The Black Crowes, Hammerstein Ballroom, NYC – 3/22 & 23
Across the vast landscape of the internet, enough has been written on the history of The Black Crowes and their various lineup changes, drug problems and descension into musical mediocrity (at least compared to the warhorse they once were). Enough has been written about their once stellar live show that put the band waist deep in the jam world, and attracted thousands of fans because of it, while alienating even more. Nothing more need be said about the split with Steve Gorman, the drummer who has played in the band as long as there's been a band, and who's monumental ability was on full display as the band toured with Jimmy Page. And lastly, I thought enough had been written about the importance of Marc Ford to the Black Crowes. But after two nights at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom, its clear to me at least, that enough couldn't be written about the power of The Black Crowes when they have Marc Ford along for the ride. And I'm sure much more will be written, starting now.
The band is back.
The opening two nights at Hammerstein were, for The Crowes and their fans, a catharsis. The band was rejuvenated and energized and both the band, and their fans, put together a performance with more energy and interaction which would rival the best of the shows from the last three years of their touring lives. The crowd's energy boiled over before the band even took the stage when, about five minutes before showtime, Kate Hudson, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell came out to the slightly elevated VIP section. The crowd was ready to go nuts for anything at that point, and they did exactly that. But as loud and humorous as that moment was, it paled in comparison to the moment the lights when down. The opening combo of "Gone" and "Sting Me" (in its usual second song slot) had the crowd in near hysterics, singing along with every word. Its moments like this that younger and newer fans, who only saw the band with the talented Audley Freed on guitar, never really got to see, or at least see with any regularity. The days with Marc Ford were nothing short of legendary and the tours surrounding Three Snakes And One Charm as well as the 1997 Further Festival tour featured inspired playing by the band as a whole, reaching as far, musically, as a non-jamband rock band could do.
And the band touched on that magic in the first show with a stellar jam leading into fan favorite "Thorn In My Pride." If you listen to shows from the mid-90s, this is what you'd hear. Marc Ford's absolutely searing lead lines propelled the band forward at a breakneck pace, with the entire band right along side. Unfortunately, this was the first of several parts of the show where Bill Dobrow's drumming was noticeably not up to snuff (see the drum solo in the middle of "Thorn" for further evidence). Both Chris and Rich spent a good amount of time talking to and encouraging the new drummer, who is replacing the irreplaceable Gorman. Perhaps as a result, the middle portion of the first show suffered slightly, as the band lost the crowd to a degree with a series of songs either less familiar to, or less desired by, the audience, despite working in one of the better versions "Girl From A Pawnshop." But the band saved the day, ending with three heavy hitters; "Twice As Hard", "Jealous Again" and "Stare It Cold." More devoted fans would tell you they aren't huge fans of ending shows with a bunch of Money Maker tunes in a row, but it worked in this instance and, when working with the "Time Will Tell" and "Hard To Handle" encores, sent the crowd home very well pleased.
The second show, conversely, was a powerhouse nearly from start to finish. For starters, Bill Dobrow's drumming, a borderline severe hindrance in the first show, as well as a few of the warm up gigs, was on point all night. In addition, newly added Chris Kuroda's lights were better than the first night. Any number of things were working against Kuroda on the first night, including not having time to properly get everything prepared, but the second night saw his lights not only step up from the previous evening, but begin to weave into the band's music and jamming. I would stop way short of saying he impacted the music in any way, however as someone familiar with his lighting, I found it to enhance an already enjoyable environment. That being said, if you've never noticed his lights, or any lights for that matter, he certainly didn't do anything to detract from your experience. And lastly, the somewhat muddy sound from the first show had been corrected.
The second night at the Hammerstein is why we go see The Black Crowes. The didn't start off with the bang the first night had, but from the second "Nebekanezer" began, to the moment "Pimper's Paradise" ended, the Crowes were absolutely on fire. The middle set combo of "Sometime Salvation, "Wiser Time" and "Morning Song" is as good a combination as you could ask for going to a show, with blistering lead work from Marc leading the jams into mesmerizing territory. Marc, looking very much like either Dickey Betts, or Billy Crudup's Russell Hammond in "Almost Famous," almost never had to look at the band for cues, and in fact actually was giving off cues to the band, something that pleased long time fans who knew that there was a point where Marc giving cues to anyone was a far fetched idea.
The show hardly slowed down for a moment, with inspired playing in both "Under A Mountain" and "Bring On, Bring On." And to encore with two of their older songs, "She Talks To Angels" and "Pimper's Paradise" was just icing on an incredibly tasty cake.
The opening two nights at Hammerstein saw the band touching on all their material from, I believe, all their albums. The band is back. Rich and Chris were smiling at each other repeatedly throughout the shows. Marc Ford, complete with a "Thank You" t-shirt on the first night, is a Black Crow again and his interplay with Rich would leave fans wondering why they ever stopped playing together in the first place. As he was introduced on the first night, the crowd gave Marc a minute long ovation, longer than anyone else, prompting Chris to walk over and give his buddy, someone he's been to hell and back with, a hug, pushing the crowd's ovation even further over the top.
It was a great moment from a great band and fans couldn't be happier to have many more moments such as that.