A wild night at Chicago's Aragon Ballroom with the Black Crowes (2024)

A wild night at Chicago's Aragon Ballroom with the Black Crowes (1)

The White Claw-fueled turf battle for the spot next to me on the Aragon Ballroom rail was the only blight on an otherwise unforgettable night with old friends and new seeing the Black Crowes in Chicago.

Two nights later, it was a less hostile but equally enthusiastic crowd at the Castle Theater in Bloomington for JJ Grey & Mofro.

Here’s a look at an unforgettable weekend in what’s been an awesome April as I near completion of 50 years of being alive next month. And, also, at the end there are some music podcast recommendations.

A wild night at Chicago's Aragon Ballroom with the Black Crowes (2)

PRE-SHOW

The day began with one of my oldest friends, Mike Provine of Quincy, Illinois, picking me up at my house in Decatur and we headed to Chicago.

I’ve known Mike since high school; we bonded through music. My musical renaissance these last few years has been good for my friendship with Mike, who unlike me never lost his way with music. He was a big part of my musical rediscovery when he invited me to a Black Crowes concert back in 2021.

We met up at the Fat Cat in Chicago with several members and listeners of the State of Amorica podcast, including podcast producer Jason Doncis and newest SOA podcast member Shawn Hillman (concert buddy Shawn hit the big time!). I was greeted with a new State of Amorica podcast t-shirt with a design from SOA Patreon member Lou Piccirilli, which I changed into and wore to the show.

Jason and Shawn organized the meet-up, which included giveaways, and it was very well-attended. The Fat Cat did a good job of putting up with our large, spread-out group.

A wild night at Chicago's Aragon Ballroom with the Black Crowes (3)

Meeting Doncis, and also All Things Blues and Southern Rock podcast host Jason Johantges, Sleepy Joe, Justin Frey and several other State of Amorica Patreons I’d talked with online but never in person was a lot of fun. That alone made the meet-up special.

But then there was Steepwater Band singer/guitarist Jeff Massey, who leads one of my favorite bands, and Chris Grove, a talented keyboard player who often plays with Steepwater (and formerly played for Survivor and Eddie Money). I got a chance to talk with both of them and Jeff even bought me a drink — I plan to pay it back when I see Steepwater at Destihl Brewery in Normal on May 31 (if you’re reading this, come on down!).

And then, two people walked into the bar and got big smiles on their faces when they saw me. It took a few seconds to place them, but then it hit me.

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Shawn and I had met Brittnie and Matt in August at the Evolution Festival in St. Louis, where the Black Crowes had performed. Brittnie was a Crowes fan from way back, and Matt became a Crowes fan through Brittnie (Matt’s favorite band is Primus, so Brittnie returned the favor and became a Primus fan).

Shawn had encouraged them to check out the State of Amorica podcast, and I’d always wondered if they had. Shawn definitely earned the label of “Official SOA Ambassador” with that one, because Brittnie had become a Patreon member and they surprised us all by showing up at the Fat Cat.

AT THE ARAGON

A wild night at Chicago's Aragon Ballroom with the Black Crowes (5)

From the Fat Cat, we headed over to the Aragon and secured our spots on the rail (Jason Doncis was a little late when his car got towed — classic Chicago). The inside of the Aragon is huge and weird — like a medieval castle courtyard … in space. Mike and I were on the far right side directly in front of where Crowes guitarist Rich Robinson would be standing.

The crowd gradually filled in as opener Glyders put on a much better than expected opening set. I’d listened to Glyders for about five minutes in preparation and thought: “What the hell is this?” But live, the locked-in groove laid by bass player Eliza Weber and drummer Joe Seger hooked me. I don’t know what their songs were about, but they had my head bobbing and my foot stomping.

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After Glyders ended, the crowd steadily increased, with people making their pushes toward the front. I turned toward the stage and stayed there, but heard a lot of arguing and began feeling a lot of people jostling for position behind me. At times it felt like someone was searching me. I put my wallet in my front pocket and tried my best to ignore it.

But at one point I turned to scan the crowd and found a woman staring at me, smiling. She said, “How many Crowes shows have you been to?” Before I could even start the answer, the smile fell away and she launched into her grievances with two people I’ll call “the tall women.”

