When feature articles appeared in The Burlington Free Press the weekend before‚ the proverbial bloom came off the rose of surprise surrounding the appearance of Mr. Crowes Garden at Higher Ground March 15th. But while that publicity undermined the mystery quotient‚ that didn't lessen the level of anticipation for the show or render the growing reputation of the transplanted venue any less.
If you love rock and roll music‚ it's always been hard not to like the Black Crowes. At a time when the roots of rock and roll are seemingly buried further and further beneath the prepackaged cultural wasteland‚ a band that clearly loves Chuck Berry and the blues is to be relished. Much to their credit too the Crowes don't overplay or indulge in stage affectations that distract from their musicianship. At the same time‚ it's seemingly impossible to dote on the Crowes because they don't seem to be able to fully transcend those influences or the others‚ including gospel and pop‚that color their music. At the Vermont show‚ originals such as "Soul Singing" didn't resonate as they should‚ despite (or perhaps because of) the presence of soulful backup singers‚ while the band itself didn't exactly nail much of their chosen setlist‚ the final song "No Speak No Slave" a marked exception.
Not surprisingly‚ then‚ the most memorable moments of their two-hour plus single set at HG were based on covers of other artists' material. After unassumingly ambling onstage a half-hour late‚ the sextet gave a charged rendition of "Don't Do It‚" made famous by The Band as well as The Who. The Crowes didn't sustain that energy level‚ despite a good choice or originals including "Greasy Grass River" and "Thorn in My Pride" (interestingly from their most recent CDs rather than further back in their discography); given this was the second of a small handful of club dates preceding their NYC run and more extensive summer tour‚ perhaps that's understandable: Rich Robinson regularly looked across stage to lead guitarist Mark Ford to exchange cues and‚ often as not‚ the whole group looked to drummer Bill Dubrow for emphatic endings to tunes (which he provided despite seeming to struggle mightily at times-how much have these guys actually rehearsed?).
The Black Crowes' rendition of Derek & The Dominos' "Tell The Truth" was inspired in choice if not in performance: while the soul inflections at the heart of the song came through via one of Chris Robinson's best vocals of the night‚ the band couldn't elevate itself to the proper level of melodrama of the refrain‚ despite the arcing basslines Sven Pipien supplied. Given that shortfall‚ it's was a welcome surprise to hear the fiery jam that followed elevating the set from the prosaic: Black Crowes are not improvisers by nature because they stick too close to the rhythmic structure of their songs‚ but Robinson and Ford got into some heated exchanges just before "Buttermilk Waltz."
That interplay couldn't quite match the searing intensity Trey Anastasio brought to the mix when he joined the band for its encores. The elder Robinson's rather detached intro of him was in keeping with the puzzling absence of personality the singer displayed through the evening‚ but the beaming Anastasio lit up a somewhat truncated version of The Beatles "Yer Blues" and really attempted to go to town on the Crowes' first hit "Hard to Handle": the packed audience was excited enough to see the former Phishman and when he swooped down into the Crowes' signature song‚ the frenzy that bubbled beneath the surface of the crowd heated over. Yet Trey couldn't get the Crowes to move past a certain point away from the tune-perhaps if Rich had been watching him more closely than keyboardist Eddie Hawrysch? -and while Anastasio provided proof positive how many tiers there are to truly great guitar playing‚ the abrupt finish to this tune ended up being a microcosm of the whole show: you could sense the potential there‚ but it didn't come to full fruition.
It'll be interesting to see how The Black Crowes progress as the reunion evolves. Will they learn the volume level used at Higher Ground obliterates the nuance of their musicianship?…Will Chris take a more decisive role in the sets rather than often appearing to be an interlude in his brother's conducting of the band? Whatever the case‚ you've got to wish the band well. Their talent is there to burn and while they didn't start a five-alarm conflagration in Vermont‚ they did get the fire going. Now it's all about sustain-as has been the case throughout the entire history of what was once Mr. Crowes Garden.