The new albums were recorded in front of a live audience over the course of five nights at Levon Helm’s studio in Woodstock, N.Y. It takes a bit of chutzpah to record two albums consisting almost entirely of new songs in front of a live crowd, but the Crowes have never suffered from a lack of nerve. And if you’re going to do it in that somewhat unconventional style, I can think of no better place than Levon’s beautiful studio, which has become famous as the location of his weekly Midnight Rambles.
I’ve been a fan of the Black Crowes since the very moment that I first heard “Jealous Again” on the radio in the early ’90s. Sure, they sounded like a throwback, but a throwback to a very cool era, and especially to one of my very favorite bands, the Faces. They’ve grown a lot since then, developing their own sound which in turn has been imitated by others. The thing is, I’ve always found their albums to be somewhat hit-or-miss. The number of truly memorable songs they’ve recorded over the course of a career that has now lasted close to 20 years (of course there was a three year “hiatus” in there, 2002-2005) is fairly negligible for a band of their considerable talents. I’m afraid that these two new albums aren’t going to do much to change that. It can’t be easy for the Black Crowes whose careers began with classic singles like the aforementioned “Jealous Again,” and “Remedy.” How are you going to top those?
Sprinkled throughout this sprawling package, there are a handful of strong songs, and the playing is impeccable, as always. The addition of guitar player Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars) to the lineup was an inspired choice. Together with Rich Robinson, no slouch himself in the guitar sweepstakes, they create one of the best two guitar attacks heard from an American band since the early days of the Allman Brothers Band. Chris Robinson remains a unique frontman, and the owner of one of the great voices in rock and roll today.
My favorite track from Before the Frost … is the road ballad “Houston Don’t Dream About Me.” Other standouts include the beautiful closing track, “Last Place That Love Lives,” and the disco-fied novelty “I Ain’t Hiding.”
Until the Freeze … is a more acoustic album. The opening psychedelic reel “Aimless Peacock,” featuring the fiddling of superstar utility player Larry Campbell, is tons of fun, as is the rollicking country tune “Roll Old Jeremiah.” The Stills-Hillman cover “So Many Times” is lit up by a great vocal duet between the Robinson brothers, and Larry Campbell shines once again, this time on pedal steel.
I’ve said it before; the Black Crowes are a great American band. I base that opinion largely on their live show, and that handful of terrific songs they’ve recorded. I continue to believe that they have a great studio album in them. Although beautifully produced by longtime Black Crowes collaborator Paul Stacey, neither of these pristine sounding albums are that great one, but both are a cut above a lot of the other stuff out there these days, and well worth your time.