The Black Crowes – Reflections of The Band

For a drummer, Steve Gorman is a great conversationalist. And vice-versa. No criticism implied,  in either respect, of this lynch-pin of The Black Crowes.

And why not? By the end of their first ten year anniversary The Black Crowes were nothing less than perpetual underachievers, a group fraught with personnel turnover and personal friction that perpetually left them short of the potential as displayed on their debut, Shake Your Moneymaker and the even more stellar successors, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion and Amorica.
 
Yet since reuniting in 2005, The Black Crowes have reinvigorated, if not exactly reinvented themselves. In the last two years alone, they’ve made three of the best record’s  of their career: The Crowes display an uncommon clarity of  style on  2008’s Warpaint as well as  the recently released companion pieces Before the Frost… Until the Freeze. A similar sense of purpose and unity pervades the band’s live shows too and touring constantly the current sextet, now consisting of Chris and Rich Robinson, bassist Sven Pipien and Gorman plus the newest recruits, guitarist Luther Dickinson and keyboardist Adam MacDougall, have begun to raise the bar so high that now, on the eve of their twentieth anniversary, The Black Crowes have become one of America’s best rock and roll bands.

It was no surprise that The Black Crowes decided that as the basis for their new album, to record themselves live in the winter of 2009, offering all new material to an intimate audience at Levon Helm’s barn in Woodstock New York. Is it any wonder either that Steve Gorman can’t hardly stop talking about the group?  Talking with Glide’s Doug Collette, he sounds tremendously excited about how well the band is doing right now, as well as their future prospects.  From his vantage point at the drums at the back of the stage, and as a charter member of the group, things have never looked or sounded better for The Black Crowes.

How’s the tour going so far?

It’s going well man. We’re a couple weeks in now and it’s been great actually. It’s weird : I keep thinking every one of these nights, the new material’s not going to go over, but it seems like the new record’s is really working for people. It’s pretty apparent. 

I’ve been living with it for a few days now and it connected with me right up front. It sounds so much like you without sounding like you’re repeating yourselves. It’s a terrific pleasure to hear.

When people say "What do you hope to do?" without being wordy I’m always trying to say I want it to sound like us but be new.  We’re not trying to throw knuckle-balls, but a nice curve is good.

A real sharp breaking curve-there’s nothing like it! It is a great thing, especially when you’re seeing a band live, having listened to them for a number of years, when you hear something choice from the past, then you hear something new and you think "Wow that’s as good as what they just played."  On the nights when you’re doing an evening with (no opener), do you do an acoustic set during the course of the evening?

The shows have a lot of acoustic tunes but there’s not an acoustic set. We kind of flow in and out of sections, so there’s not a part where we do all acoustic songs.

The reason I ask that is that in listening to Before the Frost, then going into Until The Freeze, I thought "This (Freeze) would be a great acoustic set to play in its entirety, then mix in a few older songs along the same lines.

The shows lately have been us doing a lot of the new stuff from both records. If you’re a vinyl guy the track listing or the double album is different…

I notice that how did that come about? It was so distinct from the running order of the CD’s.

The way we put this record out, we had six different conversations going and one point of congruence. We felt we had twenty songs we had to put out, but we didn’t want to put out a double CD because then we have to charge more and we don’t want to do that. We want to make this as cheap as possible. We feel like this is a pretty good time to put more music out so then the conversation turns into "We’ve got this great track listing with all these songs, next year’s twenty years since Shake Your Moneymaker we’re going to be doing things to celebrate, not just that album, but twenty years of being around–why don’t we give away something this year ?"

We have all these vague themes floating around: this is a linear version of the conversation: "How far along this different paths do we want to go?…we knew we were going to put out these songs in some form we weren’t going to lose all these tunes, but (producer) Paul Stacey said "I hear this track listing"…he had these eleven songs that are on Before The Frost "This is like a great Black Crowes rock and roll record and it touches upon every direction the rest of the stuff goes."

He nailed that!

This is the whole field of play and so "if we’re going to put out a single album I think this works." Everyone agreed: that covers every angle of all the tunes. Then Pete (Angelus) our manager says, "Why don’t we put a card inside that allows people to go download the rest of the stuff for free? That kills both birds with one stone?" This was just so easy: why did it take days to figure this out?
And then of course Chris (Robinson) says "Well hang on a minute– can we still do the vinyl with the original track listing?" And it’s "sure why not? There were all these different ideas and it came together quickly like "We can do it this way."
For a casual Black Crowes fan, some of the stuff on Until the Freeze, they might be a little thrown.

