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The Black Crowes take a few midnight rambles with Levon Helm

The Black Crowes both embraced and broke with tradition when it came time to record the two-record set, Before the Frost ... Until the Freeze.

The band decided to skip the usual trip to a conventional studio and instead recorded in the Woodstock, N.Y. barn owned by Levon Helm (drummer for the legendary group, the Band), the space where he presents his live "Midnight Rambles." Over the course of five concerts in front of a small audience, the Black Crowes recorded the two-dozen-plus new songs that made it onto the album.

There were no extensive rehearsals beforehand. There was little of the precision and control that comes with being in a conventional studio. And there was the very real possibility that the recordings would not rise to the level of quality the band's known for.

"It could have been that we were out of our minds and came away with the most expensive demos ever recorded," says Black Crowes drummer Steve Gorman. Instead, the Black Crowes emerged with one of the best CDs of their long and often stormy career.

Gorman says that the original idea came from singer Chris Robinson, who suggested bringing a handful of fans into a conventional studio to witness the recording. Out of that grew the idea of recording in Helm's barn.

"I think the initial thing was simply, 'How can we make a record that makes it more interesting for us, and where do you find a connection to some of our fans?'" says Gorman.

The other band members — guitarist Rich Robinson (Chris' younger brother) and Luther Dickinson, bassist Sven Pipien and keyboardist Adam MacDougall — all bought into the idea, and in February of this year, the Crowes found themselves in Helm's barn, ready to make new music.

The album is actually divided into two halves. The performance that ended up on the first, Before the Frost, crackles with energy and enthusiasm. It's a rocking effort, with the band in fine form on tracks like the high-impact opening song "Good Morning Captain" and the funky "I Ain't Hiding."

Until the Freeze, available as a free download with the purchase of Before the Frost, is a decidedly more acoustic, eclectic and rustic affair, with songs like the cheery country-rock of "Shady Grove" and the twangy romp "Shine Along" setting the tone.

All in all, the new project offers convincing evidence that the Crowes, two decades after the Atlanta band's first demo recording, continue to rebound nicely from the four-year hiatus in the wake of 2001's Lions album.

The band has gone through a number of personnel changes since its reformation, but Gorman says that when the current lineup came together to make the 2008 studio album, Warpaint, it was clear that the group was once again feeling creative and focused.

"Warpaint was definitely like the starting gun went off," Gorman says. "I mean, we had a couple of years of touring, where we were trying to figure out what we wanted to do and we were enjoying playing together and feeling like there was definitely someplace to go. But it took a while to figure out what that place was. It was the first time since we'd gotten back together where we did see it: Oh, this is where we're going now."

scene@csindy.com

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