For a band to hold it together for twenty years is monumental, but for the Black Crowes it’s a miracle. After all of the head-butting with record labels, falling-outs with numerous band members, and notorious feuding between brothers Chris and Rich Robinson; one has to wonder how they made it this far. Nevertheless they survived, dignity and greatness intact, and on December 11th the touring anniversary celebration arrived at the Hollywood Palladium. As a thank-you to the fans, the band dropped two 80-minute sets of beloved favorites, tasteful covers and rare gems; a show that those in attendance will be talking about for some time.
The night was part of the band’s “Say Goodnight to the Bad Boys” tour, a final trek around the country commemorating the past two decades before an indefinite hiatus. Like many other dates on this farewell-for-now run, the first set was acoustic and the second was electric. It was the best of both worlds, and regardless of the approach, the songs came alive, bursting with emotion and fire.
In a way, the “Acoustic Hors D’oeuvres” set was an extension of the band’s most recent recording venture, “Croweology,” the two disc album that revisits some of their greatest songs in a stripped-down format. A handful of choice cuts from the new release were performed, as well as a few surprise numbers.
The band possessed an innate ability to get inside of these old songs, and to reshape the feel, energy and sound in an acoustic setting reflected a dedication to evolution. “Remedy,” usually a show-closer, opened the set, followed by “Hotel Illness,” both songs sounding bare and beautiful in their wooden reincarnation. One of the band’s most recognizable hits, “She Talks to Angels,” was peppered with a celestial seasoning and a dash of Gram Parsons, tweaking the music just enough to fit the set’s sonic landscape and not lose its soul-stirring potency. The dizzy boogie of “Downtown Money Waster” was probably the only song to not really undergo changes, while the greatest changes were made to “My Morning Song,” now expanded upon to include a gospel rave-up that brought the set to a rousing close.
Some of the best moments of the set were the quieter ones. “Whoa Mule” was a calm river-of-sound that felt like a pleasant journey leading to the pastoral fields of the mind. The band held onto that aura through the country folk of the rarely performed “Tornado” and languid covers of the Rolling Stone’s “No Expectations” and David Wiffen’s “Driving Wheel.” In these hush moments, every bit of the inflection of singer Chris Robinson’ vocals came off more vibrant than usual and every lyric he sung sounded that much more pronounced and powerful.
There was no greater display of guitar heroics during the first set, or possibly the whole night, than on the always-epic “Thorn in My Pride. The song itself is a masterpiece, and in a live setting, the band has always provided a platform for the guitarists to expand upon its beauty. On this night, Rich Robinson, who might be one of the most underrated guitar players in the world, released a world of melodies on his hollow-body, with incredible fluidity reminiscent of Stephen Stills. By this point in the evening, the band had already started to incorporate electric elements to perhaps bridge the two sets, so when Rich wrapped up his segment of the song, Luther Dickinson, now plugged in, contributing a second solo as blazing as the wings of a phoenix.
Whereas an acoustic set was something new for this tour, the “Electric Reception” was a standard Black Crowes performance, of what the band likes to call “Freak n’ Roll.” This was it, the time for the band to bring it on home, and the band certainly delivered.
For the rest of the evening, it would be a mix of hard rockers, moving ballads and space exploration. The band did not hesitate to kick some ass from the get-go, ripping it up on the unreleased “Exit,” leaving one to wonder why the hell such an awesome rocker is unreleased. The band kept riding that high voltage surge with a pummeling “P. 25 London,” and then it was a deep dive into the psychedelic seas with “Ballad in Urgency,” featuring a transcendental jam into a cosmic “Wiser Time.”
For those who had never seen the Crowes live and only expected to hear the “Shake Your Moneymaker” songs heard at Major League ballgames, they must’ve been in for a surprise, as billows of marijuana smoke filled the air while the band got into music every bit as improvisational as the Grateful Dead’s sound could be. The band would wrap up this heady midpoint in the set with the stargazer poetry of “Josephine,” one of the prettiest songs they’ve written over the past few years, and then go for another wave of straight-ahead rockers, “Stop Kickin’ My Heart Around” and their renown cover of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle,” both driven by the powerhouse drumming of Steve Gorman.
The final song of the set would be “And the Band Played On,” featuring a glorious and prismatic concluding jam. At some point during a verse interlude, Chris Robinson caught eye of a troublesome fan in the front, and there seemed to be some back-and-forth between the two until the rabble rouser was ejected. For a moment, you thought the quarrel could’ve led to a disastrous ending to a phenomenal set, but with cool demeanor and impeccable timing, Chris strapped on a guitar to join the instrumental conversation that the band was having behind him. Living up to the song’s title, the band surely did play on.
To cap off the night, the band returned for an encore of back-to-back covers of the Velvet Underground’s “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” and Little Feat’s “Willin’.” It was a dreamy conclusion to a blissful night of music. Without any sentimental words from the band or songs of goodbye, the band took their final bow before heading to their final destination in San Francisco, where they would play one last Fillmore run before hanging things up.
There was something bittersweet about hearing so many positive reflections on the show as fans filtered out of the venue, knowing the band is splitting up at such a remarkable time in their existence. Over the past two decades, perhaps no band has merged the spirit, attitude and dynamics of rock n’ roll, the conviction and feeling of soul music and the history and heart of American roots music into their sound better than the Black Crowes, and with their kaleidoscopic jams and gritty funk, there’s nothing else like them. They’ve had their ups and downs, but since they came roaring back in 2005 after a few years apart, the band has reached new heights of creativity and relevance, consistently putting on stellar live performances and releasing some of their strongest material ever. While they will be sorely missed, knowing this band, this is likely not the end but a path to a new beginning.
Acoustic Set: Remedy, Hotel Illness, Whoa Mule, Tornado, No Expectations, Thorn in My Pride, Driving Wheel, Downtown Money Waster, She Talks to Angels, My Morning Song
Electric Set: Exit, P. 25 London, Ballad In Urgency, Wiser Time, Oh Josephine, Stop Kicking My Heart Around, Hard to Handle, And The Band Played On
Encore: Oh! Sweet Nuthin’, Willin’