It’s possible.

We’re not known for making it real easy for our fans. I think all the music’s really good, but I understand. These days more than ever I’m happy with the reaction to the new tunes. With what’s going on in the world, I think people are really looking for some comfort when they go out.

There was never a thought of us charging more for a single (album): could it be more inappropriate than to say "Hey it’s 2009, we’re going to ask you to pay twice now?!"

And then on top of that, this spring I was thinking we should just start focusing on the more well-known stuff, the stuff everybody knows, because it seems like people are just desperate to feel good for a couple hours. I’m not trying to oversimplify it, but that’s what’s going on in the world right now. We could do that for about three days, but then we’d start to lose our minds and we wouldn’t be doing it well. We can’t fake it: we’ve tried and it doesn’t work. So we said "Well let’s just go out and see how it goes" and thankfully it’s worked.

I think there’s a really positive tone to this music and I know from conversations I’ve had with die-hard fans, family members and very casual fans, there’s a feeling that this one just works. Warpaint certainly didn’t resonate with people the way this one is.

Not as deeply perhaps. I know the first times I heard Warpaint, I had similar reaction: this sounds just like the Black Crowes, but it’s unlike any Black Crowes I’ve heard before–in a way. This one just seems to go deeper than that and when you talk about the comfort level of an audience, I think it resonates because it sounds like you guys and like the rest of us, we are trying our best to figure out how things are going and how to make sense of it. Maybe not making perfect sense of it, but good enough! Let’s all get together and celebrate the fact that we’re all here.

I don’t like making these blanket statements, but all we’re really good at is doing what we are that day. There’s a thing on Warpaint that we felt such a sense of moving forward again, for the first time may be since the late nineties. We felt like we’re moving in a way that feels right again. I’m just saying this for the first time after you summed it up: Our excitement and our understanding-of us in the band; even our fans couldn’t feel all that. We had perhaps way too much expectation and anticipation. We knew what we were doing and things like that do take a while to get across. Then with that band on the road for a year, then going to Levon’s barn and putting these records together–all these things have to be in the right order and they have been in the last two years.

Let’s talk about going to the Barn and recording there last winter. Had you guys ever been there before?

Chris went to one of Levon’s rambles last August and that’s how things got started. It was during a break on a tour. We had been talking about whether we’d record again in ’09 and Chris said: "Well I had an idea: why don’t we go into a studio with a few dozen fans who come in and kind of be in the corner out of the way, but they get to watch the process. Not overdubs, but when we’re doing the band tracking. In our minds we all pictured a conventional studio with four people tucked into each corner like flies on the wall. We’re all picturing people who see us like fifty times a year anyway; it’s a way to say "Check this out-How cool is this?" Also realizing this would put a little charge in us: that’d put some energy in the band, if we’re looking over and there’s three fans looking at us!

That conversation meandered around a little bit, then Chris went to a Ramble and comes back and says "All right, I got it! This is what we’re gonna do…And everybody was like "Yeah that could be cool!"

And before you know, we put a thing on the website and we’re selling tickets to two hundred people a night! It went from twelve people to two hundred in the course of five minutes of him walking into that barn.

I remember going to a Ramble a couple years ago too and I was really astounded by the whole setting of it. It’s a beautiful structure in and of itself and  as I watch the show, from the balcony above the stage, and I’m looking out over the band to the audience, I’m thinking what a great sense of intimacy there is here. Nobody feels hemmed in– we’re just all close in this experience.

I’ll tell you: that’s really what it makes you think. I had never been in there until the day we walked in to start working. I’m not the guy to talk about ‘vibe’ and ‘aura’ and ‘energy’ because that’s so overused. You’ve been there, so I don’t have to explain it to you, but I walked up those stairs and went "Oh My God!"

And this was on Monday morning. Nothing was set up–it’s not the middle of a gig–and I went in there and said, "This is ridiculous. If you can’t make a record in here, go get a day job." It was really that simple.

But then I wondered "How do you get this?" I guess you just gotta be Levon for seventy years.
How’s he doing by the way, just to digress a little bit? I know you did some shows with him early on in the tour…

His laryngitis is coming and going. His playing is great, he’s just not singing these days and that’s a drag for all of us fans. But he’s in amazing spirits as always: Chris and I were talking about it last night on the bus–that guy gives people so much joy. There’s lots of Black Crowes fans who know a lot of music, but I guarantee you, there’s just as many college kids out there who have never heard an album by The Band.

