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Buyer's Guide: The Black Crowes

It ain’t easy and it ain’t always pretty being The Most Rock ’N’ Roll Rock ’N’ Roll Band In The World, but someone’s gotta do it.

If ever there was a band that was born too late, it’s the Black Crowes. Frontman Chris Robinson recently stated: “We like the way records sounded from 1968 to 1972.” Which is hardly surprising coming from a dude who views the modern world through a haze of marijuana smoke and looks like he’s just got back from Woodstock. But as he proudly declares: “This band has always been out of sync with whatever is going on, because we couldn’t care less what’s going on, ever!” When the Black Crowes released their debut album Shake Your Money Maker in 1990 a new form of alternative rock, led by Jane’s Addiction and Faith No More, was mapping out the future. But the Crowes – from Atlanta, Georgia, led by Chris and his guitar-playing kid brother Rich – played rock’n’roll the old-fashioned way. They wore bell-bottoms; they liked to jam; they dug the Grateful Dead. They existed in a world of their own. And, almost 20 years on, they still do. At their commercial peak in the early 90s the Black Crowes were one of the biggest bands in America. But they had a stubborn independent streak. They made the records they wanted to make, and they rarely played their biggest hit songs live. They didn’t give a fuck about playing by anybody else’s rules. Subsequently they were dubbed The Most Rock ’N’ Roll Rock ’N’ Roll Band In The World. When the Crowes became marginalised in the late 90s it was their own doing. As Chris Robinson said back in 1992: “You gotta put your foot down – and sometimes it’s in a big pile of shit.” Over two decades the Black Crowes have been through good times and bad. In particular the relationship between the Robinson brothers has always been a battle, and in 2001 led to the band splitting for four years. But as Chris explains: “The bond between us is so strong in a musical sense that it brings us together.” Today the Crowes are still very much outsiders. Their 2008 album Warpaint was released via their independent label Silver Arrow, and although sales stalled at 200,000, Chris remains philosophical. “We’d like to be a bigger band,” concedes, but why get bent out of shape about it? We like where we are. We’re a little eccentric, a bit crazy, but that’s because this band is so fucking important to us.”

ESSENTIAL Classics 

Shake Your Money Maker

DEF AMERICAN, 1990

Produced by Rick Rubin’s right- hand man, George Drakoulias, the Black Crowes’ debut kicked off with the 70s-style rock of Twice As Hard and never looked forward. The key hit single, Hard To Handle, was originally recorded by soul legend Otis Redding back in 1968.

But the Crowes were no hackneyed bar band. Their youthful energy, and great songs such as Jealous Again and the acoustic ballad She Talks To Angels, connected with a 90s audience.

With eight million units shifted worldwide, Shake Your Money Maker is still the Black Crowes’ biggest-selling album.

SHAKE YOUR MONEY MAKER 

The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion

DEF AMERICAN, 1992

The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion topped the US chart (still the only Crowes album to do so) and remains the Black Crowes’ finest work.

With a brilliant new guitarist, Marc Ford, replacing the errant Jeff Cease, the band were on a roll, cutting the whole album in just eight days. Its heavy, funky, soulful rock‘n’roll – best illustrated by the snaking Remedy and the stoned jam Thorn In My Pride – carried echoes of the Stones, Zeppelin, Dylan, Skynyrd and Sly & The Family Stone.

In essence this album is the Crowes’ Sticky Fingers

THE SOUTHERN HARMONY AND MUSICAL COMPANION 

SUPERIOR Reputation-cementing

Amorica

AMERICAN, 1994

For serious Crowes aficionados this third album represents the band’s artistic peak.

Amorica was markedly different to the first two albums. Opener Gone kicked ass, but the overall vibe was more mellow, trippy and introspective. The Crowes were extending their reach.

The album’s peak is Wiser Time, an uplifting, spiritual psychedelic jam. The single High Head Blues evoked the swamp-rock of Creedence Clearwater Revival. At the end there’s Descending, a beautiful, world- weary ballad finished with a wonderful piano coda.

The Crowes would never quite reach such heights again.

AMORICA

Jimmy Page & The Black Crowes Live At The Greek 

TVT, 2000

It started, of course, with a jam. At a Crowes gig in London in June 1999 Jimmy Page joined the band for an encore. They played Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love, and it felt so good that they decided to tour together.

The resulting double live album features landmark Zeppelin songs and blues standards, but, due to contractual obligations, none of the Crowes material they played.

The master guitarist gels nicely with Rich Robinson, and Chris Robinson proves that if Zeppelin were ever going to tour without Robert Plant he’s the only man for the job.

LIVE AT THE GREEK 

The Lost Crowes

AMERICAN, 2006

Not just a bunch of B-sides and out-takes, but two complete and previously unreleased albums.

