(Quite Possibly the Longest Meditation on the Black Crowes in the History of the Internet)
A few seconds after turning on the Rolling Stones’ “Sweet Black Angel” in the living room my wife implored “please, no more Black Crowes.” Sadly, I’ve burned her out on the Black Crowes after overplaying them for the last 18 years.
My immediate reaction, however, was to say “thank you.” I thanked her on behalf of Chris & Rich Robinson for confusing the intro to “Sweet Black Angel” off of the Stone’s masterpiece Exile on Main Street for a Black Crowes’ tune. I couldn’t imagine a higher compliment to any contemporary rock and roll band.
You Know it’s True
You see, it’s true. No Black Crowes fan will admit it in polite company, but it’s what we all secretly believe – that the Black Crowes are the reincarnation of the Rolling Stones. The parallels are stunning. Let’s list a few:
– Blues-based rock and roll band that deftly incorporates elements from practically every music style;
– Vocally-gifted and charismatic lead singer and lyricist (Mick Jagger/Chris Robinson);
– Open-G tuned rhythm guitarist that writes the music and provides the insanely catchy riffs (Keith Richards/Rich Robinson);
– Seething tension between aforementioned singer and guitar player;
– Oft-overlooked but world-class drummer that holds it all together (Charlie Watts/Steve Gorman);
– Incomparable lead guitar player that took the band to new heights but couldn’t stay in the band out of creative frustration and was never nearly as good outside of the band (Mick Taylor/Marc Ford);
– Three back-to-back-to-back album masterpieces largely driven by aforementioned lead guitar player (Let It Bleed-Sticky Fingers-Exile on Main Street/Southern Harmony-Amorica-3 Snakes);
– Hell, they even shared a piano player! (Chuck Leavell)
Now, let’s be honest. The Stones came first. They were much, much more popular (it’s not even close). They were more culturally-important. They wrote more “classic” songs. In all those regards, the Stones dwarf the Crowes.
But the Crowes are a better live band. The Stones are a glorified garage band and their live playing tends to be sloppy and sped-up. Mick tends to shout more than sing. The Crowes, at their peak (’96-’97) provided a transcendent live experience. Even today, a post-peak Black Crowes is still the best live band in the galaxy.
Well, obviously the Black Crowes are past their peak. How long can any artist produce at the highest level of their craft? By 1997 the Black Crowes were at the top of their game. Consider this: their debut album – Shake Your Money Maker – the album that brought rock and roll back from the depths of hair metal and filled the airwaves with hit after hit (‘She Talks to Angels’, ‘Hard to Handle’, ‘Jealous Again’) was their worst album by ‘97. Most bands have difficulty following-up their debut with quality material. The Crowes’s sophomore album, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, is one of the greatest rock albums ever produced. They followed Southern Harmony up with the genre-shattering Amorica and the psychedelic masterpiece 3 Snakes & One Charm. They had a 7 year run of brilliant songwriting, four excellent albums and unparalleled live performances. Expecting anyone to maintain that level of performance is insane.
The Point Is
You see, the point is that comparisons inevitably lead to suffering. It’s unreasonable to expect the Crowes to match their peak performance again and it’s wrong to compare everything they do for the rest of their careers against that golden period. Of course the new stuff won’t measure up. Nothing ever could. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t write great songs or put on amazing shows anymore. 1997 died 12 years ago. Just try to judge the present moment on its own merits.
Magic 8 Ball Says…
The angry, aggressive heavy rock days for the Crowes are long gone. The Black Crowes are now a country rock band. And I’m truly sorry for the diehards that don’t like that aspect of the band. Look, it’s always been in the mix, but now it’s dominating. Think about it – Luther and Adam fit that style perfectly. Follow the evolution of the song from The Band to New Earth Mud to Warpaint (hell, you can also include Chris & Marc at the Malibu Inn or Wooden Family if you’d like.) It’s all there, right out in the open for everyone to see.
It’s that goddamn 2005 reunion that ruined everything. Sure, at the time it was amazing. The anticipation was incredible. Marc coming back, Steve coming back, Sven fitting in perfectly – it was all too good to be true. Hell, I even bought tickets for the night before Easter at The Hammerstein, not knowing how I’d get from Boston to NYC. (Great show, by the way!)
But in retrospect the reunion was not the beginning of a new chapter. It was a nostalgia ride. We all got so swept up in the excitement that we didn’t realize that we were just living in the past. I’m not surprised that they didn’t record a new album or even come up with any great material in that period. They couldn’t – they were playing music as their former selves. They weren’t being true to themselves or the present moment. They could recreate the magic but they couldn’t banish the demons.
Don’t blame Chris & Rich. Don’t blame Marc. Don’t blame Angelus. Just accept reality – they were reliving the past and we all went along for a fantastic ride. But once it became apparent that there was no future it all fell apart.
Progress at Last
But there’s still hope. The new iteration of the Crowes shows incredible promise. Warpaint was a great album showcasing their best new material in years. Luther Dickinson and Adam McDougall are both incredibly talented musicians that will help propel the band in a new direction. What’s that you say: they’re good on the Warpaint songs and the new covers but they struggle with some of the old catalogue?
Exactly – because the band is moving forward. So what if Adam struggles with the ‘Wiser Time’ solo or Luther doesn’t hit ‘No Speak No Slave’ quite as forcefully as Marc used to. I’ve heard ‘Wiser Time’ and ‘No Speak No Slave’ 10,000 times! Yes, they’re great tunes. Yes, the old line-up played them better. Guess what? That’s what the soundboards are for.
Here’s a hypothetical for you: Would you rather have a line-up that plays the old songs perfectly but struggles with new material or would you rather have a line-up that struggles with a few old songs but produces compelling (but different) new material?
Wait a minute – that’s not a hypothetical. That’s 2005 vs. 2008.
Delusions of Grandeur
Here’s the thing. You can’t play the “what would Warpaint sound like with Marc & Ed” game because there would be no Warpaint if Marc & Ed were in the band. The classic line-up was back together for 18 months and they couldn’t/wouldn’t/didn’t produce any new material that stacks up to the songs on Warpaint. “Oh Josephine”, “Walk Believer Walk”, “Movin’ on Down the Line” and “Wounded Bird” are all great songs. And you might want to get used to songs like “Locust Street”, “Whoa Mule” and “There’s Gold in them Hills” (which I love) because that’s the future sound of the Crowes.
But please don’t confuse your dislike for a musical genre with the decline of the band. This is a natural evolution.
Take a Few Spins
If you haven’t delved into country rock (or cosmic American music as Gram called it) here are a few recommendations for you:
The Flying Burrito Brothers
The Byrd’s “Sweetheart of the Rodeo”
The Grateful Dead’s “American Beauty” & “Workingman’s Dead”
Bob Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding” & “Nashville Skyline”
Neil Young’s “Harvest” & “Comes a Time”
The Black Crowes may have started out as the reincarnation of the Rolling Stones but they’re ending up as the reincarnation of the Flying Burrito Brothers. And I think that’s pretty cool.
(Unless Cabin Fever sucks.)