To say the least, the Black Crowes didn’t play it safe in deciding how to record “Before the Frost” and its companion CD, “Until the Freeze.”
The band chose to skip the expected trip to a conventional recording studio. The common practice of recording vocals separately and overdubbing instrumental parts went out the window, as well.
Instead, the band recorded the new music at the Woodstock, N.Y., barn owned by Levon Helm (drummer of the legendary group the Band) that serves as a live-performance space and studio. Over the course of five concerts in front of a small audience, the Black Crowes recorded the two-dozen-plus songs that make up the new releases.
There were no extensive rehearsals beforehand, little of the precision and control that comes with being in a conventional studio. The very real possibility existed that the recordings would not rise to the level of quality that is required of a studio CD.
“It could have been that we were out of our minds and came away with the most expensive demos ever recorded,” Black Crowes drummer Steve Gorman said during an early August phone interview. Instead, the Black Crowes emerged with one of the best CDs of its long and often stormy career.
So how did the group decide to take such a maverick approach to “Before the Frost ... Until the Freeze”?
“I think the initial thing was simply how can we make a record that makes it more interesting for us and where do you find a connection to some of our fans?” Gorman said, noting that initially singer Chris Robinson suggested bringing a handful of fans into a conventional studio to witness the recording. “Everyone went, ‘Oh wow, that could be cool.’ ”
Plans solidified in summer 2008, when Robinson went to see one of Helm’s regular Saturday night “Midnight Ramble” concerts at the barn.
“He called everyone the next day saying: ‘I got it. I see it. I know what we have to do now,’ ” Gorman said.
The other band members — Gorman, guitarist Rich Robinson (Chris Robinson’s younger brother), bassist Sven Pipien, guitarist Luther Dickinson and keyboardist Adam MacDougall — bought into the idea, and in February, the Black Crowes were in Helm’s barn and ready to make new music.
Interestingly, the Black Crowes didn’t rehearse extensively or try to nail down every detail of the songs before stepping on stage to record.
“The fact is we really didn’t know the songs,” Gorman said. “We went Monday through Friday, two or three songs a day, start to finish, and then on Saturday, ‘OK, let’s go play it.’ ... So there was definitely a winging it, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants vibe, and I think that translates really well.”
The music on “Before the Frost” certainly crackles with energy and enthusiasm.
It’s a decidedly rocking effort, with the pace slowing only for an occasional song such as the acoustic ballad “What is Home” and the violin-accented “Last Place That Love Lives.” Otherwise, the band is in fine form on rocking tracks such as the high-impact opening song, “Good Morning Captain,” and the funky “I Ain’t Hiding.”
Meanwhile, “Until the Freeze” — which is available free as a download with the purchase of “Before the Frost” — is a more acoustic, eclectic and rustic work, with songs such as the cheery country-rocker “Shady Grove” and the twangy romp “Shine Along 128” setting the tone for the disc.
The new CDs provide convincing evidence that the Black Crowes, which formed in 1989 in Atlanta, has rebounded nicely from an uncertain future created when the group went on hiatus after the 2001 CD “Lions.”
During the hiatus, Chris Robinson released two solo albums, “New Earth Mud” in 2002 and “This Magnificent Distance” in 2004, while Rich Robinson formed a short-lived band called Hookah Brown before going solo with the 2004 CD “Paper.”
But the pull of working together proved to be too much to resist for the brothers, and they reformed the group in 2005.
The band has had a few personnel changes since then, but Gorman said that when the current lineup came together to make the 2007 studio CD “Warpaint,” it was clear that the group was once again feeling creative and focused.
“ ‘Warpaint’ was definitely like the starting gun went off,” Gorman said. “I mean, we had a couple of years of touring where we were trying to figure out what we wanted to do, and we were enjoying playing together and feeling like there was definitely someplace to go. But it took awhile to figure out what that place was. ... [It] was the first time since we’d gotten back together where we did see it, ‘Oh, this is where we’re going now.’ ”
Gorman said that feeling of vitality was very much present during the recording of “Before the Frost ... Until the Freeze,” and will undoubtedly continue this fall on tour.
“The band is again very much a collective,” Gorman said. “For right now where we are, all the pistons are firing or whatever sort of analogy you can use. That’s how it feels.”
The Black Crowes with Truth & Salvage Co.
7:30 p.m. Saturday; $48.50, $38.50; Chastain Park Amphitheatre, 4469 Stella Drive. 1-800-745-3000 (Ticketmaster) or www.classicchastain.com .
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