On disc one of The Lost Crowes is Band, an album recorded in 1997 but abandoned when the Crowes switched labels and cut the more mainstream By Your Side. Far superior to the preceding Three Snakes And One Charm, it’s a genuine lost classic.

On disc two is Tall, an album recorded in 1993 and then shelved until six of its 16 songs were reworked on Amorica. The standout track (inexplicably left off Amorica) is Feathers, a meditative psychedelic blues.

An essential purchase for the Crowes connoisseur.

THE LOST CROWES 

By Your Side

COLUMBIA, 1998

Chris Robinson described the making of this album as “the worst period of my life”. Following the departures of guitarist Marc Ford and bassist Johnny Colt, the band had signed to a new label, Columbia, who demanded a radio-friendly album in the vein of Shake Your Money Maker.

“It was the only time we put down out instinctual defences and listened to other people,” Robinson complained.

But it worked. By Your Side is a fine album. The Crowes blasted out high-octane rock on Kickin’ My Heart Around, and hit a soulful groove on Only A Fool. Even at his lowest ebb, Chris was still the best singer in rock’n’roll. 

BY YOUR SIDE

GOOD Worth exploring

Warpaint

SILVER ARROW, 2008

The Crowes’ ‘comeback’ album is all about vibe. Recorded near Woodstock – in a sense, the band’s spiritual home – Warpaint was completed in a week.

“That organic trip is really where it’s at for us,” said Chris Robinson, describing the album’s earthy blend of rock, blues, country, funk and soul.

With Marc Ford out of the band again, and Eddie Harsch gone too, the Crowes found ideal replacements in keyboard player Adam MacDougall and North Mississippi All Stars guitarist Luther Dickinson.

Warpaint might be the Black Crowes’ lowest-selling studio album, but it shares the timeless quality of their best work.

WARPAINT 

_Freak ’__N’ Roll... Into The Fog_ 

EAGLE, 2006

Where better for the Black Crowes to cut a double live album than the Fillmore, San Francisco’s legendary hippie hangout?

Recorded on the second date of a five-night residency in 2005, it captures the reunited Crowes in celebratory mood. Indeed, the band were so happy to be back together that they even gave the classic hits they often refused to play, such as Hard To Handle and She Talks To Angels. Best of all is the 10-minute Nonfiction, with the Crowes in all their self-indulgent, cosmic-rock glory.

The Crowes have always been a great live act, and here they delivered a great live album.

FREAK 'N' ROLL: INTO THE FOG

Three Snakes And One Charm 

AMERICAN, 1996

“It’s my favourite,” Chris Robinson says of the Crowes’ fourth album. But few would agree with him. As the singer admits: “It’s funny, because people in England hated this record. It got the worst reviews.”

Three Snakes... is an erratic mix of signature-Crowes roots-rock and left-field weirdness. The more straightforward songs – the swaggering Under A Mountain, the country blues Girl From A Pawnshop – work best, but the curveballs are too self-consciously ‘out there’: the clunking freak-funk of (Only) Halfway To Everywhere, the faux-jazz break on How Much For Your Wings? 

THREE SNAKES AND ONE CHARM

AVOID

Lions

V2, 2001

In 2001 the Black Crowes ended up doing what most rock bands eventually do after a decade or more on the album/tour treadmill: they got tired, got pissed-off with each other, made a crap album and split up.

Lions is by far the worst Crowes album. It has one great song, the joyous, gospel-inspired Soul Singing, but the rest is so laboured that one critic likened it to the sound of “a tractor trying to get out of a ditch”.

In the summer of 2001 the Crowes embarked on a US tour with Oasis, knowingly dubbed the Tour Of Brotherly Love. But after Chris quit the band on Halloween, he and Rich didn’t speak for three years. 

LIONS

ESSENTIAL PLAYLIST

TWICE AS HARD 

Shake Your Money Maker

SHE TALKS TO ANGELS 

Shake Your Money Maker

JEALOUS AGAIN 

Shake Your Money Maker

REMEDY

The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion

THORN IN MY PRIDE 

The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion

MY MORNING SONG LIVE 

The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion

GIRL FROM A PAWNSHOP LIVE 

Three Snakes And One Charm

HIGH HEAD BLUES 

Amorica

WISER TIME LIVE 

Amorica 

DESCENDING LIVE 

Amorica

KICKIN' MY HEART AROUND 

By Your Side

SOUL SINGING  

Lions

FEATHERS LIVE 

FEATHERS

The Lost Crowes

NONFICTION LIVE 

Freak ’N’ Roll... Into The Fog

LOCUST STREET_ _

Warpaint 

THIS FEATURE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN CLASSIC ROCK ISSUE 131. 

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