The Crowes say goodnight

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“You ready?”

It was the most sincere question Chris Robinson had ever asked an audience.  It was approaching midnight, Sunday, December 19, 2010, and Chris Robinson and The Black Crowes were preparing to lead their flock into the last encore before what continues to be described as an indefinite hiatus.

Vaguely supporting Croweology, a double album recorded at Sunset Sound Studios in Los Angeles, the Crowes customarily chose San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium to close their dubbed “Say Goodnight to the Bad Guys” final tour. The six night run capped 20-plus years, the story a Bildungsroman that began in Atlanta as Mr. Crowe’s Garden. The end? An abstruse decision to call it quits by a band that has been repeatedly praised this tour by those in the cachet of David Fricke, the Rolling Stone senior editor himself, who touted the band as being as good as ever in a review after the Crowes’ romp in September at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.

Though John Sinclair’s Guitar Army disciples have given way to panhandlers in the Haight, the California to which The Crowes and so many beholden could be found in The Fillmore, where Friday night twisted a long line sprinkled with flat-brimmers, transplants, a few spares from LA in suit separates and weary travelers who all came together for the three hours that the Crowes would fold, lick and jam into their far out history.

Friday 

Three of the final six shows in the books and implicitly eulogized, my final Crowes experience was to be the last three shows of the tour. The Friday show started, predictably, with Three Snakes and One Charm’s “Good Friday,” Chris Robinson’s outstretched arms mimicking the beginning of a free fall as Luther Dickinson’s slide fell on top of Rich Robinson’s warm rhythm. Chris’s voice was strong as ever and told a story unto itself.  There was melancholy, relief and abuse, all rolled into the first verse of "Good Friday."  

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Six songs in, the first cover of the evening came with "Hot Burrito #1," which originally appeared on the Flying Burrito Brothers The Gilded Palace of Sin.  A staple of mid 90s sets, dusting off "Hot Burrito #1" augmented the set nicely, the ghost of Room 8 of the Joshua Tree Motel cut from the shadows close by. Adam MacDougall had a chance to showcase his rhythm playing on this number, trading staccato clipping tendencies for smooth transitions on the keys. Goddamn, this song worked. Next came "Hot Burrito #2," another Gram Parsons and Chris Ethridge classic, Luther clawing his way through the solo as Chris exclaimed, “Jesus Christ!!!” folding himself around the stage wildly.

With “Thorn In My Pride” and “My Morning Song” closing out the set, Steve Gorman, Joe Magistro (percussion) and Sven Pipien (bass) trotted out their patent framework for the Crowes sound, laying down the foundation on which the rest of the Crowes tip toed, jangled, stomped, cried and swam.  Chris marched the crowd to the seven seas in ”My Morning Song,” salvation a la carte.  Rich’s adroit use of open tunings (open G in "Morning Song") has long benefited the layered and deep soul sound of the Crowes, the mastery of his craft emblazoned on the The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion’s set closers.

Few platitudes, little banter with the audience and with requisite and presumed mounting chemical intensity, the electric set fucking threw itself into the Fillmore with the suite of “Waiting Guilty,” “Another Roadside Tragedy” and “Wiser Time.”  If songs from Shake Your Money Maker were written about what Chris and Rich thought it would be like to be in a band on the road, “Waiting Guilty,” a B-side to Shake, was the next logical uncomfortable machination. 

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A heady jam out of “Another Roadside Tragedy” allowed both Rich and Luther a chance to throw down, Allman Brothers-style. Ten minutes in, a hairpin turn and the volume tripled, Gorman blasting away, Luther with visages only more strange and in tune than those melting away in the audience.  It was a greasy blend of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” “Les Brers in A Minor” and “Whipping Post,” a visceral rendering meshing the latin and jazz flavored tones of Duane and Dickey’s guitars against a blues backdrop that Rich and Luther took turns filling with hints of psychedelia.  

Luther eased everyone back down with a distinct “Joy to the World” tease, paying homage in earnest to the Allman Brothers live double record made at Fillmore East in March of 1971. The familiar intro to "Wiser Time" followed and everyone suited up for another trip to the moon.  This wasn’t year-end tax planning, this was scar-bearing wisdom from Amorica, letting the weirdness free all the negative shit the road brings.

The dramatically swollen vibe was disturbed with a few slow motion clunkers, Crowe and crowd grabbing rest where available. To close out the set came the Maddogs and Englishmen arrangement of  “Feelin Alright,” the embittered and familiar refrain always bringing relief in escape, as it were. In keeping with the theme from the week, the encore featured covers of some of the Crowes’ biggest influences, Friday night being songs by/done by The Band.  Ending with the Holland, Dozier, Holland penned classic, “Don’t Do It,” Chris and Rich traded lead vocals while Chris pounded away at an acoustic guitar before Luther’s solo came to a hysterical finish and thereafter the gate was closed.

