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The Black Crowes

+ {Chris Robinson – Brotherhood} + {Rich Robinson}

A raucous cocktail of bar-room blues and soulful hard-rock, The BLACK CROWES were one of the big names of the 90s, but with all their fame and fortune came instability and inevitable splits within their ranks. Drawing a line through southern-styled “sibling” combos, CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL and The ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND, to iconic “Glimmer Twin” soul-mates The ROLLING STONES and AEROSMITH, scribes Chris and younger brother Rich Robinson drove on relentless while other rock bands (and fads) faded with time.
Formed 1984 as Mr. Crowe’s Garden, in Atlanta, Georgia, singer Chris and guitarist Rich, plied their trade as a hard-grafting live covers acts, unyielding in their attempts to bring about a resurgence in nostalgic, back-to-basics rawk; incidentally, their dad was Stan Robinson, who had a minor US hit in 1959 with “Boom A Dip Dip”. Intermittently adding Johnny Colt (bass), Steve Gorman (drums) and, in 1988, second guitarist Jeff Cease, The BLACK CROWES were ready to take their brand to a bigger audience.
Picked up by the ever eclectic Rick Rubin, for his fledgling Def American label, the quintet released their debut album to almost universal acclaim in the early days of 1990. Taking its title from an old ELMORE JAMES song, SHAKE YOUR MONEY MAKER {*8}, was steeped in classic deep southern musical tradition; a seamless mesh of hard-rock, blues, soul, country and R&B that drew inevitable comparisons with FACES, The ROLLING STONES and FREE/BAD COMPANY. Yet the ‘Crowes were unmistakably American, Southern American in the tradition of LYNYRD SKYNYRD and the aforementioned ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND; they covered `Dreams’ as a future B-side. The songwriting was simple but effective, while Chris’s earthy voice was a revelation, if a little wearing after prolonged exposure. This was feel-good music, genuine rough ’n’ ready soul music as opposed to the slick, neutered wallpaper that passes for much modern black soul. `Twice As Hard’, minor `Jealous Again’, `Could I’ve Been So Blind’ and a rough hewn cover of OTIS REDDING’s `Hard To Handle’ (a UK Top 30 smash) sounded effortless, while the mainman put in a spine-tingling vocal performance on the emotive ballad, `She Talks To Angels’. Live, the now platinum-selling BLACK CROWES were naturally in their element and following the album’s release (which climbed to No4 eventually), the band embarked on a punishing touring schedule, playing with everyone from DOGS D’AMOUR to ZZ TOP; in a well documented incident, the Crowes were dropped from the ZZ tour following Chris’s criticisms of corporate sponsorship.
With the permanent addition of Canadian-born keyboardist Eddie Harsch to flesh out the sound, and replacing guitarist Cease with Marc Ford (ex-Burning Tree), The BLACK CROWES cut THE SOUTHERN HARMONY AND MUSICAL COMPANION {*9}. Produced by ex-ALLMANs member Chuck Leavell, and released in May ‘92 (incredibly, recorded in just over a week), the album built on the solid blueprint of their debut. The band had amassed a sizeable following through their ceaseless live work and the set deservedly hit the top spot in America (No.2 in the UK). With the songwriting more assured and the arrangements more ambitious, The `Crowes succeeded in carving out a musical identity distinct from their weighty musical influences. The addition of female backing singers added a richness to their sound, while the record segued smoothly from the raucous R&B of opener, `Sting Me’, to the stoned melancholy of `Thorn In My Pride’; the darker, “Midnight Rambler”-esque `Black Moon Creeping’, `Hotel Illness’ and attendant cross-Atlantic hit, `Remedy’, were the cock-sure classic rockers. Just to make sure people knew where he was coming from (man), Chris and Co closed the set with a mellow, acoustic reading of BOB MARLEY’s `Time Will Tell’.
