A solid rock-country combo from the Crowes
Reviewed September 2009
Before The Frost ... Until The Freeze
By Black Crowes
Silver Arrow Records: 2009
To hear sound clips or learn more about this release, Turbula recommends viewing its Amazon.com entry.
With 2008's "Warpaint," the Black Crowes got back into the fray of American blues-rock music after a long hiatus. Absent from the studio since 2001, live discs from 2002 and 2005 were the only recent offerings from the band, which had released six studio discs since 1990 and two compilations.
"Warpaint" was a top-five hit, and with new guitarist Luther Dickinson (from the North Mississippi Allstars) the band was back in business. "Warpaint Live" followed, and the band has now released a "live in the studio" extended album recorded at Levon Helm's barn in Woodstock, N.Y. The new one is a two-part affair, an 11-cut disc sold in stores, "Before the Frost ..." and a free nine-track download available to purchasers of the disc titled "...Until the Freeze." (Those who purchase digitally receive the entire album as a whole.)
The live format doesn't mean that this band, with some history of rough-around-the-edges recordings, is sloppy; they are tight as hell and this is the best live playing by the band yet. The music features lead singer Chris Robinson in great voice, superb guitar playing (the best on any Crowes discs yet) by his brother Rich and Dickinson, and great drums and keyboards. The new vitality shown on "Warpaint" has carried over, as the music is fresh and vibrant while staying true to the blues, gospel and southern rock that has carried the band to this point while adding a considerable country flavor.
"Good Morning Captain" is a great opener, a power blues-rock anthem that has the band right at home with their trademark sound. This one recalls the sound of the winning cuts on "Amorica," the band's 1994 masterpiece, as does "Been a Long Time (Waiting on Love)," the next track, which resolves into an extended jam featuring some blazing guitar riffing by Dickinson (at least it sounds like his work on the AllStars discs, again there is nothing to attribute the solos in the artwork, same as on "Warpaint"). "Appaloosa" is a great slow ballad, with pedal steel giving a country feel and a tempered vocal by Chris Robinson.
Another standout cut is "I Ain't Hiding," which sounds like a lost track from a Stones album, except this isn't instantly forgettable (unlike the Stones' last disc) and has a superb guitar solo with Dickinson laying down some hot chops. For "Kept My Soul," the live format doesn't put a crimp in a power-riffing, slide guitar-driven crunch rocker, another highlight that recalls "My Morning Song," a great tune from their second album, "The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion." "What is Home" is lighter, quieter fare, as harmonies float over acoustic guitars and banjo, while "Make Glad" is more in a funk vein, with some quasi-jazz guitar lines by one of the uncredited soloists (Dickinson or Rich Robinson).
The nine-track "bonus" half continues with live, tight and well-executed music, but the similarity stops pretty much there. The sound is decidedly less rock and a lot more country, and offers a glimpse of the Crowes that most listeners haven't seen playing music unusual for this band. The first of the nine tracks (no. 12 overall for digital purchasers), "Aimless Peacock," is nearly instrumental, acoustic and sounds for the most part like a raga hybrid of Celtic world fusion music. Sitar played by Rich Robinson weaves in and out of excellent fiddle played by Leroy Campbell, over exotic percussion, as the track is completely unlike anything they have ever cut. "Shady Grove" is more like the Crowes, but "Garden Gate" is another story. This tune is in a brisk country time signature that sounds like a square dance, with fiddle and mandolin leading the way on the surest crowd-pleaser on the disc. "Greenhorn" is slow and almost a pop tune, with a drop-dead catchy chorus hook that may make it the best slow tune on the album, with beautiful jazz scales executed by Dickinson over shimmering keyboards.
"Shine Along" is a country blues with mandolin and slide guitar done well, while "Roll On, Jeremiah" is the only track on either disc that doesn't work: a pedal steel-driven country shuffle that Chris Robinson never gets the feel for and sounds off-key. "So Many Times" is back on firm footing; though a tight harmony country ballad, it is played and sung perfectly. The pedal steel work on this track, the closer, "Fork in the Road," and others by Campbell is first-rate.
The musical two-fer "Before the Frost ... Until the Freeze" gives listeners the opportunity to hear two sets of different music by a good band, playing at their best. A little bit of country, a little bit of rock 'n' roll.
Review by Frank Kocher, a longtime San Diego resident, musician, music collector and frequent contributor to The San Diego Troubadour.