Review Summary: This is what the Black Crowes were made for.
Live albums are often a veteran band’s conceit, an effort to translate a group’s energy from the stage to the record player – an endeavor that, more often than not, just leads to an overly long disc of poor-quality tunes, bad between-song banter, and fans wishing they had invested that $19.99 in, say, an actual concert. A band’s decision to release a concert album may be just a mere record company ploy or an exercise in check-how-awesome-we-are-live smugness, but it pales in comparison to that conceit of conceits: the double album. And with the twenty-track Before the Frost…Until the Freeze, long-time roots-rockers the Black Crowes have committed not one, but two cardinal sins of artistic hubris in a single release.
Such a release could easily be construed as a marketing scheme or a contractual obligation and forgotten if this was your normal live compilation. But what saves BTFUTF from bargain bin status is the wealth of new material here – all of the songs, in fact, are fresh tunes, recorded live in front of a crowd, with little to no strings attached. It sounds like a gimmick, and having been recorded in a barn in upper New York with an intimate group of fans (hey, the Crowes have never been subtle), it is – but what becomes clear shortly after the Guitar Hero-worthy solo on “Been A Long Time (Waiting For Love)” is that this is what the Black Crowes were made for.
For a band that’s been around as long as they have, a live/double album should really come as no surprise as they try to resurrect their fanbase and commercial appeal. But the obvious renewed energy that brothers Chris and Rich Robinson and company bring to the stage is undeniable, infectious, and totally authentic American (read: badass) rock ‘n roll. Their first studio release in seven years, last year’s Warpaint, was acceptable, but it sounded recycled and the Crowes sounded like, well, the twenty-year-old band they are.
Here, the Crowes sound revitalized and at home on the stage, where their road-and-time-tested chops and effortless musical interplay sound invigorating, and their Allman Brothers/Lynyrd Skynyrd pastiche seems less like the work of an aging cover band and more their own beast. Lyrically, of course, the Robinson brothers haven’t changed a bit – the same good old-fashioned tales of love, well-worn travails of the road, and sexually charged patter apply. But twenty years is long for any band, and the long hours spent practicing and honing their collective skills is immediately apparent. The slinky bass, clattering percussion and discofied guitar of “I Ain’t Hidin;’” the bar-stomping, country-rock sing-a-long of “And The Band Played On…;” the beautiful bottle-neck guitar and Chris Robinson’s still powerful, plaintive vocals on “Appaloosa;” the straight-ahead classic burner “A Train Still Makes A Lonely Sound;” the Crowes are utterly in their element here, and it’s a testament to their sharp playing abilities and flawless unity that they can make brand new tunes like the pensive “The Last Place That Love Lies” sound like a forgotten ‘70s gem that time forgot.
The second disc, …Until the Freeze tones down the tempos for a more understated nine-song acoustic set, one with a good deal more twang and down-south blues flavor than the first collection. Although it lacks the inherent power and creative fire that …Before the Frost rides on, but it’s a pleasant collection of acoustic folk, countrified ballads, and the occasional oddball pick (the Middle Eastern-influenced “Aimless Peacock” comes to mind) regardless. Nevertheless, twenty songs remains an ordeal for even the most diehard Crowes fan, and, while displaying the same sort of tight musicianship and knack for a melody as the first disc, …Until the Freeze comes off as just a little too much, a nine song set that detracts from the overall experience after the red-blooded excellence of the first half.
Luckily for picky consumers, BTFUTF is not a double album in the strictest sense of the term – the second half may be downloaded off the band’s website with proof of purchase of the first, allowing one to entirely bypass it or perhaps wisely separate the two so as to not fall into a pedal-steel coma. And for all its size and rather contrived setting, BTFUTF is a clear success, the exclamation point to a group that’s had numerous ups and downs but have remained a thoroughbred rock ‘n roll band in the truest sense of the word.