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The Last Time? The Black Crowes’ Last Stand

Photo by Brad Hodge

The Black Crowes ended their 20-year run (or perhaps just the group’s most recent incarnation) with a weeklong San Francisco residency at the Fillmore, that has become a band tradition.

Before doors opened Saturday (December 18), the second to last night of the run, the line stretched the full block down to a nearby fast food restaurant. Inside, the Fillmore was as crowded as it has been in recent memory, with the main floor packed from the stage to the back doors. It must have been thirty percent oversold. Bill Graham would have been proud.

A gallery of poster art from this run and previous – much of it the work of longtime Crowes iconographer Alan Forbes — decorated the venerated dance hall’s front hallway. A scrim by Arik Roper backed the stage — a winged sunburst atop a pyramid, surrounded in ethereal, spacey clouds, the whole drop shifting with every change in deeply-colored light.

The Crowes have been touring in anniversary mode this year, following the release of Croweology, a best-of collection that reimagines the band’s canon in acoustic versions with the current lineup, rather than repackaging the originals. The band has dissolved and re-formed a few times in the last 20 years, with lead guitarists, especially, coming and going (and sometimes coming again). At the core are the Robinson brothers, Chris and Rich — singer and guitarist, respectively — who, famously, don’t quite get along.

On this run, the Crowes have been playing a mostly-acoustic first set, and a full-blown electric second set. Saturday night, slower tunes like “Drivin’ Wheel” felt particularly road-weary. There were a few repeats during the run, but for the most part, this was a band taking its last, best shot at every song in the songbook, and playing every one like it was the last time.

The end-of-the-line dynamic certainly informed the readings – especially during the encore, wedged between “Pardon My Heart” and CSNY’s “Ohio”, of Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”:

Everybody seems to wonder
what it’s like down here
Gotta get away
from this day to day
runnin’ around,
everybody knows this is nowhere

But the whole set seemed to tell the story; it had opened with “Exit”

So don’t you pity me,
don’t misplace my intentions,
don’t mistake me –
This is no illusion
This is an exit

and gone into “(Only) Halfway to Everywhere” — with two women singing backups behind the front line, in a Funkadelic-flavored jam, over and over again, “Everywhere is everywhere and nowhere is nothing.” This was an exit, an escape; playing in this group, nowhere.

This was a band not hinting at or telegraphing its need for a break — but belting it out, in full throat Chris Robinson, for three and a half hours — with backup harmonies.

It’s a shame, in a way. This Crowes lineup also featured the startlingly soulful guitar leads of Luther Dickinson (of the North Mississippi Allstars), bassist Sven Pipien, keyboardist Adam MacDougall, and founding drummer Steve Gorman. It’s a big, big rock band with an enormous sound. Still, if these guys are working this hard every night, it’s no wonder they’re burnt.

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