Tuesday, March 3, 2009
What's So Bad About The Black Crowes?
If someone played me a Black Crowes album and I had never even heard of them, I would assume that they no longer existed. I would undoubtedly compare them to the Rolling Stones and The Faces, two of my favorite bands, and marvel that their sound has that same sort of "timelessness" to it, the same strutting guitar beats and unapologetic, unadorned rock n' roll sound, sure, but the timelessness more than anything; the rare and remarkable ability not to sound dated. If someone showed me photos of the Black Crowes, I would say they were probably a 60's or 70's band. Maybe they played at Woodstock or after the Burritos at Altamont. Maybe they hailed from San Francisco or London or New York. Maybe they stayed in the Hollywood Hills with Joni Mitchell and the Byrds, the Stones in '69, The GTOs and Jim Morrison.
But I would've been wrong. The Black Crowes released their debut album Shake Your Money Maker in 1990, when hair metal was still king and grunge was just a shot away from taking over the music scene. The Crowes fit into no such category. The first album is full of ballsy, bluesy rock and spawned, what was it, 5, singles? It sold 5 million copies, probably a bit more by now, and was a great success, especially "She Talks To Angels", their big hit. But two years later with the release of (one of my top ten favorite albums and what I'd call their unbridled masterpiece) The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion, The Crowes sort of lost touch with their wide fan base. And thank Keith! I mean, the album debuted highly and sold well at first, but the jocks and cheerleaders who were top-40, fair-weather music fans probably stopped digging them. And it's peculiar that this was a group whose underground or cult following really emerged after they got famous. If the Crowes "sold-out", they did it on their debut, certainly not in the records that have followed, which isn't the way it usually works. (And I don't count myself as someone who thinks they sold out on By Your Side just because they got glam). Amorica got attention for its controversial cover (pubic hair peaking out of a bikini bottom, oh no!) but not for its mass public appeal. And again, this album is wholly fantastic. Three Snakes And One Charm was released when Chris Robinson was heavily into drugs, and from what I've heard, the album suffers mostly because of that (it's still good, but not quite up to par with Southern Harmony and Amorica). They hit their strut again with By Your Side, lost it a bit with Lions, and last year they released a celebrated new album called Warpaint.
You can't really understand the Black Crowes purely by record; seeing them live is absolutely necessary. In concert, they are transcendent, otherworldly... the air smells sweet with herb, the lights come in colors everywhere, and the crowd can get loose and groove. Chris Robinson, possessing a rare and uncanny magnetism, can be Patti Smith one moment and Robert Plant the next, singing his lungs out, improvising, as if the catalog of great music is in his palm and he only has to select the next tune. And believe me, the Crowes know great music. They often cover Gram Parsons or the Burrito Brothers, the Stones, the Band, the Beatles. They have an ever-evolving set list and you never know what will be next. The internet may have ruined the element of surprise in that regard for most every band, but not the Black Crowes. When I saw them in September of 2006 at D.C.'s 9:30 Club, on night two of their two-night-six-hour stay, Rich Robinson played and sung "You Got The Silver". It was the first time they ever played that live, and I can't leave it to coincidence (as that's always been one of my favorite songs, Stones or otherwise).
I enjoy the politics and uncompromising integrity of this band--they aren't afraid to speak their mind and make the music they want to listen to, and on their own terms. That's something I fervently admire. And I'm glad they don't play stadiums and arenas, because being a big Crowes fan is like being a member of an exclusive club, and a ticket to A Night With The Black Crowes is more like an invitation to escape, a feel-good high that lasts for hours; a high that is the result not of drugs or alcohol or stage banter or pyrotechnics, a high not from screaming or being rubbed-up on by some sketchy dude or elbowed in the face by a careless teenager, a high purely from the eloquence of music.