by Brian Varney
Though the band continues to insist that they’re merely on hiatus, the fact that drummer Steve Gorman (the only constant member besides the Robinson brothers) has left the band, Chris Robinson’s solo career, and the underwhelming performances (artistically and commercially) of the last couple of albums and tours makes me feel that this is really the end of The Black Crowes. This double live CD, recorded during the band’s 2001 (and final?) tour, seems as neat a way as any to tie a bow around the band’s career.
As any Crowes fan will tell you, live is the way to experience this band. As fine as the band’s studio albums are, the live environment is where their greatness is truly confirmed. Their willingness to fearlessly plunder their own back catalogue, the barnload of covers they’re able to whip out at a moment’s notice, and the fiery, extended jams they seem able to conjure from thin air all add up to what can be, on a good night, a near-transcendental experience.
I’ve only seen them live a couple of times, but I’ve heard a great number of live recordings because the Crowes are one of very few bands who encourage taping and trading of their live performances. The band’s website has a listing (with setlist, where possible) for every show they’ve ever played, each listing indicating whether a recording is known to exist, and there’s even a forum set up for traders to discuss their collections and set up trades for ones they don’t have.
The shows I’ve managed to pick up from hanging around that forum (most of them from the legendary-among-traders 1996 tour where the band worked without setlists, choosing from the pool of approximately 300 songs they knew) lack the sonic polish of this professionally-recorded set, but they’re bursting with surprises (the covers and extended jams I’ve already mentioned) that this set is almost completely lacking.
Live contains none of these surprises. Well, there is one; the inclusion of the legendary (among the above-mentioned geeks, anyway) “Title Song,” live versions of which are feverishly sought by traders. One listen to the song, which was written around the time of the band’s third album but never recorded, explains the enthusiasm. Building slowly, over the course of eight-and-a-half minutes, from the church-like solemnity of the organ intro to the soulful feeding frenzy of the of the song’s climax, “Title Song” rates among the band’s very finest moments.
But aside from this, there’s nothing exceptional about the tracklisting. The songs present a nice overview of the band’s catalog (completely omitting 1998’s By Your Side, which the band has all but disowned), the band plays as well as ever, and Chris Robinson is in fine voice and peppers the space between songs with his usual brand of annoying hippie love-child blather, but all is forgiven as soon as he stops speaking and begins singing.
Really, it’s hard for me to find fault with this set as a stand-alone document. If I hadn’t had the good fortune to acquire the live recordings in my possession, I’d probably be ecstatic with Live. And while there’s plenty to love about it, I can’t help wishing that it had more of the surprises that make the fan-recorded shows so wonderful. As I’ve said, Live is a nicely chosen, nicely recorded overview of the band’s career – it’s more like a greatest hits live album than anything else.
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