I agree.

But you know, they look up there at that guy and after two or three songs they’re just smiling! The smiles that are in the audience when that guy is on stage–there’s nothing like him.

That’s the sense I got from the Ramble I went to. He is so happy where he is after all that’s gone on for him, positive and negative throughout his life. I had a chance to see him a couple times last summer because he toured with Phil Lesh and Friends and the second night, I’m hearing the horns pumping away and I’m hearing him belt out "Ophelia" and I’m thinking it’s such a great thing that Levon is out in the world reminding people what The Band was. Because that’s basically what he’s doing: those arrangements he’s doing are straight off Rock of Ages (The Band’s live album).

That’s the band that could get away with getting called "The Band." My kids are nine and seven, and I remember a time a few years ago when I had (Music From) Big Pink on in the house and my son–he loves AC/DC and The Wiggles at the same time–and he comes over and he says "Who is this?: And I said, “It’s The Band."And he said "Yeah, but what band?" And I go It’s The Band" and he goes "Oh that’s The Band." There’s got to be someone who’s called that!"

And those songs are so musically complex: I saw an interview with Levon where he was laughing and he said "You try to cover those tunes!" There’s so much hidden trouble in those songs for a band to try to do, but a six year old likes them too.
Six-year olds don’t have any preconceptions about what things should sound like, so they’re totally open to the mystery in it.
In the history of rock and roll music, I’m under the impression that if there was a rock and roll tribunal, then Robbie Robertson would go to prison for life.

I know what you mean (laughs)

Yoko Ono and Linda had nothing to do with breaking up The Beatles, but Robbie Robertson killed the greatest band ever and for what reason I can’t figure out. But then he’s had to serve a life sentence as Robbie Robertson.

I guess it all balances out.

Yeah, he works for a record company right now.

What was the sensation like and being able to play and be so open in front of an audience as you perfected new material?

This was an experiment. Every night Chris would say to the crowd "We don’t know what we’re doing. Pay attention here. Turn your cell phones off. Be quiet during a song please– and that’s it. Let’s have fun– you can clap when the songs end if you want, but while we’re playing, try to keep it down. And it wasn’t a show: we had a set list each night of ten songs but we’d do two or three takes of each one.

I wanted to ask what the sensation in the room was when you did that.

Every night it was the same thing. A lot of people were at multiple nights, but a lot of ’em weren’t. We’d be doing a tune, we’d be playing the first song, whatever it was, and the song would end and we’d look up to the raised area where Paul Stacey was and he’d give the thumbs up.

Or it sounded pretty good, but somebody’s out of tune or it sounded really good, but then it fell apart in the middle. So we would try it again, and we’d go "This doesn’t feel right."–Any two people–Rich and I or Rich and Chris –would go "uh-uh."

And the first couple times, the audience is getting really unsettled. Because to the in their minds, it’s a gig. But here’s where our self-absorption worked in our favor because we were able to shut alot of this out and think "OK now does this go to the D?"… "What song is this?" Because we were just learning the songs too.

How much did you prepare the songs before you started the recording?

We worked Monday through Friday, then started on Saturday, had two nights with the crowd, took a night off, then the next week, work two or three songs a day, then Monday off, then two nights with a crowd. We would have a list of songs each weekend where we’d have four or five days of running them down. There were a lot of mistakes and a lot of confusion on what song goes to what part, so we would stop. Or someone would break a string.

The good thing is we didn’t look ahead at all this stuff–this is just looking back realizing that it would’ve been a lot more daunting. But when we sat in that barn and we see the faces we see all the time at shows; these are the people we see twenty, thirty, forty times a year already and that made it so easy ’cause it was like "Whoa, we know all them." We don’t know their names, but we know all their faces. You didn’t have to be embarrassed about this. And we couldn’t have had a more supportive audience–If we can’t get it together in front of this audience…well we can’t do anything better.

I wish I could’ve been there…What was the process of deciding what takes of what songs were on the album?

The one thing about our band: I don’t think we’ve had an argument once ever about this take or that take.

Really? That’s great!

The one thing that’s always been easy about us is, when it’s down to this one or that one, everyone always agrees. It never is a problem.  But then we didn’t hold ourselves to this. We didn’t force ourselves to get a live record out of this. Cabin Fever (the name of the run of shows) is one thing, the live recording we’ll do later, that’s another thing. In our mind, we might overdub the hell out of this. It’s just an experiment let’s see what happens.

