Well, you certainly have to give The Black Crowes credit for having cojones the size of the Georgia Dome. (And that's one cojon per stadium). For emblazoned across the front of the Atlanta band's press kit and all over its clippings is the phrase "The Most Rock n' Roll Rock n' Roll Band in the World," a title recently bestowed upon them by the music journal Melody Maker.
For most bands, that might seem like an idle boast, milking the maximum from a lucky quote. But as those words pertain to The Black Crowes (and to anyone who has seen one of its incendiary live shows), the phrase might simply be stating the obvious. Any other contenders to the title can be counted on one hand.
Adding more cred to the claim, and another chapter to the band's evolving story, is its new record, By Your Side. The group's first studio release in three years (not including last year's boxed set, Sho' Nuff, which collected the band's first four records plus outtakes and live tracks), By Your Side is a gutbucket collection of rock, blues, booze-alongs and ballads. The tunes are all awash in that swampy Southern sound, which hearkens back to the band's first two (and most commercially successful) releases. Jams such as "Kickin' My Heart Around," "Go Faster," "Then She Said My Name" and the Sunday-go-to-meetin' "Go Tell the Congregation" recall the band's earlier, more raw period, while "HorseHead," "Only a Fool," the title track and "Welcome to the Goodtimes" evoke the more ethereal, disciplined and sonically experimental feel of more recent records. In essence By Your Side reveals a seamless merge of both facets of the band's sound without seeming choppy or disjointed in the process.
"Every record we make, we have a specific idea of what we want to do," says guitarist and songwriter Rich Robinson. "With By Your Side, Chris and I wanted to take all the strides we have made as songwriters and put it together in the type of [material] we do best. And that's focused and concise pure rock and roll songs."
"Chris," of course, is brother Chris Robinson, rail-thin front man, vocalist and chief lyricist, who's never at a loss for words in his notebook or in an interview. The yin and yang of the Robinson brothers has been beaten to death in articles, and stories of the fistfights both in the studio and on the road are so familiar now that they've become part of the band's official biography. Filling out the lineup is Steve Gorman (drums), Eddie Harsch (keyboards) and Sven Pipien (bass), with touring guitarist Audley Freed (who, like Harsch, may eventually become an official Crowe). The latter two take the place of the departed Johnny Colt and Marc Ford (who himself replaced original guitarist Jeff Cease). While Robinson has handled most of the guitar parts on all of the Crowes records, By Your Side marks both the first time he has played every lick and, surprisingly, the first on which he solos. He also continued his practice of not taping riffs or ideas that came into his head to remember and use later. If he couldn't remember it, Robinson says, then it probably wasn't any good anyway. (Of course, if Keith Richards followed the same rule, the opening riff of "Satisfaction," taped when a drunken Richards awoke with an idea, picked out a few notes with a recorder running, then promptly fell back asleep, would have never been a reality.)
"It wasn't really that big of a stretch for me," says Robinson of his new guitar work in the studio. "It was actually fun and pretty cool," he says, noting that soloing helped make him feel even more in tune, not with just the most obvious parts of a song but with their buried melodies and components as well. "This record has the same amount of energy as the first one. And while the songs seem like they're easy to get right off the bat, they've got a lot deeper things going on [musically] with a lot of weird shit and layers. 'Remedy' was like that awhile back, and so is 'Kicking My Heart Around' on this one."
"Remedy," in fact, remains one of the band's favorite tunes and, along with "Hard to Handle," "She Talks to Angels," "Sting Me," "Jealous Again," "Twice as Hard" and "Thorn in My Pride," one of its biggest commercial hits. But all of those tunes had come from the first two records. And when the band tried different things -- heavier production and softer percussion with jazzy time signature changes and souped-up guitars -- on the next pair, only "Conspiracy" and "Good Friday" even made ripples. The material was less radio-friendly for sure, but radio was also changing and splitting into tightly compartmentalized formats that are still in effect today. This phenomenon quite ironically is now squeezing rock and roll songs out of rock and roll radio.
When the band first took form in the mid-1980s in Atlanta as Mr. Crowe's Garden, its was one of hundreds of southeastern bands trying its take on the R.E.M.-Athens, Georgia, sound. A move to L.A. and a name change later, The Black Crowes emerged with a new sound that to many wasn't exactly new. The beef for some time on The Black Crowes is that it's a very clever tribute band, recycling riffs, attitude and even clothes from such jam bands of previous eras as the Faces, Humble Pie and Exile on Main Street-period Rolling Stones. But the charge simply does not stick today (and, actually, has not for many years), even though it's a part of almost any story or review. And any music critic who believes that any of those bands he thinks the Crowes are ripping off are wholly original has quite a bit of homework to do. Would anyone have ever heard of the Rolling Stones if it weren't for Muddy Waters?
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"After ten years, it's, like, 'whatever,' " says Robinson. "Most of the comparisons have no bearing on reality. I mean, those bands are big influences, but so are a bunch of others. I'm just saying it's okay to [make a comparison], but also recognize us for our differences. And if you're going to write something about us, take the personal issues out of it. Listen to me, I'm only 29, and I'm talking like I'm 60."
Robinson feels that the music industry as a whole is moving backward instead of forward because of the continuing decline of two elements: human touch and actual knowledge of a tactile instrument. "Technology is becoming more and more involved, and it breeds more conveniences, and art isn't supposed to be convenient," Robinson says. "Sitting behind a computer and stroking a few keys or taking somebody else's song and rapping over it does not make you a musician, just like me playing a video soccer game doesn't make me a soccer player. I mean, why don't you just pay someone to see a big fucking karaoke jam, because that's what it is."
Not a Crowes show. Of course, this is a band where no two set lists are alike (and indeed are often jotted down just before the band hits the stage). And, given its improvisational bent, the band plays no two versions of any song the same. This is not the concert to go to if you want the songs to sound "just like they do on the record." Or at the karaoke bar.
Live '99 with Lenny Kravitz, The Black Crowes, Everlast and Cree Summer takes place Sunday, May 2, at 8 p.m. at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. Tickets are $26 and $46. Call (713)629-3700 or (281)363-3300.