"The Most Rock 'n' Roll Rock 'n' Roll Band in the World" is the claim boldly staked by the Black Crowes on the cover of the press kit for their new Columbia Records debut CD, By Your Side. "My God," I thought at first glimpse, "What a stupid thing to say! Who the hell do they think they are, the bloody Rolling Stones?" Los Crowes Negros are still peach-fuzzed lads compared to Mick, Keith, Ronnie, and Charlie. And while the Black Crowes recent sold-out three-night stand at the Beacon Theatre was an impressive gathering of their hard partying congregation, it wasn't long ago that the Rolling Stones played an equal number of nefarious nocturnes at Madison Square Garden, a slightly LARGER venue.
Not to be too hard on the Black Crowes, in the dozen years since these Georgia boys took flight from their nest in Atlanta, they've recorded five passionate albums of down-home, soulful, slightly psychedelic rock'n'roll, lensed a few heavily rotated videos, toured the world and seen places most people couldn't find with an atlas and a magnifying glass. They've even dabbled in political activism via their association with the Pro Pot hemp cats at NORML [National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws]. This mid-90s association, I think, was partially responsible for the meandering, jam-oriented direction (or lack thereof) of the Amorica and Three Snakes and One Charm CDs. In short, brothers Chris (vocalist) and Rich Robinson (guitarist) and their revolving door of cohorts have done all the things shaggy haired, velvet bell-bottom wearing, Les Paul slinging, skinny white millionaires do and they've looked fabulous doing it.
So now they're at it again. The tunes on By Your Side and performances on their new tour are a glorious revival of what the Black Crowes do best and what put them on the fast track to higher tax brackets in the first place. They rock out with hip-shaking drums, black'n'blue guitars and tragic tales of bar room romance that you can dance your ass off to till last call and then crank up again when ya get home for a little horizontal bopping before the sun comes up and the hangover begins. Now that's what I call music.
Several buckets of new blood can take partial credit for curing what's been ailing the band lately. Former lead guitarist Marc "Born to Solo" Ford has finally hit the road. They've booted up a new bassist by the name of Sven Pipien (no, he's not Japanese). And perhaps the most crucial figure in this conspiracy of redemption is producer Kevin Shirley whose "set up and go!" attitude and roots-oriented re-direction enabled the band to resurrect the rhythmic drive and song-oriented focus that's been missing since their second disc The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. Audley Freed has been helping the band out on guitar on the road and thus far seems much more of a team player than his self-indulgent predecessor. Ol' Audley may not have earned his wings yet, but if he can make it through the tour alive, he's a keeper.
Lyrically, By Your Side is about the least ambitious bunch of words that the Black Crowes have ever tarred and feathered into verses and choruses. But wait, that's not such a bad thing. On previous albums, Chris Robinson has really gone to church with haunting visions of addiction, salvation, superstition and, of course, love. His new serenades may not be as poetic, or original - it's a short trip from their new single "Stop Kickin' My Heart Around" to Tom Petty's "Stop Dragging My Heart Around," but the stripped down nature of the latest lyrics on songs like "Go Faster" and "Only a Fool" are short enough to be chewed up and spat out without slowing down the greasy-fried-chicken-eating grooves the Crowes are finally dishing up again. It's damn good eating and a recipe to remember next time Chris gets the urge to let his pen run off like a wild horse galloping into its secret valley.
It ain't no secret where the Black Crowes get their ideas. Since their debut album Shake Your Money Maker came out in 1990, comparisons have piled up neck high to everyone from the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart/Faces, Humble Pie, Aerosmith, and even a little Zeppelin and Hendrix thrown in. Kind of odd when you think about it; an American band trying HARD to sound like British bands that were doing their damnedest to imitate original American rhythm & blues artists like Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and Otis Redding. Well, as another Dixie star, Scarlet O'Hara once said, "Oh fiddle dee, I'll think about it tomorrow." No use getting too upset where the music comes from so long as it sounds better the louder you play it. Interesting side note though: Around the same time the Crowes were ascending, the musical skies were thick with similarly influenced bands from major acts like Guns n' Roses, to lesser known, but just as genuine sounding primal movers like the London Quireboys and Dogs d'Amour. The Black Crowes, however, are the only R&B birds from that era still flying today. Who'd have thought that stoned and steady would win the race?
And oh my dear brothers and sisters let me testify 'bout the best part: The Black Crowes can do it live, in concert, without a net, in front of a few thousand of the most boogie-bottomed, hard-drinking, disreputably sexy bunch of vixens and villains to be seen since the Rolling Stones played Altamont in '69, or the Meadowlands last year. As the ever gyrating Jet Set Jenna is my witness, the Crowes two-hour-plus set at the Beacon Theatre on February 27, 1999 was an inspirational celebration of all the sweaty, smoky, original sinful things a rock'n'roll show was meant to be. From the opening riff of "Remedy" to the closing chorus of "She Talks to Angels" and every greatest hit in between, the band's energy was as high as the cannabis cloud wafting from front row to the back of the balcony. Lanky, languid Chris Robinson pranced and preened around the stage like the barefoot reincarnation of Jumping Jack Flash. And the band rocked on, playing hotter than the burning of Atlanta, proving themselves to be, at least in terms of their live show, as "Hard to Handle" as ever, maybe even harder. If the Stones ever do decide to roll over and call it a night, and the Crowes can maintain the momentum they've rebuilt with the new By Your Side album and tour, they just might inherit the Worlds Greatest laurels after all.