These two recent releases from The Black Crowes represent separate snapshots of the band from two very unique points of their long career. Who Killed That Bird Out On Your Window Sill… The Movie was originally released as a VHS video by the band's record label at the time, American Recordings, in 1992. It comes from the most commercially successful period in the band's career.
The Crowes were riding high on the success of back-to-back platinum albums in Shake Your Money Maker and The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion (still arguably their best), and the video was put together by the record company largely to capitalize on the Crowes' red hot status at the time.
It's hardly the "movie" it bills itself as, but rather, pretty much what you would expect. Most of the band's early videos are here — from "Jealous Again" through "Remedy" — and strung between things like on the road footage and a number of radio interviews in which lead vocalist Chris Robinson looks bored out of his mind for the most part.
There's even a rather funny montage of Chris answering the same question of "what do you like to do when you are not working with the Black Crowes?" over and over again.
Another funny part shows the band looking absolutely dumbstruck at what looks to be a Japanese press event where two Japanese media personalities are talking at about 190 miles an hour in completely undiscernable Japanese, while the band sits there with blank stares on their faces. Like I said, funny stuff.
Much more interesting, however, is the precious little live footage on this DVD, which offers glimpses into The Black Crowes' considerable prowess as a live band. From a show in Atlanta comes a very tasty cover of John Lennon's "Jealous Guy." Way more fascinating is footage from a huge outdoor show in Moscow.
As the Crowes blaze their way through a scorching version of "Stare It Cold," a number of crowd shots are interspersed which reveal several things. One is that the crowd at a Russian outdoor concert doesn't look all that different from what you would have seen at an American rock festival around the time this film was shot. With the notable exception of what looks to be hundreds of uniformed Soviet police. There are also a few shots of concert-goers getting bloodied by the same Russian cops. It's an interesting, and telling juxtaposition.
But speaking of live concerts, the recent Black Crowes shows at San Francisco's Fillmore captured on Freak 'N' Roll… Into The Fog are absolutely amazing.
The Black Crowes in concert have for me always been kind of a mixed bag. I saw them several times in 1992 during the tour they did for The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion, when I was working for their label at the time, American Recordings. And the shows were always great.
I can distinctly remember the stage from the shows where they had Christmas lights strung up all over the place. It was a decidedly cheap, but unmistakably cool look. Kind of like the Crowes themselves. Chris Robinson would then emerge to the recorded sounds of Grand Funk's "Are You Ready" and for two hours the band just rocked your socks off. Like I said, they were great shows.
Several years later I saw them at Seattle's Bumbershoot festival shortly before they broke up for the first time, and it might as well have been a different band. The Crowes have always played somewhat loose onstage with the jams, but here they were just downright sloppy.
Not so on this new live CD from the legendary Fillmore (there is also a DVD of the show available). Here the band, backed occasionally by a horn section and churchy sounding backup vocalists, are a well oiled machine. They sound tight as a drum, even when they are found venturing into the longer jams of songs like "Soul Singing." The show opens with an absolutely ripping trifecta of "Halfway To Nowhere," "Sting Me," and "No Speak No Slave," wherein the band plays as though their lives depended on it.
The Black Crowes have often been compared to bands like the Rolling Stones, Humble Pie, and especially the Rod Stewart-era Faces. All true enough. But while Chris Robinson's spirited blues shouting (and on this night let's just say he sounds particularly "spirited") does owe much to Humble Pie's Steve Marriott, a band that sounds as tight as The Black Crowes do here could never be compared to the notoriously sloppy Faces. Even on songs like "Jealous Again," which the Crowes have no doubt played thousands of times, they sound as fresh here as if being played for the very first time.
Speaking of the "spirit," at times these guys play with a borderline religious fervor. On songs like "Space Captain," as the backup singers provide ample amounts of church to the lyrics about "learning to live together," the effect is one of borderline rapture. If you closed your eyes for a minute, you'd almost swear you were in a tent revival meeting, with the unlikely preacher being Chris Robinson of all people.
I always knew the Black Crowes were probably this good, but I have honestly never heard them sound this good. Even on the improvised jams, the band always seems to know exactly where they are at. There's a particularly tasty one on "My Morning Song" where Drummer Steve Gorman leads guitarists Rich Robinson and Marc Ford through the sort of extended workout you may have otherwise thought disapeared from rock music altogether.
I don't know who lit the match under these guys that night, but on this CD they sound as good as any band I have ever heard.
I've heard rumblings of late that the Black Crowes are again experiencing some of the "personality disputes" that have caused the band to derail in the past. Let's hope that none of that talk is true.
Because on Freak 'N' Roll, the Black Crowes play like a band that still has plenty of life left in them. They sound totally revitalized. It would be a shame to see them once again part ways, when based on the shows captured here, it sounds like their very best years as a band may very well yet be ahead of them.