It was easy for an older generation to make fun of the Black Crowes when they first broke back in 1990. Their debut, Shake Your Money Maker, was shameless redunda-rock—equal parts Stones and Faces knock-offs, with some stolen Allmans boogie licks tossed in to goose their Georgia kinship, plus a funkified cover of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” that made purists’ ears bleed.
But compared to the ugly hair metal bands that were all the rage at the time, the Crowes’ nostalgia act somehow felt fresh to anyone under 25, even if it had all been done before. This was a band that took your big brother’s rock & roll—the kind he used to blast on his 8-track or KMET while driving out to Cal Jam 2—fed it back to a new generation, yet didn’t manage to fuck it all up. They were the guiltiest of guilty aural pleasures.
The Crowes have lasted this long in spite of occasional hiatuses and perennial lineup changes—two which just occurred last month, with the sudden departure of guitarist Marc Ford and lanky keyboardist Ed Hawrysch; they’ve already been replaced for this current touring leg—because of the double-threat of Chris and Rich Robinson, brothers expertly skilled at the art of riff-craft (and the occasional punch-out, following in the fine fraternal rock & roll tradition of the Davies and Wilsons).
When Rich slashes out the intros to “Twice As Hard,” “Sting Me,” “Go Faster,” “Kicking My Heart Around” or myriad others, it’s a glorious throwback to the dive bars and garages from whence the first wave of post-Beatles bands emerged. And when Chris—underappreciated as a blues-rock singer, but he can bellow in the finest Van Morrison/early Jagger tradition—rears his head back and lets his tonsils fly, it’s like he’s continuing a bloodline of Southern Baptist preacher boys demanding you come to Jesus or be damned to hellfire. He’s a howler, sure, but he can croon like a bird in a choir also—Crowes ballads he’s mastered, like “Thorn In My Pride,” “She Talks to Angels,” “Soul Singing” and “Sister Luck,” to name a handful—can be some of the most painful, passionate songs you’ve ever heard from any rock band of any era when Chris curls his tongue around them.
Back on the road for a year now after an extended break, they’re set to make a new album in ‘07, their first studio disc since 2001’s Lions (which was as much an underrated gem as 1998’s By Your Side). Supposedly they’re leaning more in a psychedelic direction, a vein they tapped out for Three Snakes and One Charm, their least successful (meaning most unlistenable) record, but as is everything with los bros Robinson, minds can change every 10 minutes.
What I know for sure: the Crowes played Austin’s South By Southwest festival/music industry screw-a-thon back in ’01, and in a town that was infested with 1,000 bands from around the world, each trying to out-hip and out-trend the other, it was the Black Crowes, in a brief set at Stubb’s Barbecue, who emerged as the best band I saw all week, probably because there wasn’t a single note of pandering bullshit on stage—just “Here we are, here’s what we’ve got.” And that night, in that town at that moment, that sonic statement was fresh, new and original, coming from what sounded like the best rock & roll band ever, if only for just an hour. Sunday in the desert, they surely won’t be anything less.
The Black Crowes at Key Club Morongo, Morongo Casino, 29500 Seminole Dr., Cabazon, (951) 755-5391; www.morongocasinoresort.com. Sun., 8 p.m. $45. 18+.