The Black Crowes have been called "The Most Rock 'n' Roll Rock 'n' Roll Band in the World" for their unique mix of blues-oriented hard rock, selling over 15 million albums and winning the adoration of a cult-like fanbase. But in 2002, after years of inner turmoil (at least eight different musicians have left the band since its formation), brothers Chris and Rich Robinson announced that the Crowes would take an indefinite hiatus.
In 2005, the Robinson brothers delighted fans when they reassembled the band (bringing back several of the band's former members) for a reunion tour. 'The Black Crowes: Freak N' Roll' was recorded during a five night sold out stand in May of that year at San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium.
A two hour shot-on-HD extravaganza, the gracious set length here allows the Robinson brothers to make it through most of the band's fan-favorite hits, including "Only Halfway to Nowhere," "Sting Me," "No Speak No Slave," "Soul Singing," "Welcome to the Good Times," "Jealous Again," "Space Captain," "My Morning Song," "Sunday Night Buttermilk Waltz," "Cursed Diamond," "Wiser Time," "Non-Fiction," "Seeing Things," "Hard to Handle," "Let Me Share the Ride," "Mellow Down Easy," "Remedy," "The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down," and the excellent "She Talks to Angels." While fanatics will likely debate the inclusion or exclusion of some songs, the selections cover a wide range of the group's history and should be please most audiences.
I have to admit to having little knowledge of the band prior to watching this disc. And while ultimately I ended up recognizing a surprising number of songs, overall I still found the concert to be somewhat unexceptional. For all of the impressive guitar riffs and genre stylings, lead singer Chris Robinson is terribly unintelligible and his performance grows repetitive as the concert plows on. The band sounds great, but there's a strange chaos brimming beneath the surface that left me with the impression that I was watching someone crash on a bad drug trip. Muddled words, nonsensical side comments, and a lack of focus make even the band's crisp songs sound muddy.
Visually, the show provides everything a live performance should -- the band is engaging, excited, and obviously having a great time. The crowd is enraptured at every turn, and never fails to swoon and wail on cue. From the confines of my home theater however, the vocals ruined my immersion, no matter how engaging I found the instrumentation. Even more distracting, the cameramen seem to stumble about in an attempt to match the tone of the concert.
For me, the result was an average live performance that's likely to strictly appeal to fans of The Black Crowes. If I had followed the band for years, I'm sure it would have been easy for me to disregard these annoyances -- but it certainly won't win any new fans. If you're new to the Black Crowes, I suggest you head out and pick up a copy of their entrancing first studio album, "Shake Your Money Maker" before watching this disc. But if you're already a loyalist, don't let my issues with Chris Robinson's antics deter you from purchasing this release -- in fact, here's guessing you might end up enjoying the hazy pandemonium of his performance.
Presented in 1080i with the MPEG-2 codec, 'The Black Crowes: Freak N' Roll" looks quite nice on this Blu-ray release. The relatively small venue doesn't allow for much variety in the shots, but the visuals are generally clear and sharp, with vibrant colors and good contrast. Shadow delineation is nice, fine object detail is noteworthy for a concert release, and the black levels are deep and plentiful. I was most impressed with the realistic dimension the colorful picture brought to the video. While the lighting is inconsistent at times, there weren't many moments when it didn't seem as if I could reach up and touch an object on the screen. I even enjoyed the lower quality video scattered throughout the performance showcasing behind-the-scenes moments with the band. While it certainly doesn't look as pretty, it's based on artificial filters rather than poor quality.
There are a few problems -- the dark areas in the background fizzle with a heavy grainy at times, fog occasionally reveals compression artifacts, and there are random bouts of screen door effects that affect unpredictable sections of the image. Luckily, all of these issues were infrequent and rarely distracting.
The audio is presented in an lossless PCM stereo track (1.5 Mbps) as well as a duo of DTS (768 kbps) and Dolby Digital (448 kbps) 5.1 surround mixes. The PCM stereo provides the best lyrical clarity, but is confined to the front channels and lessens the experience of the live performance. The Dolby mix is a surprising waste of time that makes the instrumentation more subdued than the other two audio selections. The DTS track provides the best overall audio experience and provides an immersive listen as well as above average audio quality. I would recommend the PCM track to those who are more focused on the music than the show, and the DTS track to those looking for the most engaging live performance.
The DTS and PCM tracks both have great prioritization between the crowd and the band, the instrumentation and the percussion, and the lyrics and the backup vocals. The instruments feel crisp and the bass ranges are ever-present without drowning the performance. The dynamic range of the audio is superb and the highest notes from a trumpet never waver or grow tingy. Likewise, the drums and bass guitar made my speakers rumble without any murky, artificial boosting. Accuracy on the DTS mix is dead-on, with the various pieces of the band spread across the front channels and a naturalistic series of acoustics present in the soundfield.
My main problem again came with the lead vocals. Robinson is already often difficult to comprehend, but the low volume of his voice in this mix only seems to exacerbate the problem. On top of this, the intimate crowd was audibly silent at times even though their body language suggested otherwise. While I appreciate the volume of the crowd being reigned in and relegated to the surround speakers, I still enjoy the immersion that crowd noise can bring to a recorded live performance.
The only feature on this release is a reel of "Bonus Footage" (14 minutes) that was much shorter and frivolous than I expected. Shot in low-def on handheld camcorders, the footage captures warm-ups, practices, and jam sessions, but largely avoids any conversations with the band members. There is one casual interview moment, but the Robinsons meander and chit-chat without saying anything relevant or interesting. At the very least, a documentary on the history and influence of the band would have been a perfect addition.
As is the case with most concert discs, 'The Black Crowes: Freak N' Roll' documents a live performance that will mainly appeal to fans of the band. If you can get past lead singer Chris Robinson's occasionally incomprehensible performance, you'll be happy to see a nice video package teamed with a series of audio options that provide a lush DTS mix and a crisp PCM lossless track. Sadly however, the disc's slim set of extras will make both fans and those new to the band shake their heads in equal disappointment. While it looks and sounds great, 'The Black Crowes: Freak N' Roll' is too shallow to make for a definitive purchase.