The Ryman Auditorium in Nashville is the Mother Church of Country Music, the former home of the Grand Ole Opry. But the Black Crowes built their own holy mountain on that stage, on September 12, with a three-hour show in which every song was, in some way, a form of prayer: for forgiveness, deliverance and, when Rich Robinson and Luther Dickinson's acid-blues guitars went into overdrive, elevation. The first half of the night was acoustic; the second was electric. But the reach for glory — in booming jubilees like "Seeing Things" the hallelujah breakdown of "My Morning Song" and the profane grind of "Jealous Again" and "Remedy" — was constant.
The division between acoustic and electric was not purist. The first set included "Thorn in My Pride," with a Yardbirds-style raveup in the middle, as well as the plaintive longing of "Appaloosa." Singer Chris Robinson literally crowed with lusty vibrato in the opener "Soul Singing," while his brother Rich's softer boy-ish vocal in "What Is Home for Me" had the vulnerable grace of an English folk ballad, until the bridge when Dickinson started unfurling space-blues lines on slide guitar. At one point, after a Chris chorus about opening eyes, mind and soul, to "leave it all behind," the rest of the band took him at his word, leaping into a free flight that evoked the connective nerve of the '68 Grateful Dead. Chris just danced in place, with evident pleasure.
This tour is supposed to be the Crowes' last for some time; they have announced an indefinite hiatus, to begin after the final shows in December at San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium. But this lineup is the best the Robinsons have had in the band's two decades, and it is playing at magnum force. The brothers know it. The Crowes started the electric portion with Traffic's "Feelin' Alright," playing the song with a roaring delight (and completely ignoring the irony in the lyrics). The big heart of that set was a brilliant inversion of one of the high points on the group's new album, Croweology. On the record, the band plays live-in-the-studio acoustic arrangements of their best songs. One of those is a tripping 18-minute medley of "Ballad in Urgency" and "Wiser Time." At the Ryman, the Crowes played both songs but with electricity, transforming the album's genteel freakout into something closer to the Dead of American Beauty dosed with the Allman Brothers‚ Live at Fillmore East. In one section, Rich slathered his slide work in reverb and wah-wah; later, he and Dickinson took off in a striking snake dance of whooping slide (Dickinson) and tart treble stabs (Rich). Elevation was achieved.
It is hard to believe that a band playing at this level is about to power down. But if that's the way it's gotta be, then the Crowes are leaving at a peak. See them there while you can.