With 2005 marred by Katrina’s aftermath and the turbulence of the Iraq War, it was inevitable that many Americans would look to family and culture as a salve for the wintertime blues.
Thus, an attempt to draw renewal from the Southern Thang—in particular the region’s prime export, rock ’n’ roll—with a New Year’s Eve lineup featuring The Black Crowes, My Morning Jacket and the North Mississippi Allstars. However, with My Morning Jacket’s withdrawal due to frontman Jim James’ illness, the intended rock revival at Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden fell short of glory.
This failure, though, cannot be laid at the feet of Luther Dickinson, Cody Dickinson and Chris Chew of the Allstars. Them po’ boys were made to open the show on point at 8 p.m., a time when most revelers were still stumbling from Twins pub on 9th Avenue or massing at will-call in pursuit of tickets. The Allstars’ superb brand of hill boogie spliced with the odd nod to new Dirty South aesthetics (see the trio’s recent screwed-and-chopped version of their latest album, Electric Blue Watermelon) was done no favors by a meager allotment of 40 minutes. Luther and ‘nem would’ve just been warming up if it was their own gig. Still, the Allstars’ enduring grace was with them, as they rose to the occasion and professional fanfare of playing the once-hallowed Garden.
Chew’s elastic funk was well showcased on “Ship,” with him perhaps wryly nodding to the year’s biggest music-related news—the Michael Jackson trial—by steadily playing the bass line to the Jacksons’ 1978 hit “Shake Your Body (Down To the Ground).” Indeed, this sonic mnemonic spurred the not-quite-sold-out-but-still-vast crowd to embody the lyric as best they could, penned in by the venue’s legionnaire-tight seating rows. And the body-rockin’ theme continued when Cody Dickinson undertook his habitual washboard solo, a prime exemplar of Dixie futurism and cosmic Americana which was underpinned by disco drumming from big bruh Luther. The Allstars’ brief set served as a great herald for the New Year and a fine score with which to ease on down the road into 2006.
Alas, the Dickinsons’ hard work was virtually undermined by the interminable set of Phish-free Trey Anastasio. The guitarist and bandleader has certainly earned his bona fides on the jamband circuit and these groups’ Bonnaroo-bred cross-pollination and bonhomie is a welcome sign (although curiously echoing hip-hop nation’s excessive guest-star love fests). Yet Anastasio didn’t belong on this bill, and the show suffered for it. His solo work—described by a friend as “Chicago on speed”—sapped the long night’s energy and flow. The many Black Crowes diehards who escaped to the gate beer mills missed out on Anastasio’s interesting horn section, though. His wonderfully Rubenesque trumpet player sang bluesy backgrounds and occasionally made like the Family Stone’s Cynthia Robinson come again. Overall, the middle section offered too much time to ponder the Garden’s odd space-age architecture where it seemed Esquivel ought to be playing with some obliging symphony—and apparently black televangelist Creflo Dollar, who was ministering to his flock next door—rather than the rockers on hand.
Vitally, a board tape heavy on the James Gang and the underrated Merry Clayton wailing “Poor White Hound Dog” (a classic of weird Americana from my all-time favorite film, Performance) led into The Black Crowes’ long-awaited duo of sets, suggesting that—in Katrina’s wake—frontman Chris Robinson has been meditating on his Southern identity again, something he’s been ambivalent about in the past. Southern hallmarks beyond this signified on the event’s original mission: the massing of fam and friends when the ball dropped, the Allstars joining in on “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” Robinson’s voice-to-ax call and response with Anastasio on “Hard To Handle,” the Left Coast Horns adding a bit of second-line flava to “Seeing Things” and going to Memphis as a virtual Skynyrd with brass on the aforementioned Otis Redding cover (making us sorely miss the Dirty Dozen Brass Band who ought to have been drafted to sub for MMJ).
No laptops or ill-fitting musicians with punk hair (as Anastasio featured) appeared onstage to disturb the Crowes’ signature groove. True dat: making manifest the nostalgia trip and notions of legacy implied by the ticket slogan “15 years of cosmic rock,” both sets drew heavily from the band’s debut pair of albums, Shake Your Moneymaker and The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion—the evening’s best and most challenging performance being “My Morning Song.” Old-time Crowes junkies were buzzing that the band had played “Beware of Darkness” the previous night in the Bay State, and the sextet seemed to be assiduously avoiding its dark places by only offering the new-dawn twang of Amorica’s “Wiser Time.” Big pimpin’ as a fly Father Time in white-on-white suit featuring a be-furred morning coat, Robinson was in fine form as Lord of Misrule, emphatically declaring after “Sting Me,” “[this is] officially the most rock ’n’ roll place on the planet right now!” Despite a lack of adventure in his medicine show, Robinson sang truth to power on the set’s bookends—“No Speak No Slave” and the Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.” The recall of the Crowes’ earliest back pages may signal a long wait before the appearance of mature music (in the vein of Robinson’s recent solo work) useful to those of us, like myself, who have kept faith with the band on all the years of their journey and are now mired in the Bush of ghosts. Still, the polemics of those two latter-mentioned tunes fulfill rock’s mandate as we brace ourselves for what we hope are brighter days ahead.