Saturday

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Saturday’s display coughed to life with the linear one two combo of “Jealous Again” and “Hotel Illness,” both sharing in mellow, straight from Croweology.  “Garden Gate” and “East Virginia Blues” brought the Blue Ridge Mountains to San Francisco, the Robinson’s Brothers take on bluegrass.  From 2009’s Before The Frost, Until The Freeze, “What is Home” gave Rich the lead vocals.  A boyish consistency in his voice buttressed by a finessed acoustic guitar, “Home” is reminiscent of Rich’s noted influence Nick Drake.

The acoustic set was beat if not uninspired – slow, maudlin and thin.  And though Saturday fell short of the mind-bending dive of Friday night, there were highlights and there was a comfortable weirdness that said The Crowes were glad to have everyone there with them, huddled around the fleeing warmth and trying to leave all the hassles of the world behind.

The striking unmistakable opening chords to a die-hard Amorican’s dream,”Exit” opened the electric set.  

“So don’t you pity me

Misplace my intentions.

Don’t, don’t mistake me,

This no illusion,

This is an exit!”

Luther was above, Rich was on, Chris was in, the floor rippled with delight.  Sven Pipien calmly thumbed his five string and provided cashmere backing vocals.  

A highlight of The Black Crowes live experience is a climax such as the one that took place during “Exit,” the night before in “Another Roadside Tragedy” and “Wiser Time.”  I focused on this little bit of immediate need to listen to Chris tell us he was done. That he’s fucking done with something. He glared at Rich as he suffered elegantly through the chorus.  

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There was nothing routine about the performance of this song – a song that is hard to fathom without the winding lead guitar of Marc Ford.  But Luther got it done, Rich pulled some weight and there was collective sweat of worry after they had pulled everyone over the mountain.  It was nasty, it felt good, it was a side of the isosceles triangle that had every right to be there, but it was an Exit.

The electric set closed with Southern Harmony’s finger pointing tirade, “No Speak No Slave.” Having trouble hitting some of the highs in years past, Chris wailed and taunted and Luther’s slide solo playing was deep, full and well trimmed. “No Speak” was often Chris’s poetic platform in the early 90s where he chided security, crowds and anyone within earshot of hidden guilt and worldly inequities. And I was right there with him that night as he strummed an imaginary guitar with a pirouette and whirligig that climaxed with Rich and Luther’s guitars pulsing behind Gorman and Magistro’s tandem drumming.

Rich stole the encore on one of the three Neil Young related tunes, “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere.” The penultimate show ended with “Ohio,” subject matter appropriate for the vibe that left more than one native ill at ease.  Where Friday had been festive, Saturday had been cautious and tired.

Sunday

Endless rain fell on the familiar queue as friends greeted each other on Sunday night.  Adam MacDougall milled about the lobby of the Fillmore, Rich Robinson scooted through several fans as well, smiling to the calls of his fans acknowledging the landmark departure that the evening was to bring.

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“Remedy” clanged together and opened the show, MacDougall with sharp and hollow keyboards.  Lacking the volume of the original recording, “Remedy” these days is sublime and powerful. Chris flopped the microphone stand with calculated danger on the changes as Gorman popped his way through the song. Luther laid down a smoking solo while Rich bent riffs around this classic Crowes anthem.

After “Remedy,” Chris joked, “it would be funny to play one song and split – you thought the Sex Pistols were punk rock.”

A nice jam out of “Roll Old Jeremiah” featuring Chris on acoustic guitar, and this final show was ripe.  Steve, djembe in hand and front and center, counted off for “Whoa Mule,” which could be Tony Joe White meets the Band, or off of the Rolling Stones’ Let it Bleed.  It’s a song with splendid finality; wherein the last two nights there was celebration and pain, Sunday night, for a few fleeting moments, peace:

“Sometimes the road is rocky and hard

Full of dangers unrelenting.

Just take great care to follow your stars

Let the good times come a plenty.”

The catalog from which the Crowes have to choose is expansive, so the plucking of songs from the Tall sessions, relased via The Lost Crowes a few years ago, held dear the idea that this last night was something special for Crowe and follower alike – “Thunderstorm 6:54” fell out of the speakers, feeling as much in tune with Mezz Mezzrow did with his idiom.

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Five songs in came the first cover and what was to be the first of six Rolling Stones songs of the evening.  Luther returned to pedal steel, Chris with a guitar, the message was delivered:

“Our love is like our music

It’s here and then… it’s gone…”

”Tornado,” a country-fried tune also recorded during the Tall sessions by Chris and Marc Ford with acoustic guitars is a simple walking melody, reluctantly uncomplicated.  Having debuted this song earlier this tour to the surprise of many fans, MacDougall and Luther added swampy leads and Gorman eased a beat for a song that deals with paranoia and self destruction in a comforting fashion, as The Crowes do so well.

