On January 15, 2015 Rich Robinson announced that The Black Crowes were officially breaking up. There would be no more talk of indefinite hiatuses or potential reformations. After 24 years the needle was finally hitting the run-out groove.
It’s hard to capture all of the thoughts and emotions that surround the loss of one’s favorite band. I could talk about all of the personal moments: the first time I heard “Jealous Again” on the radio. The first time I saw them at a club in 1990. The time my Dad worked with some guy named Stan Robinson and asked if I ever heard of his kids’ band. All of the amazing shows over the years – from the ZZ Top tour to the festivals, from Jimmy Page to Warpaint live and beyond. Of course I could talk about getting to know drummer Steve Gorman (a true mensch), doing a podcast with him, interviewing him about the band, and getting to hang with the guys a little bit here and there.
Or I could talk about the emotional impact of the band that took me through my twenties and thirties. The only band that was truly MY band. For many of us raised on a steady diet of the Stones and the Beatles, the Byrds and Led Zeppelin – the Crowes were the last classic rock band. For some people they were throwbacks. To me they were a time machine – a current band that I could embrace and grow up with, as if I lived in the golden age of rock and roll. From college to marriage, from kids to adulthood, the Crowes have always been there, living at the center of moments and friendships, providing mystical sounds and positive vibrations.
And then there’s the musical story. The Crowes, through their originals, covers and associations, have become the torchbearers for traditional rock music. They broke through in a forgotten time – the small window between hair metal and grunge – providing a hit of authentic blues-rock in a time of rank artificiality. They wrote songs that were popular and classics that weren’t. They experimented and changed too many times to count. And they always knew how to bring it on stage. From the very beginning to the very end they had IT.
As fans we tend to put too much on our favorites bands. They’re just regular people, with normal struggles and relationship challenges. The nature of fandom, and life, is impermanence. All things must pass. All we can hope is that they understand on some level just how much their work means to us. How important those experiences were. How deep the associations between their music and our lives still are.
Perhaps the most fitting eulogy for The Black Crowes lies in the unpublished conclusion to The Black Crowes Album Project that Don Lane and I started back in 2009. After writing reviews for every Black Crowes album we found ourselves unable to publish our reviews of the great, lost album “Band”. Separately we both realized that the album – both it’s essence and it’s death – revealed everything about the band and their ultimate destiny. And while it was too painful to post back when the band was still playing, now it feels like the right time.
“If music got to free your mind
Just let it go cause you never know, you never know
If your rhythm ever falls out of time
You can bring it to me and I will make it alright
And if your soul is let go
Oh you never know, no you never know
And if your heart is beating free
For the very first time it’ll be alright”
The Black Crowes Album Project: The Lost Crowes/Band (1997/2005)
Everything you need to know about The Black Crowes is contained in their lost album, “Band”. It is the Rosetta Stone of the science of Croweology. By studying this album all of the secrets of the Crowes, past and future, artistic and commercial, are revealed. Best of all, it’s a damn fine record. In fact, it might be their best.
First, let’s set the record straight: while many people believe that “Band” was recorded after the Furthur tour in the summer of 1997, the principle recording actually took place in April before the tour. Regardless, it was a tumultuous time in Crowes history – by the end of the summer they recorded an album, had it rejected by the record company, pissed off a bunch of still-grieving Deadheads by playing too loud too late, and lost both guitarist Marc Ford and bassist Johnny Colt, effectively ending the Black Crowes.
Yes, they would rise again several times in the subsequent decades, but they’d never be the same. The golden era of the best rock and roll band in the world came to an abrupt end and the seeds of their future were sown. Those very same seeds are still being harvested 17 years later.
Rock and roll bands are inherently combustible organizations. What makes them great is ultimately what breaks them apart. A rock band thrives on tension, the painful compromise of a group of artists subsuming their personal desires for a collective voice. When there is balance there can be perfection. When one voice starts to dominate the fissures manifest and grow.
“Band” is perfectly named because it represents a band in balance artistically, regardless of how difficult relationships were behind the scenes. Over the course of the album all sides of the Crowes personality are represented. In it we hear the blues roots, the southern swagger, the epic drama and the hippie Americana from the four preceding albums. There is a balance between light and dark, between riffs and melody, and between songs and jams.
Musically, “Band” is powerful. This comes directly from the bottom, with drummer Steve Gorman perfectly channeling his two primary influences: the swing of Ringo and the thunder of Bonzo. Bassist Johnny Colt turns his best and most diverse performance, sometimes in lock-step with Gorman and other times dropping snaky lines that elevate the songs. Chris is in perfect voice, a mixture of control and power, with the ability to modulate his instrument as the song dictates. Eddie Harsch layers on both organ and piano, creating a rich sonic landscape through his aural textures. Most interesting, however, are the two guitarists, Rich Robinson and Marc Ford, who are virtually inseparable, weaving lines together and playing in unison.
Within the Crowes there are two foundational partnerships: the obvious duo of the two brothers, counterbalancing riffs and melody, songs and jams, hard and soft. But there is also another pair, the guitarists. Let it be said that the competition and cooperation between Rich and Marc is a game-changer. Neither has ever been as good without the other. On “Band” they are playing with one voice and it’s almost impossible to separate them and figure out who’s doing what.
