By James Calemine
Recorded live at Levon Helm’s barn on February 21, 22, 28 and March 1, 2009, Before The Frost counts as the The Black Crowes’ 8th album of new songs. Before The Frost finds the Crowes soaring into a country/blues/funk zone. Helm’s current guitarist and old Dylan band mate—Larry Campbell–contributes amazing banjo, fiddle and pedal steel to this sonic kaleidoscope of old American music. Old mate Paul Stacey produced, engineered and mixed these 11 songs.
“Good Morning Captain” stands as a classic Crowes number—arguably one of their best–complete with soulful-sounding slide, banjo, barroom piano and a nifty melody that embodies rock and roll at it’s finest. Rich Robinson’s riff evokes an emotive swing where Luther Dickinson’s Mississippi slide gives one a gritty rapture. “Been A Long Time” begins with a street R&B intro that drifts into a beautiful melodic tapestry and soon Chris Robinson sings: “Low country blushing bride/Blind to the ways of time.” This song’s outro proves Rich Robinson and Luther Dickinson’s chemistry operates at a zenith as they push the song into an all-out blaze.
“Appaloosa” travels straight to the heart of country music. Dickinson’s mandolin, Campbell’s pedal steel and Rich’s 12-string serve as a perfect patchwork quilt of Appalachia behind Chris Robinson’s country boy verses. “A Train Makes a Lonely Sound” emits that classic telecaster sound Rich Robinson mastered 25 years ago. Chris sings about “A girl that came from Knoxville town/And on that April day/She took this old boy down/Oh Tennessee you got me running/And I’m not coming’ back this time” that only furthers the power of this collection. Once again Dickinson’s solo manship shines on this rollicking number.
Sven Pipien’s bass-line on “I Ain’t Hidin’” conjures The Stones at their most dance-friendly phase, but the Crowes eventually steer towards a more Funkadelic groove on this late night manifesto: “Rust on my pickups/Blood on the stage/Seeds in the ashtray/Coke on the blade/NYC delivers that’s a guarantee/The only thing keeps the day from me”. Another Rich Robinson blues gem starts “Kept My Soul” and keeps the push and pull tension in line as his older brother sings about “junkie jitters” and dying for love and then “You can see by the look in my eyes/The Devil takes his own/ You can see holes in my heart/I’ve kept my soul.” The Crowes have always danced with the Devil…eluding by only angelic anthems.
For the first time in The Black Crowes career, a song is written and credited to one brother. In the case of “What Is Home?” Rich Robinson takes full credit for the song—and it’s a good one. He’s not the singer his brother is, but this is one of the finest musical compositions on this album—a real old-time acoustic beauty. This combination of mandolin, banjo and acoustic guitars sound so close you can almost smell the mountain wood smoke and then the entire band begins to ascend into some remote-altitude jam.
“Houston Don’t Dream About Me” contends as the weakest song on the CD, which makes this writer believe in the other nine songs recorded during these sessions that one of them outweighed this tune. “Make Glad”, once again, reminds the listener The Crowes are really all about rock and roll…they visit traditional musical reservoirs, but merciless, hook-oriented rock never fails them. Drummer Steve Gorman remains the driving force of the band. On this one, Chris sings with a swagger, “Turpentine babies/With one foot in the south/Turned out the turnkey/For opening his mouth” as Dickinson and Rich Robinson mesmerize with subtle licks and tones on an original song that really out-R&Bs many soul legends.
“And The Band Played On” channels Little Feat with The Beatles into a potent psychedelic-New Orleans gumbo. On these songs—this one especially—the Crowes are a bit more laid back. Adam MacDougall’s ragtime piano fits in perfectly with these songs…as if he streamlined Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson into his own musical concoction while in the woods in upstate New York. The reader must be reminded these songs were recorded live, and only a few times did the band re-start a song twice during these live sessions, so these versions contain nothing but spontaneity, yet it’s hard to discern due to the song’s cohesiveness.
The final track, “The Last Place That Love Lives”, emerges as a timeless Robinson Brothers collaboration, and the strong songcraft allows Dickinson, Gorman, Campbell, Pipien and MacDougall to prevail on this acoustic cascade, which could just as well have been heard some Irish countryside. Time travel at its finest. Before The Frost represents The Black Crowes’ most mature, laid back and traditional of all their albums. Pure gold…
Nine bonus tracks—Until The Freeze—serve as eight original tunes and a cover of Stephen Stills’ “So Many Times”. These songs emerge as the country/bluegrass album The Crowes should have made years ago. Very few electric instruments can be heard on these numbers, and it’s quite refreshing to hear the band steeped in pure acoustic landscapes.
“Aimless Peacock” could have easily fit on a Ravi Shankar album (and Before The Frost) showcasing Rich Robinson’s deft sitar playing and the middle-eastern drone of the song that casts a hypnotic quality. “Shady Grove” sounds like some lost Flying Burrito Brothers recording from a rowdy cantina. “Garden Gate” counts as pure bluegrass with Chris Robinson’s southern phrasing and Campbell’s amazing fiddle runs—this one almost counts as a Sunday morning song it’s so pure.
“Greenhorn” counts as another example of Rich Robinson’s amazing guitar and songwriting talent. “Shine Along” contains seeds of hardcore blues and bluegrass elements…dobros…fiddles…Chris Robinson singing “drunk and ornery” lyrics that lead to the light on a path of darkness—salvation-in-the-song-mentality at it’s finest.
“Roll Old Jeremiah” could easily serve as an outtake on a Merle Haggard record with fantastic pedal steel runs by Larry Campbell, diamond plucks by MacDougall set upon Gorman’s shuffle beat. “Lady Of Avenue A”, a quiet ballad, allows Robinson his lyrical musing to conjure techno-color word grams. The cover song—“So Many Times”—finds the Robinson Brothers’ harmonizing at a sacred apex as each band member lends subtle sounds to the composition.
As a closer, “Fork In the River” sums up The Black Crowes versatile ability to morph into any musical genre. Here they fly towards the oldest sounds of America’s Songbook, yet their original material transcends them to a larger than life shadow. The Crowes have finally come home to roost…
Read interviews with Chris & Rich Robinson, Marc Ford and Luther Dickinson in Insured Beyond The Grave Vol. 2.