If anyone had asked drummer Steve Gorman, back in 2002, if he'd ever tour with The Black Crowes again, the answer would have been a resounding no. "I quit," he tells Xpress. "I said for sure I'm not coming back. We were completely burnt out and exhausted." Now, a reunion and two albums later (just-released Before the Frost… is arguably one the band's strongest ever), Gorman (who, as the band's self-proclaimed "most linear" member, handles interviews and the Dear Abby-like advice section on the Crowes' Web site) is waxing jubilant.
"The stuff goes over exceptionally well every night," he says. There is something immediately catchy (if not poppy) about Frost, an 11-track collection (with a bonus nine-track digital album available for download). There's the instant hit of retro cool from The Band-esque "Good Morning Captain" and The Faces-reminiscent "Houston Don't Dream About Me" to the down-and-dirty disco of "I Ain't Hiding."
"We put out War Paint in 2008 and I think it's a hugely important album for what it says and because it put us back on the track," Gorman says. "I think people liked that record, but the immediate response from the audience was not nearly as visceral as it is now. "In a bold move, the Crowes — together for 20 years — actually set out their Cabin Fever tour in late August, several days before the album dropped. "For the first four or five shows, people hadn't even heard the songs," Gorman says. "I remember thinking, 'I know we talked about this, but what were we thinking?' But the songs went over really well. We made the record live and we had a sense of how the songs went over then."
That's right, Frost is a live album. Sort of. Recorded at Levon Helm Studios — the famed log cabin/recording facility owned by the drummer of The Band — the Crowes honed their material and then invited fans for five nights of live performances which ultimately became the disc. It was lead singer/songwriter Chris Robinson who got the idea when he went to a show at what Gorman calls "Levon's barn." Always big on aesthetics and mood, every aspect of Frost — from the log cabin-themed Web site to the watercolor mountain scene cover art — reflects those days of recording. And, of course, there's the '70s-era rock grind and country swagger that calls to mind Helm's era-defining sound.
"He was around, but he didn't come by that often," Gorman says of Helm. So, the great drummer might not have put his stamp on Frost, but he definitely had an effect: "He'd come in and we'd all end up sitting around the fire. He'd just tell stories and we'd listen. There's no way to overstate how cool that was," Gorman says.
That's not so different than the reaction of Truth & Salvage Co., the Black Crowes' opener on this tour, to receiving personal attention from Robinson, who produced their debut album. "It was a great experience," T&S Co.'s Bill "Smitty" Smith told Xpress. "He's been very supportive of our group and our sound." T&S Co. got its start in Asheville as ragtime-hokum act Scrappy Hamilton and is now an L.A.-based retro pop-rock sextet.
"The sincerity of their song writing and their passionate performance was the thing that attracted me to their project," Robinson told Xpress by e-mail. T&S Co. is the first band to be released on the Crowes' Silver Arrow Records label.
Of his work on T&S Co.'s album, Robinson said, "As a producer, my job is to create the best environment, help organize the best material and strive for the best performances in the window of time in which a band has to make an album."
According to Gorman, much of what it takes to be a successful band is learned on the road. T&S Co. is "already getting that sense that bands get," the drummer says. "The learning curve on your first tour is huge." A founding member of the Crowes, Gorman actually joined the then Atlanta-based band with brothers Chris and Rich Robinson in the late 1980s. Though the drummer admits "it's been the longest relationship I've had other than my siblings and my parents," he's quick to point out life with the Crowes has not always been easy.
"I look back at the '90s and wish hindsight was more like 20/600 so I couldn't see it so well," he jokes. "We were very intense and focused on the band. Now I have a family. I know it sounds trite, but the minute my son was born a switch was tripped in my head … now we all trust each other and we know it's [about] compromise."
With experience comes wisdom: what didn't kill 'em made 'em stronger, and now the Crowes are touring a record that Gorman calls "a great example of how we work at our best. We get a great idea and then see what happens." So, they packed 200 people into Helms' studio where — despite countless variables and potential live-recording pitfalls — they made not only Frost, but something like magic. "We said, 'Let's just see what happens when it counts.'"
Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: The Black Crowes with Truth & Salvage Co.
what: Rock band returns to Asheville with "Cabin Fever" tour and former Scrappy Hamilton members as opener
where: Thomas Wolfe Auditorium
when: Friday, Oct. 2 (8 p.m., $40. www.ashevillenc.gov or 800-745-3000. www.blackcrowes.com)