it was, in short, a taste of salvation.

Perhaps because they did set the bar so high with their debut, the Black Crowes slid in popularity with each successive album. Their sophomore album,The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, is arguably their best album, but it wasn’t as radio-friendly as its predecessor, and the band’s mainstream momentum reversed course during this era. By the time Amorica came out, the Black Crowes drew more attention for their controversial album cover than for the quality of their music, and most rock fans still can’t recall their fourth album, the semi-rewarding Three Snakes and One Charm. The southern rock fans that had supplicated to the early Crowes just couldn’t relate to a Chris Robinson wearing black eyeliner, and songs that were more in line with the Grateful Dead than Lynyrd Skynyrd. By the end of the decade, the Crowes were running on fumes, plagued by personnel changes and a musical identity crisis.

What a difference a half decade—and yet more horrendous popular rock—can make. Freak ‘N’ Roll ... Into the Fog, a double disc documenting the Crowes’ August 2005 performance at San Francisco’s famed Fillmore, is proof that the Atlanta band is more relevant than ever. While Crowes fans may have lamented the band’s increasing experimentation with each album, this release shows that the band never really strayed from its roots. Yes, they became more psychedelic and less bluesy along the way, but Chris and Rich Robinson and their gang never forgot how to write a good guitar lick or craft a raucous melody. Indeed, the 19 tracks on Freak ‘N’ Roll represent a unified, and insanely impressive, body of work. If anything, it shows the band has always been more interested in exploring the various roots of American music—and how they unavoidably intersect—rather than being a modern-day “classic rock” band. Many of their forgotten tracks are testament to this; “Let Me the Share the Ride,” for example, from 1996’s Three Snakes and One Charm, is a oddly organic mixture of gospel, blues, jam-band improvisation, southern rock via the Stones, and afro-Cuban percussion. Here, the song is augmented by the Left Coast Horns, adding yet another dimension. This is but one example of how the Crowes unearthed rock’s numerous influences, separated them, and then recombined them in new ways.

Wisely, the Crowes spread the radio hits throughout the track listing, placing most of them on the second disc. They’re all here—“Hard to Handle”, “Seeing Things”, “She Talks to Angels”, “Remedy”, “Wiser Time”—but they are accurately represented as single pieces in a larger and more meaningful body of work.  For those fans who insist that concerts should present faithful renditions of recorded music, the band remains fairly true to the album versions, only making slight changes here and there. “Hard to Handle,” for example, is also supplemented by horns, which makes it feel even more like the Beale Street humidity from which it emerged. Likewise, “She Talks to Angels” is slightly altered, slowed down and transformed into a gorgeous church hymn, buoyed by the piano work of Ed Hawrysch. 

The most rewarding inclusions here, though, are the lesser-known songs and covers. Because the Crowes did experience a decline in popularity during the mid-‘90s, it’s easy to forget some of the hidden gems. “Welcome to the Good Times” is one such tune, a gloriously-lazy ballad that has sounded better with age, removed from the unfair expectations of radio play. And, if the Crowes’ catalog isn’t impressive enough for your tastes, they end with an amazing cover of the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”. Covering such an iconic song is always tricky, but the Crowes possess the musical virtuosity to capture the weird, gothic Americana of the original.

Thankfully, the time seems ripe for a Black Crowes resurgence. The Robinson brothers, known for their creative and personal differences, are now older and (hopefully) mature enough to put their petty squabbles behind them. Add to that, Chris Robinson’s divorce, which, while unfortunate, might give him reason to seek solace in writing and performing music. Then, add this: rock is in a similar state as it was in 1990—artificial and utterly ridiculous, waiting for something genuine. What most new bands don’t realize is that rock doesn’t need anything new; some basic sincerity will do. And, as Freak ‘N’ Roll shows, the Black Crowes are masters of genuine, sincere rock.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/black-crowes-freak-n-roll/