I have to admit that I really like the way that the Black Crowes have reinvented themselves by embracing their southern roots since reuniting back in 2005.
As evidenced by last year's excellent comeback record Warpaint, the Robinson brothers have all but shed the big arena-rock trappings of their Shake Your Money Maker days, by becoming more of a modern-day southern-fried rock 'n' soul band.
In much the same way that the old Crowes wore their Faces and Humble Pie influences proudly on their sleeves, the current incarnation of the band threads a similarly fine line between the blues and gospel feel of Exile On Main Street-period Stones, and the more down-home feel of someone like Delaney & Bonnie Bramlett.
What the Crowes did with Warpaint was resurrect the way that the original southern rock sounded, long before it was hijacked by all those seventies bands trying to sound like the Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd. In the process, they also resurrected themselves as a band, with the results speaking for themselves.
As much as I liked Warpaint though, I also have to admit that the album didn't really stick with me all that long. As much as the Crowes succeeded in putting the soul back where it belonged in any self-respecting southern rock stew, the songs, with few exceptions, just weren't all that memorable.
On Warpaint Live, the Black Crowes bring those songs to the concert stage, along with a few well-chosen covers like the Stones' "Torn And Frayed," Delaney Bramlett's "Oh, Elijah," and Eric Clapton's "Don't Know Why" (the latter two of which, not coincidentally, were concert staples for the Bramletts when Clapton was part of their touring band). In doing so, the Black Crowes give rise to their southern roots in such a way as to suggest that this may the real Southern Harmony And Musical Companion.
What makes Warpaint Live such a better album than its studio counterpart, is the way the Robinson Brothers allow these songs to be stretched out in a live setting. The Crowes don't exactly burn down the house the same way they did on their 2006 Freak And Roll – Live At The Fillmore album. But they do breathe new life into the songs from Warpaint mainly by turning them into launchpads for the band, and in particular guitarists Rich Robinson and Luther Dickinson.
Kicking things off with a gnarly-sounding "Goodbye Daughters Of The Revolution" (one of the better songs on Warpaint), the Stonesy riffing of the original is still front and center, but the band is given a lot more room to do their thing. Rich Robinson's slide guitar is just as prominent — and sounds just as good. But keyboardist Adam MacDougall rides shotgun to Rich the whole way, sounding for all the world here like Nicky Hopkins in his prime. The rest of the band, who've often been known to play it loose and sloppy in concert, sound as tight as an oil drum here.
On "Walk Believer Walk," Chris Robinson belts out the lyrics with all the zeal of a southern baptist preacher. Meanwhile, brother Rich plays the slide parts down and dirty, as MacDougall's organ swells rise and fall in wave after wave. The effect here is one of a band that actually sounds more inspired, and certainly much fuller on the stage than in the studio. Rich in particular has never sounded better.
On "Wee Who See The Deep," the riff sounds as suspiciously close to a slowed-down version of Chicago's "25 or 6 to 4" as it did on the Warpaint album. But again, from Chris's vocals to MacDougall's keyboards, the song comes off as so much more of a complete band effort that it's not nearly as noticeable. Drummer Steve Gorman and bassist Steve Pipien lock into a filthy groove; the guitarists get into a particularly tasty little bit of axe-dueling here.
On "Locust Street," Chris starts off by summoning the spirit of Mick Jagger doing "Wild Horses," before the band eventually brings things home with an arrangement that not only recalls the Stones, but also incorporates ample helpings of both gospel and the blues. On "God's Got It," Robinson again channels Jagger, but this time it's the Exile On Main Street model.
On "Movin' On Down The Line," Chris shakes his money maker on the harmonica, and with the aid of backing vocalists Charity White and Mona Lisa Young sounds grittier, and dare I say funkier than one would have ever thought possible. Who knew that Chris and the Black Crowes could swing like this?
For the second disc, the Black Crowes go into "tent-revival meeting" mode for a gospel-driven cover of Delaney Bramlett's "Oh, Elijah" that soon segues into "Tribute To Johnson." With the church choir backing vocals, the only thing missing here are the hallelujahs and amens.
Clapton's "Don't Know Why" is given a similarly southern-fried treatment, only with a little bit of the blues mixed in with the gospel. On the Stones "Torn And Frayed," the Crowes do the whole Keith Richards by way of Gram Parsons thing equal justice.
Did I mention that Rich Robinson also plays a really mean slide guitar?
But the real revelation of Warpaint Live is the way the Black Crowes have breathed new life into the songs of the original studio album by stretching them out the way they do here. It's as if they are allowed room to actually breathe for the first time. In doing so, the Black Crowes have never sounded better.