The Lost Crowes is an apt title in more ways than one. Not only were the bulk of these recordings left to gather dust on someone’s shelf (Chris Robinson once commented that he wanted to burn some of them), at the time they were put to tape, the band itself was a little lost as well. Bitter infighting between the Robinson brothers had seen the group on the verge of calling it quits on numerous occasions, while excessive drug use probably wasn’t helping matters either. Essentially we have two albums, one recorded in 1993, and the other in 1997, and act as book ends to what would be The Crowes most creative and fertile periods.
First disc, The Tall Sessions, consists of what we can only assume are the most extant of what was laid down in 1993, as the band began work on what was intended to be their follow-up to the previous year’s immensely popular The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, an album which cemented the band’s reputation and status as one of the early ‘90s leading exponents of the retro-rock movement. What resulted was a rich and soulful assortment of quality material, enough for a double LP, if they had so wished. Instead Chris and Rich Robinson made the seemingly illogical decision to abandon everything and start afresh, hence why these tapes were placed in storage.
Opener “A Conspiracy” is a far funkier take than what appears on Amorica, with plenty of wah wah and busy keyboard, along with Chris’s impassioned vocals. And while the later recording is more powerful, the earlier incarnation still packs a heavy punch. “Evil Eye” first appeared on 1996’s Three Snakes and One Charm, and it’s intriguing to hear it in its original form. “Cursed Diamond” is another song they would go on to re-record, though both are as equally intense. Now why “Dirty Hair Halo” wasn’t included on Amorica is beyond me, because it’s a fine song, and would have made a much better choice than “P-25”.
The psychedelic vibes continue with the Latin influenced “High Head Blues”, followed by one of the darkest tunes The Crowes have ever recorded, the despondent and tenebrous “Feathers”, where Chris Robinson really does lay all his demons on the table. The country-twang of “Nonfiction” has a nice Sunday afternoon feel to it, while “Tied Up and Swallowed” may not really go anywhere compositionally speaking, but has some outstanding guitar interplay between Marc Ford and Rich Robinson.
“Wiser Time” is a tune every fan will already be familiar with, and remains another fascinating glimpse into the song’s development. Here they seem to be going for a more stoned-out country-rock feel, in an Allman Brothers/Marshall Tucker Band sort of way. The delightful “Sunday Buttermilk Waltz” and sexually infused “Songs of the Flesh” were released as bonus tracks on the remastered Amorica, so nothing knew going on here, except for the new mixes by Paul Stacey. “Descending” remains just as sincere and heartfelt as its Amorica counterpart, including some exquisite French horn to accompany Eddie Harsch’s plaintive piano. The dark and murky “Lowdown” is the only song which to my ears sounds like a demo, but a great demo nevertheless. “Tornado” has Chris singing along to an acoustic guitar (Marc or Rich?). It’s a bleak and depressing number, and when he sings “In my shadows, oh yes/And in my breeze/And just one last thing/Please let me say/And that is please, oh please please/Stay away from me” my heart almost breaks with the man’s earnestness.
We conclude with the atmospheric “Thunderstorm 6:54”, a song heavily fraught with paranoia and mistrust of the outside world.
Change the disc, and we have a completely different album entirely, where obviously the group were intent that their next record should be more organic and immediate in nature. However Band would unfortunately turn out to be the last LP recorded with Marc Ford and Johnny Colt, and while it had been available for some time on the trading circuit, it’s terrific to finally see the fruits of these sessions officially released and in excellent sound quality.
First up is “Paint an 8”, a song which would later be recycled for 2001’s Lions. It’s not brilliant by any stretch, but it does reveal the wonderful chemistry shared between Ford and Robinson, whose guitars attack and bite like a couple of vipers coiled round each other. The bluesy “Another Roadside Tragedy” was not a new song, but is easily the most definitive, as if they were channelling The Allman Brothers.
“If It Ever Stops Raining” is an early version of what would turn into “By Your Side”, released a couple of years later. Apart from the words to the chorus, they’re essentially the same song. Although I much prefer this version, since it has an ostensibly earthier and less polished feel to it.
“Wyoming & Me” is a real gem, where Robinson’s world weary vocals are suitably complimented by the band’s tender playing and mournful slide guitar. “Predictable” is the first weak link in the chain, to the extent that the song ought to have been titled “Forgettable”. “Never Forget This Song” has plenty of fiery, snarling guitars, proving that they could still pump it out and heat up the amplifiers like in days of yore.
“Lifevest” and “Grinnin” are good but not great, although they do grow on you after a few listens. “My Heart’s Killing Me” is another album highlight, and reminds me of Desire era Bob Dylan, with its sorrowing lyrics, and maudlin violin.
The philosophically reassuring “Peace Anyway” is in the vein of one of those early 1970’s rockers a la Humble Pie, and concludes what is an extremely satisfying album overall. While many fans have argued that Band represents some of the group’s finest music, I can nonetheless appreciate any misgivings their record company entertained at the time. But then if Dylan could get away with Self Portrait and other such under-produced works then why not The Crowes?
Every band or artist needs at least one ‘lost album’ in their collection. That The Black Crowes managed to record two is quite an achievement (there may be others but they are yet to be confirmed). If one were to compare, Tall is definitely superior, in terms of performance and energy, however Band is also has more than enough fine moments to justify its existence.
Had either of these records been released at the time, it’s difficult to say what the reaction might have been. While I’m sure that most fans would have gone ape-shit over them, when it comes to a critic that’s an entirely different matter in itself. Why it took so long for these sessions to see the light of day is inexplicable to say the least. And now that The Black Crowes appear to have disbanded for good, one can only hope that more archival material will someday be made available, provided that Chris and Rich can ever resolve their brotherly differences that is.