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Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2009

The Black Crowes Hit the Barn

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To say the least, The Black Crowes didn’t play it safe when recording the group’s new two-CD set, Before the Frost… / Until the Freeze... The band skipped the expected trip to a conventional recording studio. The common practice of recording vocals separately and overdubbing instrumental parts went out the window as well.

Instead, the band recorded the new music at the Woodstock, N.Y., barn owned by Levon Helm (drummer of the legendary group The Band) that serves as a live performance space and studio. Over the course of five concerts in front of a small audience, The Black Crowes recorded the two-dozen-plus songs that make up the new releases.

There were no extensive rehearsals beforehand, little of the precision and control that come with being in a conventional studio. The very real possibility existed that the recordings would not rise to the level of quality required of a studio CD.

“It could have been that we were out of our minds and came away with the most expensive demos ever recorded,” drummer Steve Gorman says.

But for the risk, The Black Crowes emerged with one of the best CDs of its long and often stormy career.

So how did the group decide to take such a maverick approach to Before the Frost… / Until the Freeze…?

Gorman explains that it was singer Chris Robinson who initially suggested bringing a handful of fans into a conventional studio to witness the recording. Plans solidified in summer 2008, when Robinson went to see one of Helm’s regular Saturday night “Midnight Ramble” concerts at the barn.

“He called everyone the next day saying, ‘I got it. I see it. I know what we have to do now,’” Gorman recalls.

The other band members—Gorman, guitarist (and Chris Robinson’s younger brother) Rich Robinson, bassist Sven Pipien, guitarist Luther Dickinson and keyboardist Adam MacDougall—bought into the idea, and in February of this year The Black Crowes were in Helm’s barn and ready to make new music.

The Black Crowes didn’t rehearse extensively or try to nail down every detail of the songs before stepping onstage to record.

“The fact is we really didn’t know the songs,” Gorman says. “We went Monday through Friday, two or three songs a day, start to finish, and then on Saturday said, ‘OK, let’s go play it’ … So there was definitely a winging it, fly by the seat of your pants vibe, and I think that translates really well.”

The music on Before the Frost… certainly crackles with energy and enthusiasm. It’s a decidedly rocking effort, with the pace slowing only for an occasional song like the acoustic ballad “What Is Home” and the violin-accented “Last Place That Love Lives.” 

Meanwhile, Until the Freeze…, which is available free as a download with the purchase of Before the Frost…, is more acoustic, eclectic and rustic, with songs like the cheery country-rock of “Shady Grove” and the twangy romp “Shine Along 128” setting the tone for the disc.

The new CDs provide convincing evidence that The Black Crowes, which formed in 1989 in Atlanta, have rebounded nicely from an uncertain future created when the group went on hiatus after the 2001 CD, Lions.

Gorman says that when the band reunited for the 2007 album Warpaint, it was clear that the group was once again feeling creative and focused, and that feeling of vitality was very much present during the recording of Before the Frost… / Until the Freeze…

“The band is again very much a collective,” Gorman says. “For right now where we are, all the pistons are firing or whatever sort of analogy you can use. That’s how it feels.”

The Black Crowes play an 8 p.m. show at the Riverside Theater with openers Truth & Salvage Co. on Saturday, Nov. 7.