There was a gorgeous Southwestern-style sunset happening in the six o’clock hour on this balmy Thursday evening, shedding resplendent hues of pink, orange and purple haze over the Arizona State Fair. It was most kind of Mother Earth to deliver this psychedelic majesty, as attendees would have been otherwise hard-pressed to discern much in the way of Southwestern flavor at the fair. Save for a couple of Native American jewelry booths, visitors could easily have thought they were in Anytown, USA. From the standard carnival rides and games to the homogeneous food and beverage selections, there was little in the way of the regional offerings one might hope for at a state fair.
But the Arizona State Fair still had an ace up the sleeve with its musical entertainment program, bringing in performers such as Bob Dylan and Stone Temple Pilots earlier in the week, and on this night, The Black Crowes. The one-time rock ‘n’ roll upstarts have been at it for about 20 years now, having grown into savvy rock veterans at this point. But how many classic rock bands have been able to deliver one of the best albums of their career 20 years down the line? You could probably count them on your fingers, maybe even on one hand. The Black Crowes’ new double album, Before the Frost… Until the Freeze, is easily one of the best releases of 2009 and of their career. The album’s combination of musical depth and maturity is impressive, yet it still retains the free-wheeling rock spirit that launched the band to stardom with their debut LP in 1990. It’s the type of stellar offering where you want to hear plenty of new songs performed live on the supporting tour.
I caught the band in Austin, Texas nine days earlier, where they played seven new songs, several of which were among the highlights of the show. I had a birthday to celebrate on this evening, so I took the opportunity to hit the road and catch the band again, attending the event with a college friend who’s now a first-year law student at Arizona State. We’re both fans of Hunter S. Thompson’s classic road trip saga Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, so we kid about how we’ll be able to go to Vegas in 2012 with a similar journalist/attorney dynamic as Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo had in their classic adventures.
My future attorney had advised me earlier in the week that I was likely to be disappointed with the sound at the venue, the old Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum. He said the acoustics were downright wretched at the Dylan show the previous weekend, as is often the case in outdated arenas. However, he had attended as a general admission attendee, receiving free entry to the show with purchase of a fair ticket, but limiting how close one could get. I assured him that the reserved tickets I’d procured ought to place us in a much better location, and indeed the sound was fine from our floor seats.
There was no opening act and the band opened with “Good Morning Captain”, the lead track from Before the Frost. This show would turn out to have a much different flavor from the Austin show, and indeed most of the tour. The Robinson brothers proceeded to turn the clock back to the early ’90s by throwing down both “Sting Me” and “Hard to Handle”, which energized the crowd to a highly rocking level with familiar radio hits. Guitarists Rich Robinson and Luther Dickinson were clearly on, with Dickinson ripping smoking hot slide leads all night. Drummer Steve Gorman may have been the MVP of the night though, rocking every tune with a crisp precision and consistent energy that was a constant reminder of what a blessing it is for Black Crowes fans that Gorman is still in the band (the only original member left besides the Robinson brothers).
Singer/ringleader Chris Robinson was in high spirits as he led the band through a crowd pleasing set that concluded the first leg of the band’s fall tour. Whether it was due to the fact that the band knew a large portion of the audience was attending on the casual general admission basis, or because the show was wrapping the first leg of the tour before a two week break, the band clearly made a decision to play more of the hits than usual. The first big jam of the night occurred next in “Wiser Time”, the classic road tune from the band’s third album in 1994. It was here that anyone who’d never seen the band before, such as my future attorney, would have the realization that this is a band that gets into some serious jamming. The entire unit gelled here for a majestic sound devoted to finding that hot night where “We can part the sea”.
The second, and surprisingly the last, new song of the evening followed with the funky “I Ain’t Hiding”, a retro tune that sounds related to the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You”. The band then hit 2008’s Warpaint with the hard rocking “Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution” which kept the energy level high. The Robinsons dug deep into the repertoire next for one of the major highlights of the evening with the triumphant “Soul Singing” from 2000’s Lions. Rich Robinson’s melodic licks set the tone, while brother Chris sang of transcending tough times to get one’s mojo working again. Backing vocalists Charity White and Mona Lisa Young combined with Robinson for splendid harmonies that had thousands of souls singing and dancing.
That energy was directed straight into 1992’s “Thorn in My Pride”, perhaps the band’s greatest jam vehicle. The longtime fan favorite never fails to disappoint and this would be another classic rendition, with bassist Sven Pipien and keyboardist Adam MacDougall shining particularly brightly throughout the tune’s many twists and turns. Chris Robinson was also at his best on the signature song that has nods to both the Grateful Dead and Rolling Stones, but which ultimately sounds like no one else besides the Black Crowes. A huge guitar workout brought the crowd to peak ecstasy before giving way to one of the great cathartic piano codas of rock history.
The ballad “Oh Josephine” followed, providing a bit of a breather, though the tune has a unique poignancy as it seems to be a thinly veiled lament about Chris Robinson’s 2006 breakup with actress/ex-wife Kate Hudson. The band cranked things right back up in a major way by going back to their debut album for both “Twice as Hard” and “Jealous Again”, another triumphant blast of the new classic rock sound that made the band famous. Witnessing those tunes performed back-to-back in 2009 was quite a throwback, and the band just kept digging deep as they followed with “Remedy”, the classic hit from their second album, for a triple shot of full-on early ’90s rock glory. The charged sequence saw the entire crowd grooving as patrons basked in the glow of the melodious cure that only great rock ‘n’ roll can deliver to the soul.
The lights sadly went up after “Remedy” though – what, no encore? It had been 90 minutes (the same amount of time the band played in Austin, though most shows on the tour were at least two hours.) Stubbs’ BBQ in Austin had a specific curfew, and apparently so did the Arizona State Fair for some odd reason. It was strange because the show started right at 7 pm, and now it was ending at a mere 8:30? It’s hard to understand why the fair couldn’t let a band go for two hours, especially when they started at an unusually early hour. There’s few state fairs bringing in this kind of high quality musical entertainment, so hats are still off to the organizers, and to the band for making it 90 minutes to remember with an extra festive set that was a clear anomaly on the tour with its heavily old school vibe.