Soon after the album’s release, the band hit the road once more, a headlining spot at the 1994 Glastonbury Festival illustrating just how high the `Crowes had flown. Released later that year amid a storm of controversy over the cover shot (flying the Stars ’n’ Stripes “pubic-ly” one could say), AMORICA (1994) {*7} was something that courted controversy the moral majority. Perhaps the relentless touring was beginning to take its toll, as the record (which stalled at No.11) sounded claustrophobic and turgid, the pace rarely rising above a monotonous plod. The songs were also lacking in cohesion and focus, although moments of genius were still evident on the likes of `A Conspiracy’ and the single, `Wiser Time’. The band continued to cut it live, getting further out both musically and image wise. While the BC’s had always been defiantly 70s in their choice of apparel, Chris, in particular, had graduated from a vaguely glam look to a latter-day Charles Manson-clone. This was the revenge of the 70s: oriental rugs, ragged denim flares, bare feet; hell, even a GRATEFUL DEAD t-shirt!
Rambling organ solos were also de rigueur of course, but fans lucky enough to catch the band at their low-key London gigs at the tail end of ‘96/early ‘97, were treated to a stripped down, largely acoustic set. While completely clueless, mullet-headed, rock bores voiced their disapproval, the Christ-like Robinson mesmerised the more discerning `Crowes fans with sterling covers of DYLAN (`Rainy Day Women No.12 & 35’ and `When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky’, LENNON (`Jealous Guy’) and LITTLE FEAT (`Willin’’) material.
The 1996 album, THREE SNAKES AND ONE CHARM {*6}, stripped back their roots, encompassing a greater diversity of styles and adding a bit of SLY STONE-style funkiness to their ragged retro, psychedelic patchwork. Relatively disappointing sales resulted in them failing to reach the Top 10, while the lack of a major hit (`One Mirror Too Many’ stalled at No.51), the band seemed to be going through the motions.
With Messrs Colt and Ford both leaving within a few months of each other, things didn’t look too bright for the Columbia-signed band; however, bassist Sven Pipien was drafted in at short notice. All was well again by early ‘99 with the release of their fifth set, BY YOUR SIDE {*7}, a typically FACES-meets-ROLLING STONES effort that highlighted their best track for some time, `Kickin’ My Heart Around’ (a minor hit from late the previous year); `Go Faster’, `Only A Fool’ and the title track bought the groove merchants a little time.
After a much-praised one-nighter with Zeppelin axe-king JIMMY PAGE (an album, “Live At The Greek” was issued in 2000), The BLACK CROWES returned the following year with LIONS (2001) {*6}; meanwhile, Chris wed top actress Kate Hudson on December 2000; they later divorced in October 2007; he’s since re-married to Allison Bridges. While the album notched up a respectable US Top 20 chart placing for their V2 (Virgin) bosses, the ‘Crowes ultimately decided that they’d reached the end of the line with 2002’s LIVE {*6} documenting the previous year’s farewell tour. Tight, raucous, and as close to the spirit of unpretentious rock’n’roll as one’s likely to hear from these dark days, the album was as fitting an epitaph as any, given the BC’s career-long commitment to the stage. If there was any criticism at all, it was the almost complete absence of covers, the reverence of which always made this band’s readings of other people’s songs worthwhile; they duly went on to cover `Boomers Story’ (RY COODER) and `Chevrolet’ (Ed & Lonnie Young).
The brothers took their respective chops in different directions, CHRIS ROBINSON living out his more pastoral-minded early-mid 70s fantasies on solo debut, NEW EARTH MUD (2002) {*5}, spicing it up with a dash of old school funk. Writing a handful of cuts with retainer Harsch and guitarist Paul Stacey, one could elevate the likes of `Silver Car’, `Sunday Sound’ and ode to wifey `Katie Dear’, but the record lay in times gone rather than the present.