Warpaint’s “Oh Josephine,” some of the band’s best work to date, sailed right through the storm blowing through the room. It’s a song that everyone should hear – redemption, heart break, searching, being strung out, coming down, moving on.  If the Black Crowes’ career told a story, this song was its vignette, and the reckoning that is inseparable was being waltzed to an end.

Ramping up the herd, Matthew Moore’s tune “Space Captain” opened the electric set, letting the oooh’s and aaaah’s bounce hither thither and yon. “My Morning Song” was jammed and tripped into “Stare It Cold,” the return to My Morning song featured the Croweology-style break down and then a climax more familiar to that born by Southern Harmony.

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With Joe Tex’s “Show Me,” the band paid tribute to one of the great R&B soul singers of all time and returned to its first album to find “Seeing Things” as the show took on a spiritual bent. Chris Robinson often preaching “Sunday Service with the Black Crowes,” the predictable clichés and surrounding emotions didn’t dull the fervor with which the band attacked the old classic. No shit. Hey, that’s as close as I got to a church.

Steve Gorman approached the front of the stage and with Reverend Charlie Jackson’s “God’s Got It,” by way of Steve’s wrecking a large marching band-style bass drum, the entire band wore the appeal of this gospel rocker and their final show on face and body alike. Magistro added percussion fills that, along with Sven’s brooding basslines, took the once merry to the macabre with the mourning of ”Feathers,” a song recorded in the dark period between1993 and 1994 at North Hollywood’s Alley Studios and Conway Studios.

“Thorn in My Pride,” would be the last Black Crowes song on stage in the history of the band, to date.  Angels, devils, lovelights, a short drum solo and Chris stumbled toward the crowd with a harmonica. Playing cross harp in the key of E like classic blues harp players, a familiar tease came about, sounding a hell of a lot like “Midnight Rambler.” With a forceful count off, the herd joined in and Chris screamed into his harmonica the intro to "Midnight Rambler." A first time played, the performance was head splitting and sensible, as gentle as the subject song’s main offender.

For the entirety of the song, Chris’s harp playing was shadowed by Luther’s slide.  Eyes torn, Chris formed this tune of unrequited and love around guttural screams and soulful address.  Bouncing, lunging, pounding, Chris yelled and grunted with sexually charged changes, taking the song away from the Stones for just those few moments, and along with everyone on stage and in the audience, the song and the midnight call became property of the Black Crowes and the Fillmore audience:

“And if you ever catch the midnight rambler,

I’ll steal your mistress from under your nose.

I’ll go easy with your cold fanged anger,

I’ll stick my knife right down your throat,

BABY AND IT HURTS!!!”

Honey, that was not one of those.  A tidy spectacle in a cover song about a depraved rapist coming in the black of night and breaking all your fucking windows. A few “alrights,” a “thank-you,” a “far out man,” and the stage went dark.

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Very few short breaths later, the band returned to give an encore, but first thanked the Black Crowes extended family, the Fillmore and the kind folks that work there.

 “You ready?”  Chris asked.

A collective yes and an acknowledging sigh that this fucking thing was almost done. However malleable and open to interpretation the songs of the Crowes are, whatever weird blood exists between Chris, Rich, Steve and anyone else who had claimed artistic differences with any member of the Crowes, the passion that started it all was spilling out for the final offering.

Rich strummed the familiar opening chords to “Torn and Frayed,” and the band followed with a classic performance of another timeless Jagger/Richards jewel. This song long associated with Gram Parsons’ presence at Nellecote, Luther’s pedal steel playing brought country swing and the sweet sickly lyrics from Chris once again let the band and room steal this song.

Wading into the Stones’ “Just Want to See His Face,” Rich stretched the song out to almost nine minutes, singing lead and trading gospel style licks with Luther.  Holding the high harmonies with Chris all night long, Rich’s maturation as a singer may not yet be fully recognized, but his handling of the vocals on this Exile on Main Street classic was a performance that showcased his the largesse of his talents beyond that of a riff master.  The backup singers supplanted the few lyrics the song boasts and for those few minutes, the Fillmore was transformed into a revival – primal and welcoming.  When the opening riff to “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” stuttered out of the speakers, the room was split open, fans bobbing wildly and singing along as Chris and Rich shouted out:

“Help me baby, I ain’t no stranger.”

The jangling outro that followed this championed anthem was loud and huge.  Hands high, hands low, Chris moved with sensation and along the jam.

For the final song, a campy choice – again a Stones tune, “The Last Time” – let the band leave a poorly executed exclamation point or better, perhaps a question mark, as to when they might once again fly in formation.

Chris, Rich and the band positioned themselves in front of their fans and took their final bow. Alongside the anachronistic madcap vagabonds that traipse about the golden road to infinity, the Black Crowes fell to rest and said goodbye.

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