I immediately told her I didn’t want to get involved and suggested she become friends with them and try to work something out. I tried to change the subject and offered to take photos of her and her friends, then finally turned away and vowed not to turn that way again.

Thankfully, AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top” began playing and the Black Crowes hit the stage. From the time they hit the first note of “Bedside Manners” off their new album, Happiness Bastards, the band sounded great.

But the battle between the short girls and the tall girls persisted. I looked at the security guards and their faces were pained. They came over a couple times and things would cool off, but for the most part, these “big fans of the band” argued through the show’s first five songs, including two songs the Crowes don’t play often — “Nebakanezer” and “Horse Head.” It came to a head during “Horse Head,” with one of the tall girls winning the spot next to me on the rail, then hell breaking loose and security finally coming over the rail to deal with it. One of the tall girls flung the contents of a bottle of water in the air and it mostly ended up on me and made the floor around me wet for the rest of the show. That caused security to boot the tall girls.

My only wish is I’d gotten video for my new YouTube channel idea, “Women of White Claw.”

Sanity returned just in time for “Cross Your Fingers,” which is one of my favorites from the new album. Then it was one of the highlights of the show with the unexpected, “Oh Josephine” — complete with that badass ending that they stretched out a little.

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The other highlight was an 11-minute version of “Thorn In My Pride” that could stand respectfully with a classic lineup version.

Crowes singer Chris Robinson was in good spirits and the band fed off the packed Aragon’s energy. Before “Nebakanezer,” he said they were going to do a song off one of their albums, Three Snakes and a Charm. When the crowd cheered wildly, Chris smiled and said, “Chicago knows Three Snakes! In Vancouver, you have to explain it to them.” Then he laughed and Rich lit into the song.

How great Chris’s voice still sounds in his late 50s has been one of the real highlights of the band since their 2019 reunion, and hearing him belt the opening of Yardbirds cover “Shape of Things” had my jaw dropping a little.

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The Black Crowes are at the stage of their career when new music isn’t always well-met live by old fans, but fortunately Happiness Bastards is great. They started the show with the album’s first song, “Bedside Manners,” and fittingly ended with its final song, “Kindred Friend.” The one song I don’t care for on the album, “Flesh Wound,” was a big improvement live — particularly the background singing on the chorus late in the song. In all, they did six of the album’s 10 songs.

Many Crowes fans, including me, grumble about the old warhorses, particularly “Hard to Handle.” But when Chris came to our side, sang “Hey pretty thang,” and then looked down at the crowd, I still belted out with him: “Let me light your candle cuz mama I’m sure hard to handle.”

Unlike the Shake Your Moneymaker tour the band had been on previously, this was a show I could see again — even with the strange stage setup with half the band on an elevated platform. The songs from the new album shine live — they sound into the new material. But they’re also still giving the classic material energy and are keeping things fresh by shaking up the setlist with some songs you might not expect.

The show could be longer — it was an hour-and-a-half. And I wish there was more from Amorica and Three Snakes, but this is the Crowes trying to make both casual and diehard fans happy. To me, the solve is to add “Wiser Time” to the encore and everyone goes home with a smile on their face.

Unfortunately, after the tour’s European swing, the Crowes will rejoin the Aerosmith tour as an opener, so it may be awhile before we get another headlining Crowes show in the Midwest. Cross your fingers …

— April 19, with Mike and the State of Amorica gang

JJ Grey & Mofro, Castle Theater, Bloomington, IL

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Two nights after that wild Crowes show, I went to the sold-out Castle Theater for JJ Grey & Mofro’s show supporting their new album, Olustee (read my review in this post). I thought I was early enough to grab a seat, but I wasn’t even close. I walked down toward the front near the stage but just didn’t feel like fighting that again, so I found a decent spot toward the middle and passed the time before the show started getting to know people in the crowd.

I was wearing a Blackberry Smoke concert t-shirt and a couple asked if they were playing around Central Illinois coming up and I directed them to the Decatur show. They assumed I meant at the Decatur Celebration, which no longer exists, but I told them about the Devon Lakeshore Amphitheater and I think I sold them on the July 7 show.

Of the people standing next to me, one of them turned out to be a big Black Crowes fan who had been at the Aragon show. She’d grown up in Bloomington and remembered going to the Castle when it was a movie theater.