Follow-up THIS MAGNIFICENT DISTANCE (2004) {*6} was tougher and more complex both musically and lyrically, while going off at tangents The BLACK CROWES had only occasionally hinted at; check out `40 Days’, `Girl On The Mountain’, `Train Robbers’ and `When The Cold Wind Blows At The Dark End Of The Night’.
Meanwhile, brother RICH ROBINSON occupied himself with the soundtrack for a straight-to-DVD feature, “Highway” (2001), before briefly touring with Hookah Brown. Finally tiring of a band format, the guitarist took the plunge and recorded a full-on solo debut, PAPER (2004) {*4}, revealing a STEVE MILLER-esque vocal and a bluesier spin on 70s retro than Chris on tracks like `Yesterday I Saw You’, `Enemy’, `Leave It Alone’, etc.
Likely hanging on the old adage that two heads are better than one, the siblings finally re-formed The BLACK CROWES (alongside Marc, Steve, Ed and Sven) for a 2005 Fillmore gig, subsequently released on double-CD as FREAK ‘N’ ROLL …INTO THE FOG… (2006) {*7}; covers of Matthew Moore’s `Space Captain’ and The BAND’s `The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down’ were highlights among the obvious “greatest hits” cuts.
Fully-fledged and back with a proverbial bang (Ford made way for NORTH MISSISSIPPI ALLSTARS leader Luther Dickinson), comeback album WARPAINT (2008) {*8} strode into the Top 5; Rich taking the role of chief songwriter as Chris was free to deliver his swagger and shimmy on tracks like `Goodbye Daughters Of The Revolution’, `There’s Gold In Them Hills’, `Movin’ On Down The Line’ and the quieter ballad, `Oh Josephine’.
Dissing a rather unnecessary WARPAINT LIVE (2009) {*6 for the audacity!}, The BLACK CROWES stretched their street-cred even further with a country-tinged BEFORE THE FROST… UNTIL THE FREEZE (2009) {*7}. Recorded live at LEVON HELM’s barn in upstate NY, and split for release initially as download sets for the general public, Chris, Rich and the Crowes give rugged performances on the captivating `Appaloosa’, `Kept My Soul’, `Good Morning Captain’ and the disco-fied `I Ain’t Hiding’.
Unafraid to give their old nuggets a bit of a spit and acoustic polish, and celebrating 20 years at the top of their game, The BLACK CROWES stripped back the years for double-set, CROWEOLOGY (2010) {*7}. In a similar vein, and happy once again to rawk, the double-live WISER FOR THE TIME (2013) {*6} revisited some of the same timeless gemstones, while one could chill out with versions of LITTLE FEAT’s `Willin’’ and back-to-back covers of The FLYING BURRITO BROTHERS’ `Hot Burrito #1’ and `Hot Burrito #2’.
Maintaining their need to expand their solo horizons, the past several years have also seen both Chris and Rich establish themselves further afield; not withstanding their rootsy BROTHERS OF A FEATHER LIVE AT THE ROXY (2007) {*6} one-off set (in which they covered DAVID WIFFEN’s `Driving Wheel’ and JOHN MARTYN’s `Over The Hill’), there were a handful of other releases. On the back of RICH ROBINSON’s THROUGH A CROOKED SUN (2011) {*6} – featuring a reading of FLEETWOOD MAC’s `Station Man’ – the CHRIS ROBINSON BROTHERHOOD struck a cosmic-cadet chord of sorts with the jam-tastic exploration, BIG MOON RITUAL (2012) {*7}, and the accompanying THE MAGIC DOOR (2012) {*6}. Augmented by Adam MacDougall, solo artist Neal Casal, bassist Mark Dutton and drummer George Sluppick, the trip was of an earthier, organic groove; the ALLMAN BROTHERS-like jam of `Vibration & Light Smile’, a particular fave of the fans, a sprawling take of HANK BALLARD’s `Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go’, another.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/BG-GRD // rev-up MCS Mar2013

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