The Black Crowes make good old rock'n'roll sound fresh

By Sam Robertson

After a few lineup changes and reunion tours, The Black Crowes have released their first studio album in seven years, “Warpaint.” Despite the long break, “Warpaint” still has that retro classic rock sound that made the Black Crowes popular. While some criticize the band as nothing more than a Rolling Stones rip off, on “Warpaint,” The Black Crowes managed to create an album that sounds like it belongs in the 1970’s while still sounding fresh at the same time.

In an interview with live-music website Jambase, bassist Steve Pipien addressed the classic rock label that the band gets, saying, “I remember a moment Luther and I had in the studio where I told him how I feel so privileged to be part of this thing that seems to be the last great gasp of what rock ‘n’ roll is. We almost came to tears with that realization.” That statement makes them sound very conceited, but it’s also relatively accurate. It’s easy to hear traces of the Rolling Stones, Allman Brothers Band, Little Feat, The Band and other classic rock bands in the Black Crowes’ music. Frontman Chris Robinson’s on-stage antics heavily borrow from Jim Morrison and Mick Jagger. With their long hair and Salvation Army clothes, the band even looks like they came right out of the seventies. There are plenty of bands still playing rock and roll out there, but nobody does it as convincingly and effectively as the Black Crowes. The Black Crowes may have more former members than current members, but after all the changes, the band finally seems like they’ve found a lineup that works. Joining long time members Chris Robinson (vocals), Rich Robinson (guitar), Steve Gorman (drums) and Steve Pipien (bass) are new members Luther Dickinson (guitar) and Adam MacDougall (keyboard). The new changes have revitalized the band and the new members have helped diffuse the constant tension and bickering between the Robinson brothers, making “Warpaint” a new beginning for the band even though the music has the same familiar dirty, blues-rock vibe that was present on their first few albums.

The Black Crowes released several critically acclaimed albums in the 1990’s, but by the end of the decade, fighting within the band had brought about their decline. On their recent albums before the hiatus, they often sounded uninspired, unoriginal and like they were trying to replicate the sound of their first couple albums. “Warpaint” sounds more refined, mature and relaxed than anything else the band has ever recorded. Whereas early Black Crowes albums featured one hard rocking blues song after another, with a couple long blues ballads mixed in, the new album features the band exploring country, folk, and roots music more than they have in the past. The album was recorded in Woodstock, New York, where The Band recorded their timeless albums, “Music From Big Pink” and “The Band,” in the late sixties. The spirit of those albums seems to be alive in “Warpaint” and it’s easy to hear the country folk influence shine through.

The album opens with “Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution,” which immediately lets the listener know that the band hasn’t strayed too far from it’s retro classic rock sound. The song has everything the Black Crowes have become known for – Chris Robinson’s soulful vocals, Rich’s catchy, bluesy guitar riffs, a heavy rhythm section and a catchy chorus, although it’s more countrified than the typical Black Crowes song. Luther Dickinson also makes his presence felt with a great slide guitar solo. The Black Crowes have never had anyone as talented as Dickinson and his playing adds a whole new addition to the Black Crowes sound.

However the third song, “Oh Josephine,” is a slight departure from the band’s stereotypical sound, and Chris Robinson’s favorite from the album. It’s a pretty slow acoustic song with Robinson singing in a soft country voice that sounds completely out of place. But the band can clearly play country rock too, and the song is a highlight of the album. “Locust Street” follows a similar pattern and is just as effective, even if it sounds more like The Byrds than The Black Crowes.

“Walk Believer Walk,” “Evergreen,” “Movin’ Down the Line,” “We Who See the Deep,” “Wounded Bird,” and “God’s Got It” will sound more familiar to the casual Black Crowes fan. They’re all catchy hard rock songs and feature the loud guitar riffs and howling vocals that the Black Crowes have become known for. “We Who See the Deep” and “Wounded Bird” suffer slightly from Chris Robinson’s cheesy attempt at hippie mysticism with lines like “Put forever in your mind, let go of space and time” and “just set your mind to fly,” but Dickinson’s lead guitar lines make up for the occasional lyrical lapse. The album closes with “There’s Gold in Them Hills” and “Whoa Mule,” two relaxed, pretty, acoustic songs that end the album on an uplifting note.

Although the Black Crowes have expanded and adjusted their sound, “Warpaint” is nothing new or radically different. The rockers aren’t quite as loud and heavy as they were when the band started out. The band is older, relaxed and more comfortable with the music they are making. After 18 years together, the Black Crowes have tempered the raw energy of their early albums and made an excellent album full of old fashioned rock and roll.