A wild night at Chicago's Aragon Ballroom with the Black Crowes (10)

The opener was Cedric Burnside, who played “Mississippi Hill Country blues.” His band was tight, but the groove was a little too repetitive — not bad, but not memorable.

I was pleasantly surprised and genuinely excited when I saw Grey take the stage with a guitar player, bass player, keyboardist, two drummers, two female backup singers and three horn players. It would be easy for Grey, who is successful but not exactly a household name, to pare things down for a long tour. But it’s essential to his sound. At the end when he was introducing the members of the band, he said, “Damn, there are a lot of people up here … and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

A wild night at Chicago's Aragon Ballroom with the Black Crowes (11)

Grey talked a lot during the show. He did something I’d never heard a musical performer do — he laid down a narrative that he carried through the show. His story was that at the show the night before in St. Louis, it was cold and he had to drink to stay warm. But then he got warm and was still drinking and didn’t stop until 5 a.m., so he was nursing a hangover and needed some help from us and his backup singers on some songs.

But, he said, he was going to try some hair of the dog to get through, and called us bad influences when we cheered him on. He was having a great time and so were we.

He told a story before many songs, usually describing what the song was about. They were all interesting. But by the end of the show, the audience was tiring of the stories — by that point of the night people were ready to hear as many songs as possible, which was understandable because each song was a force of nature.

Grey and Mofro put it all on the line — every song is an emotional ride that makes you want to smoke a cigarette when it’s over. They change styles effortlessly. Grey’s powerful vocals are always the feature, but every member of the band gets a chance to shine.

Like the Crowes, Grey and his band came alive on the songs off the band’s newest album, Olustee. The highlights were “The Sea,” on which Grey showed off his range and keyboardist Eric Brigmond got a chance to shine, and my favorite song off the new album, a remake of John Anderson’s “Seminole Wind,” which didn’t disappoint live.

I honestly can’t imagine going to this show and not being entertained. This was my first time seeing JJ Grey & Mofro but it definitely won’t be the last.

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If you’re into music podcasts, here are three I’m listening to:

RIDICULOUS ROCK RECORD REVIEWS

Before I go, I want to give a recommendation for an excellent podcast — Ridiculous Rock Record Reviews.

I’m listening to fewer podcasts these days, but this is one I try to make time for. Basically, the hosts go song-by-song through the chosen album and then rate the album as a whole at the end. I’ve only listened to a fraction of the 309-episode library, but enough to get to know the many different contributors. Recently, podcast founder Aaron Martel decided to pass the baton to the State of Amorica guys, with Jason Doncis and Shawn Hillman leading the way, and they’ve done an outstanding job of keeping the spirit of the podcast Martel had established.

One of the real stars is contributor “Professor” Ray Perme, who I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know a little through our State of Amorica Patreon chat. His breakdowns of lyrics and instrumental goodness are must-listen. I highly recommend all the R4 Rolling Stones albums reviews, and also the review of Steely Dan’s Countdown to Ecstasy. Recently, there have been excellent reviews of Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Revelator, Pearl Jam’s Vs., and Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy.

ALL THINGS BLUES AND SOUTHERN ROCK

Another podcast worth checking out is the previously mentioned All Things Blues and Southern Rock podcast, hosted by Jason Johantges and Brian Jones. They talk about live shows they’ve recently been to, which I always enjoy and learn from, but they also do interviews with musicians — some I’ve known and some who have introduced me to new music. They did a particularly great Brit Turner tribute episode that featured Steepwater Band drummer Joe Winters.

STATE OF AMORICA

I’ve written extensively about the State of Amorica podcast. But if you haven’t checked it out, even if you’re just a casual fan of the Black Crowes, you’ll love it. I promise it’ll increase your appreciation of the band.

More photos!

Here are a few more of my favorites from a great night!

A wild night at Chicago's Aragon Ballroom with the Black Crowes (13)
A wild night at Chicago's Aragon Ballroom with the Black Crowes (14)
A wild night at Chicago's Aragon Ballroom with the Black Crowes (15)
A wild night at Chicago's Aragon Ballroom with the Black Crowes (16)

Here are clips I found on YouTube of every song from the Crowes concert at the Aragon.

Thank you for reading Justin Conn’s Music Substack. Please share it if you enjoyed!

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