Music Commentary: The Black Crowes — Redux?

When have the Robinsons ever done what was expected of them? And when have they ever really cared?

By Scott McLennan

The Robinson Brothers. Photo: courtesy of the artists.

On Monday night, for the first time in more than six years, Chris and Rich Robinson performed together as the Black Crowes. The concert was in New York City and capped a whirlwind day of media buzz confirming all the rumors about a Black Crowes reunion.

There was an interview on the Howard Stern Show. A feature by Rolling Stone magazine. A social media campaign and attendant online chatter by folks either loving or hating every minute of it.

Amidst the swirl, the Robinsons announced a massive summer tour, which comes to the Xfinity Center in Mansfield on July 22.  The shows are reported to feature a complete run through of the Black Crowes’ debut album Shake Your Money Maker, plus “all the hits.” Tickets went on sale immediately, rather than a slow roll out of several hype-inducing presales.

The large venues selected for the shows; the ticket prices (ranging from VIP experiences that cost $500 to lawn seats for about $30); the focus on “SYMM”; and the decision to not include any musician who had been part of the Black Crowes journey from 1990 to an acrimonious split between the brothers after the band’s 2013 tour were pretty much met with a chorus of “money grab,” “sellout,” and “this is BS” comments in the digital forum.

But let’s reel it in for a second here: When have the Robinsons ever done what was expected of them? And when have they ever really cared?

Two counts alone establish a rock ’n’ roll authenticity that makes the Black Crowes exactly the kind of spectacle that fans and critics alike have not been able to look away from for 30 years. People complaining about the utter inconsistency of the Robinsons are probably the children of the same types who complained that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was too unlike “Please Please Me.”

The lean, stripped, and raw sound of “SYMM” yielded the band’s greatest commercial success. So naturally the Robinsons followed that with a string of records that sounded nothing like it.

But as they pissed off fans who wanted more “Twice as Hard” and “Jealous Again” type songs, the Crowes wooed many new fans intrigued by the more expansive and psychedelic forays the band embarked on. Then the Crowes left-turned on those projects with everything from glittery glam-influenced songs to country-leaning hoots.

Essentially, the Black Crowes became a cauldron of Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead, and Gram Parsons fixations, along the way cycling through numerous guitarists, bassists, and keyboard players.

Drummer Steve Gorman hung around for all of it and spilled the beans about the hazards of being a Black Crowe in an autobiography titled Hard to Handle.  The book arrived as rumors of a Black Crowes reunion started to surface. Coincidence?

Then again, Gorman is among those on the outside looking in as the latest Black Crowes lineup includes drummer Raj Ojha, bass player Tim Lefebvre, keyboard player Joel Robinow, and guitarist Isaiah Mitchell.

After the Crowes split, singer Chris Robinson focused on his band the Chris Robinson Brotherhood (sans any familial blood) and guitarist Rich Robinson eventually turned his namesake solo band into The Magpie Salute (not to confuse anyone who may mistake a magpie and crow, of course). The warring siblings traded insults in media appearances and vowed to never again make music together.

However, neither Robinson brother enjoyed the success they attained as members of the Black Crowes. And whenever either did engage in the old Crowes catalog, the results were never quite as good as what they had when playing those songs together.

So, here we are once again gazing at the commotion on the side of the road — wondering what the heck is going on.

The Robinsons gave us an answer Monday night in the form of an encore to their “We’re Back” set at the Bowery Ballroom: “It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll.”

See you in Mansfield.

Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, The Portland Press Herald and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.

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