Every night the audience would filter out and we’d all be sitting around having a chat and we’d go "Well, this ‘Good Morning Captain’ was pretty good." Every night after a show we’d listen and there were nights where Paul would go "Let’s move on, you’re not touching that take." Then there were takes where Rich wasn’t on the mike, backing vocals were missed or this thing or that.
There’s one tune that’s called "Little Lizzie Mae" that’s really exciting, but it didn’t make the record because there’s one take where everyone plays great, but both guitars are a little out of tune just enough and they’re not out of tune together. And then there’s a take where Chris’ vocal is one of the best he’s every done and halfway through, I broke a stick. And I covered up and I kept playing… picked up another one… but there’s definitely a moment where everybody went "What’s that?" You could feel it and these things happen.

So we had about thirty tunes and everyone listens to pick out the best version: here’s the songs, let’s find the best version of every song. You’d weed out a ton of things and then you’d go "Well, which ones aren’t album worthy?" And like that one "Little Lizzie Mae:" there’s not going to be one of those we can save, and right there that whittles it down to about twenty-four. And then you take it from there and you take it back and forth. But like I said, when we talked about what would the first album be if we were to do a single album, Paul turned around and said "That’s how I hear it." And everyone literally went "Oh yeah, that’s a helluva record."

Was it at that point you did the overdubbing?

Oh no –it’s a live album..

So he made a song sequence that was the primary album and then..

He put a ten song sequence together and then Chris added the last song. Chris added "The Last Place That Love Lives" at the end of the album.

That was a great move as that’s a great ending to the album.

We were thinking: "And the Band Played On" – great way to end the record and then when that got tagged on, as Chris’s suggestion, I’m thinking "No that’s …no that’s… perfect. Boy that sounds good!" I think everybody had the same reaction.

So that was done and those kinds of decisions on this record have never been easier. Everybody felt this (track sequence) touches upon it all, in just the ten songs, but putting on the last song, it really does make a difference.

It works great too as you’re listening to the two albums back to back, that song is like a bridge to
Until the Freeze…

Absolutely.

Did you follow the same process to put together Until the Freeze? Did Paul put that song sequence together?

Those were all the rest of the songs that we felt were any good and there wasn’t any question about what it was going to be. It was just a matter of "What’s the track listing?" I don’t remember if it was Paul or Chris, I know I wasn’t a part of it, but I do remember initially, we weren’t sure we were going to put that out. Truth is I don’t know who’s track listing that was.

Where did the vinyl configuration come into play?

That was Chris’ configuration. That came from hearing all the tunes.

It’s a pretty interesting sequence of songs. I’d have to listen to it much much more to see and discern the logic of it.
You can get hurt if you try to dig into the logic of that young man’s brain. (laughs) Bring a whip if you’re going into that cave, man.

One more thing I wanted to ask you about the "Cabin Fever" sessions – was it videotaped?

Yes, and early next year, you will be able to go somewhere and pick up a DVD of some of the proceedings. We were watching the first edit of it the other day and I gotta tell ya, it’s the first time in my life I’ve seen The Black Crowes and it was like I was watching a different band.  I didn’t feel like it was me and us. It was "Damn-that is bad!" I’ve never been more impressed with us. "Wow!… Look at that! It looks so good!"

I mean, it’s a great record to listen to, but when people have a chance to watch some of those takes and and see how comfortable and  smooth some of the proceedings were.  And for the people who were there–it’s going to be a great..it’s going to be like their photo album. And that’s the best thing about it: I think what it really is that it (the video) comes across how cool that really was.

That’s great because, as I got to the end of the second or third time listening to the albums, I thought "This sounds like these guys were just sitting around in the barn, playing whatever came to mind, and it was one of those great nights where everyone was on the same wavelength, everything fell together and they were just smiling constantly. Then I thought "That must’ve been what it was like for The Band to fool around in Big Pink with Bob Dylan."

That’s how it was. With our band, it’s all right there, whether we’re on the same page or not. Any small group of like-minded individuals can take something pretty far and I think we’ve figured out over the years–and this isn’t anything we’ve talked about as a band, it’s just something I’ve become very aware of, we don’t try to find the momentum any more. It finds us.

It’s another one of those things that I don’t like talking like about. You hear so many people say things like that when nothing could be further from the truth: when we feel we’ve got some inertia established and we feel the vibe coming, we use to try to channel it and shape it. Now we just try to hold on for dear life and pray it stays.

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