THE BLACK CROWES: FREAK 'N' ROLL... INTO THE FOG (2006)
1) (Only) Halfway To Everything; 2) Sting Me; 3) No Speak No Slave; 4) Soul Singing; 5) Welcome To The Goodtimes; 6) Jealous Again; 7) Space Captain; 8) My Morning Song; 9) Sunday Night Buttermilk Waltz; 10) Cursed Diamond; 11) She Talks To Angels; 12) Wiser Time; 13) Nonfiction; 14) Seeing Things; 15) Hard To Handle; 16) Let Me Share The Ride; 17) Mellow Down Easy; 18) Remedy; 19) The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down.
Two live albums in a row is usually either a sign of arrogant overkill or a sign of old age, but in this particular case the situation is different: the Crowes had pretty much fallen apart in 2001, with the Robinson brothers embarking on solo careers, and it took about half a decade for them to properly get back together, also bringing back Marc Ford on second guitar and founding member Steve Gorman on drums. To commemorate this most exciting reunion, a video and audio were released at the same time, capturing a complete performance from San Francisco's Fillmore auditorium in 2005 — more than two hours of red-hot Crowes, and this is not actually counting several «official bootlegs» in the Instant Live series, also made available throughout 2005.
One thing I do have to say is that Freak'n'Roll is a significant improvement over Live in just about every aspect I can think of. First, stage banter is kept to a reasonable minimum, cutting down on both the platitudes and the lame jokes. Second, the setlist is more representative and less predictable, dragging out some forgotten highlights and including covers of classics such as ʽSpace Captainʼ and ʽThe Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Downʼ. Third, they bring in a brass section (The Left Coast Horns) to thicken the sound on some of the songs, and offer some rejuvenations and reincarnations — ʽCursed Diamondʼ, for instance, works a little better in an unplugged version than it used to (because the only thing worse than a slow, draggy, repetitive ballad is a slow, draggy, repetitive ballad drowned in sludge and distortion).
An obvious criticism of the performance would be the length of the songs — the average length of each track is around 7 minutes, with ʽMy Morning Songʼ taking the big prize (almost 14 minutes!) and ʽNonfictionʼ seconding it at the ten-minute mark. However, this extension is not completely «empty»: the idea is indeed to add some «freakout» spirit to the proceedings, and so ʽNonfictionʼ is transformed from a relatively simple country ballad into a trippy voyage, with psychedelic guitars and keyboards leading the way and avantgarde jazz brass parts joining them halfway through. Maybe this is not as inspired as your average Grateful Dead show, but it is at least an attempt to capture a more elusive, less instantaneously obvious vibe, and it shows a new side to the comeback-Crowes that was not present (or, at least, not so evident) in their early career.
Other songs are extended mostly for the purpose of throwing in some extra solos and jamming around, but there is no crime in that. I cannot call the guitar duet between Rich and Marc at the end of ʽHard To Handleʼ particularly evocative or emotional, but yes, it is better than simply having them reproduce the original parts — they are trying to show that the Black Crowes can make history happen here and now, not simply repeat history, and even if that history is not all that exciting, I still applaud the decision to explore uncharted waters. ʽLet Me Share The Rideʼ extended with six extra minutes of jamming, as the Left Coast Horns add big-band jazz support to accompany the slide guitar madness? ʽSoul Singingʼ adorned with a huge wah-wah solo, turning its middle section into Hendrix-ey space-rock? None of that may be new for music listeners in 2006, but it is great to see a band as formerly limited as the Crowes to blindly push forward in all these directions, and sometimes, if not always, striking out the right sparks.
Even the cover versions fit the mood and are done with total understanding of the source material: of course, brother Chris could never outdo Joe Cocker with the "learning to live together..." bit from ʽSpace Captainʼ, but the song was most likely selected as a symbol of the band's reunion, and feels totally at home. The decision to put ʽOl' Dixieʼ at the end is a bit more questionable, since the song's anthemic nature and straightforward lyrics seems to pigeonhole the Crowes as generic «Southern Rock», but they totally nail its emotional complexity, and even Chris's vocal delivery is technically and spiritually every bit as good as Levon Helm's.
Keeping all this in mind, I believe the record deserves a respectful thumbs up, and would probably recommend it as the best official introduction to the Crowes' live sound, or, more accurately, to what the Crowes are capable of as a live band. Despite the two-hour-plus running length, despite the obligatory inclusion of bad hits like ʽShe Talks To Angelsʼ, despite the occasional loss of direction, the bottomline is that the five-year break actually did the guys some good — in this particular here and now, they sound looser and freer on stage than they ever did.