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Nice hat: Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes

Sunday Service

By John Brodeur

The Black Crowes, Robert Randolph and the Family Band

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, July 30

The Black Crowes have been taking a lot of crap on their current tour for not playing the hits, for trying to “reinvent” themselves as a “jam band,” and a whole lot of blah blah blah. But they’ve already done it, more than 16 years and seven albums, by getting to be better musicians and writers. They didn’t forget where they’re from, but they never stopped looking forward—even if they were looking through the glass at the bottom of the bong.

And, for the record, they did play some hits.

They seem to be positioning themselves as heirs to the Allman fortune, as evidenced by their distinctly Southern boogie-rock and tendency toward lengthy, pot-damaged jams. (They also played on a backdrop littered with giant mushrooms. Subtle.) Granted, neither Rich Robinson nor Marc Ford is as dazzling a guitar player as any of the various Allman ax-slingers, but the Crowes’ main weapon has always been Chris Robinson, and he was in excellent form on Sunday, preaching over the Stax gospel of “Seeing Things” (and looking high as hell).

The set was, admittedly, a little heavy on slow numbers and jams—the Drum Solo (in the middle of an otherwise fiery “My Morning Song”) felt like a stretch, and 14 songs over two hours seemed skimpy from a band with such a breadth of material—but a midset goldmine that included a wild “Soul Singing,” the By Your Side gem “Welcome to the Good Times,” and an excellent, harmony-laden new song called “Cold Boy Smile,” more than made up for the pacing rituals.

And no one but no one could deny the band’s power when they rolled into the huge riffs of “Remedy” and “No Speak No Slave” to close the set. Don’t believe the hype: The Black Crowes are still one hell of a rock & roll band.

“There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of Jesus on Sunday,” Robert Randolph reminded a half-full pavilion as his Family Band took an emphatic run around the Doobies’ “Jesus Is Just Alright.” Wearing a bright-blue fedora and black Mets jersey, Randolph led his sharp seven-piece band through a treasure chest of borrowed and/or covered Sly Stone riffs. (The “family” in his band’s name works on two levels.)

This soul-funk-rock machine, known for playing marathon three-hour sweatfests, got people involved, moving, revved-up. A sizeable portion of the audience might offer that Randolph and company stole the show, but it wasn’t theirs to steal; instead, they played the ultimate warm-up act, and simply broke it down for an hour-plus. They breathed fire on an instrumental “Voodoo Chile”; waded deep through swampy, Little Feat-like grooves; and jammed like they were not only finding a groove, but settling in, building bookshelves, a nursery, doing a little landscaping.

SPAC’s giant projection screens, usually not an attraction, were wholly welcome, allowing the audience to get a good look at Randolph’s eye-popping pedal-steel work.

Under the Influence

Vetiver

Valentine’s, July 28

Vetiver are pleasant, and, believe it or not, that’s not meant as a snide putdown. What we’ve got here is a good-old country/folk-rock band influenced by the Ripple Cloud Triumvirate of Gram, McGuinn and Gene Clark. ’Tis nothing new, and the bulk of the longhaired crew from the West Coast folk underground will be the first to tell you that. You bet there’s something counter-reactionary going on. There is no denying that not since the heyday of grunge has there been an alternative subgenre with as much cultural cachet and mystique in the Church of What’s Happening Now as the freak-folk “don’t call it a movement” scene. The fact that The New York Times has reported on it twice already signals its death knell to some of the music-blog cognoscenti (damn them to Mantovani hell, I say, but that’s just my Pat Robertson side getting all Dante on their asses).

This all means jackshit to Vetiver frontman Andy Cabic. He’s concerned with writing and singing songs, and he writes and sings some damn good ones. He (along with some other “up-and-comers” like Greg Weeks of Espers) has been writing atmospheric dreamfolk for years, back when you were all about doing it just for the nookie. Some may see his songs as overly simplistic—I prefer to think he’s taking heed to the not-often-tried-but-true “iceberg principle” of Hemingway, taking the gristle away, leaving the bare and (in Cabic’s case) gentle essentials. It’s a two-way street—the hefty-sized crowd at Valentine’s was a treasure of local-music geekdom and record-collector connoisseurs—not a music-history neophyte to be had.

As the band kicked off a late-set cover of Papa Wainwright’s “Swimming Song,” I agreed with the gesture—but the best way to hear this music is in the hot and humid outdoors with wine-stained teeth. Vetiver made the best of the stifling rock-den confines; drummer Otto Hausen is the second coming of Mick Fleetwood, and he knows how to bring Cabic’s unassuming songs to a percolating simmer. The now ubiquitous hot-girl string section brought the depth, but when the violinist stifled a yawn, I was with her all the way. The backbone of the set was the sterling guitar work of Sanders Trippe. Much like heavy metal, in country-rock, if you can’t bring the hot guitar licks, you might as well go back to playing rhythm along to Machine Head, buddy. Trippe is the kind of dude who can keep you looking forward to what he plays next all night, and I’m not just whistling “Truckstop Girl.”

Arthur magazine says one reason so much sun-dappled folk rock is coming from Cali these days may be because of the high-potency herbage. While some of that may have made Vetiver’s set more enthralling, I’m not writing off Cabic and co. Something tells me this guy is going to get more adept at his craft and last longer than many of his peers, as they get too old and tired of flying the freak flag. With gems like “I Know No Pardon” and “You May Be Blue,” I think we have a new potential Neil in our midst.


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