Lyrically, Chris is in a very strong place. The songs are sincere and poetic, but more accessible than tunes from a few years earlier. It’s astounding to compare the lyrics on “Band” with the lyrics on “By Your Side”. The drop-off is clear and it’s obvious that Chris put his energy into his solo work after this period. Which lyric sounds more authentic: “If it ever stops raining/we can dry our eyes” or “when it’s giving and no taking/I will be by your side”?
Songwise, “Predictable” is the only weak spot, and even that is well executed filler. There are musical moments throughout the LP that are just magical. The breakdown in “Paint an Eight” that recalls the energy of “No Speak No Slave”. The bridge in “Another Roadside Tragedy” that feels like an oasis on a long journey. The guitar hooks and thumping bass line of “If It Ever Stops Raining”. The yearning slide on “Wyoming and Me”. The screams and dirty guitars on “Never Forget this Song”. The appealingly off-key background vocals on “Lifevest”. The infectious funkiness of “Grinnin”. The broken beauty of “My Heart’s Killing Me”. This is a record packed with strong songs.
Commercially, it appears that 1997/1998 was a watershed moment for the band. While the Crowes came out of the starting gate with a huge selling album, the challenge became that record companies don’t accept a decline in sales, regardless of how artistically compelling subsequent releases might be. The Band seems to have been the point where the suits exerted control and shelved a sincere artistic statement in favor of a demanding a facsimile of Shake Your Money Maker. In fairness to the record company a lot of casual fans really love By Your Side. Unsurprisingly the diehards did not fully embrace the new Crowes and the split between the two fanbases became irreparable.
From this point on the Crowes vacillated between trying to appeal to casual fans versus trying to satisfy the diehards. Unfortunately it’s a no-win proposition. Casual fans are fickle and it’s hard for any band to stay popular for multiple decades. Diehard fans demand purity and set expectations that limit creative growth.
When the golden-era Crowes finally reunited in 2005 it was under the moniker of “All Join Hands”, lifted from the Band’s “Wyoming & Me”. And while it appears to be a simple statement, to me it suggested something much more profound. It was an acknowledgement that the band (the Black Crowes) was killed when the Band (the album) was killed. Losing that album cost more than 10 great songs. It cost everything.
And so a great album will always be tinged with sadness. To listen to these songs is to hear the death of the greatest rock and roll band of the 1990s.
Magic and loss.
“Glory Beyond Their Reach”
By the time 1997 rolled around, the Black Crowes were in their 8th year. They’d grown from unabashed party crashers (Shake Your Money Maker) to swaggering chart toppers (The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion). Unsatisfied, they kept climbing, delivering the magestic amorica while barely holding it together. That record’s follow up, Three Snakes & One Charm, was a psychedelic hangover, frayed yet fierce and beautiful.
Along the way, they overcame sneering critics, even endearing themselves to the skeptical founding fathers of rock and roll. By 1997, they’d shared the stage with members of the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Grateful Dead, among others. They’d survived notorious infighting, and the wear and tear of constant touring.
Record company demands dictated another album. And so they went to work, endearingly naive and fearless as always. They had earned the right to survey their view and reflect on their lives. The record they made — Band — reveals men restless and still unsatisfied despite – and maybe because of – all they’d achieved.
A fresh listen, nearly 18 years after its recording, and with the context of all that’s transpired since, is eye opening. They were turning 30 at the time of it’s recording, still so young, yet wiser for their time together, still chasing something that may not have been all it was cracked up to be.
Side A’s highlight is Another Roadside Tragedy, featuring drummer Steve Gorman’s unmistakable shuffle and keyboardist Eddie Hawrsch’s organ. It’s the entire band in their pocket, a classic, care free road song with a glorious instrumental interlude. Guitarists Rich Robinson and Marc Ford are one and the same, so in touch that it’s hard to tell them apart — a striking hallmark of the entire album.
Every song seems to come easy, including “If It Ever Stops Raining,” which would have fit on virtually every record they ever made. What sets it apart and makes it so perfect at this time in their career are front man Chris Robinson’s lyrics:
People looking for fortune and fame
They don’t know it’s all the same
It’s like every other game
You know there’s got to be a loser, alright.
If it ever stops raining, we can dry our eyes.
To fans, it seemed The Black Crowes had achieved everything they set out to do, yet it wasn’t enough. The band wasn’t happy.
But Side B reveals a sense of acceptance and hope, best captured on two songs with twin, vintage Rich descending riffs.
Ship wrecked, life vest, you swim to shore or you sink away
Mistakes, bad tase, just spit it out and it goes away
How can I make something so wrong, something so right
And the triumphant “Peace Anyway,” which closes the album:
Giving up don’t make it right
You’ll find peace, anyway
Speaking for all those who love(d) The Black Crowes, as of this writing, January 16, 2015, the day after the band, ironically, broke up, let’s hope Chris remembers those words.
What a Band.