Album: Amorica (1994) (listen)
Artist: The Black Crowes
When it comes to using the blues as a modern rock influence The Black Crowes are not unique. The Brits got there long before any white Americans did, under the guidance of bands like The Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin, infusing one of the few, truly original American music forms with pop, folk, and rock essences that made it accessible to mainstream listeners. In doing so most of these bands brought the notion of riff-based song structures to popular music (a form that is at the heart of blues). In some cases, the songs lifted the lyrics and riffs of blues staples directly, adding electric instrumentation, percussion, and decidedly more robust vocals. (See, for example, Led Zeppelin's Bring It On Home (listen), which opens with a direct, musical homage to the original, offering song credits to Willie Dixon in the process, before shifting into a bombastic re-visioning of the song, Zeppelin-style.)
Despite all this, however, some crucial aspect of the blues - and, importantly, its southern, cultural origin - was lost in its conversion to a rock format. Where The Black Crowes do fill a rather unique niche is in the way that they return the blues to its southern roots, and Descending is a great example of that in action.
The Black Crowes found fame fast forthcoming after the release of their first album, 1990's Shake Your Money Maker (listen). Driven by hard rocking tracks like Twice as Hard (listen) and Hard to Handle (listen), and backed by the ballad She Talks to Angels (listen), the Crowes found popular rock radio success. This trend continued through their second album, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (listen), though tracks like Sometimes Salvation (listen) hinted at what was to come.
By the time Amorica was released the Crowes had entered a transition period, heading into blues territory that was not readily transferable to mainstream, rock radio. They slowly grew to eschew the harder, British version of blues rock that made a popular name for the genre and began to incorporate a decidedly more "southern" sentiment in their music. Similar to the manner in which Lynyrd Skynyrd brought a southern sound to straight rock [nicely represented in the raunchy, "bayou" sound of tracks like Poison Whiskey (listen) and Swamp Music (listen)], The Black Crowes infused their blues with a soulful sound that I've taken to classifying as "southern rock gospel blues". This sound would come to dominate their recordings and makes up the body of music in their next album, 1996's Three Snakes and One Charm (listen), perhaps best exemplified in the opening tracks, Under a Mountain (listen) and Good Friday (listen), the title of the latter not only referring to a Christian religious holiday but also including a backing of gospel singers on the final chorus. Descending, however, was really their first strong foray into what would become this "southern gospel" sound
The piano introduction to the track is the first hint of something that is not your come-again blues song. The chords are neither pop nor rock nor blues; they are, well, gospel-y. This change from modern blues tone is immediately reinforced by the use of a lap slide guitar as the lead, a standard of old, southern blues, that can be seen at use in the live, stripped down, acoustic version of the song, below. The big, bluesy, sustained slides that open the main chorus of the song seem to beg for a choir sing-a-long.
Of course, no blues song can ever really be a good blues song without the right singer. When it comes to vocals and Chris Robinson, I am always reminded of a certain, beautiful and delightful road companion who once complained to me that his voice was too "breathy" (all the while I was trying to sell her on the values of The Black Crowes as a blues band). Admittedly, "breathy" isn't exactly what I'd call a good trait for a blues singer. Blues voices should be be somber and scratchy and the best, old blues singers tend to have what would be considered terrible singing voices to anyone with a classical background. Given, however, the shift in genre focus that the Crowes tackle here, I can't think of a better quality for Robinson to have. The wavering, soulful sound that he brings to the song matches perfectly the gospel-esque tone that commands the piano and guitar, breathiness and all.
I think what I find most appealing about Descending (and some other Crowes song from this middle period) is the seamless way in which they incorporate an ethereal, southern feeling into the modern, blues rock sound that made them popular. Its the sort of artistic shift that keeps me interested in a band and is all the more intriguing, in this case, for the novelty of that "gospel blues rock" sound. Between Amorica, Second Helping (listen), and Willy and the Poor Boys (listen), I feel like I've got just enough time to nurse this handle of Kentucky whiskey into harmonious oblivion.