By Scott McLennan
You would never suspect from this big ol’ rock ’n’ roll show that the Black Crowes were essentially toast just a few years ago.
The Black Crowes at the Xfinity Center, Mansfield, MA, on September 15.
According to Black Crowes scripture, on a good day we can part the sea, on a bad day glory is beyond reach.
The manic depressive roller coaster, suggested by the words in their song “Wiser Time,” pretty well reflects the career trajectory of brothers Chris and Rich Robinson. The pair have alternately charmed and infuriated fans, bandmates, and various facets of the music business for more than 30 years now.
Singer Chris and guitarist Rich had an acrimonious falling out that effectively ended the Black Crowes in 2015, capping years of sibling tension that frequently drew comparisons to the Kinks’ Davies brothers and Oasis’s Gallagher brothers (who were part of the tremendous “Brotherly Love Tour” that featured the Crowes and Oasis in 2001).
Longtime Black Crowes drummer Steve Gorman followed suit with a tell-most (if not all) autobiography that pretty much painted the Robinson brothers as a couple of jerks who ruined every and any good opportunity put before them. They shattered bandmates’ psyches and pissed off Led Zeppelin great Jimmy Page. Worse, they refused to stick to the down and dirty rock ’n’ roll that made them famous in the first place, often flirting with sometimes trippier, sometimes dirgier, sometimes folkier music. The result confounded a fan base that had fallen in love with the radio friendly, fist-pumping sound of the first album.
Then, in true Robinson brothers fashion, Chris and Rich announced in 2019 that they were reassembling the Black Crowes. But they would be joined by all new members. They were disbanding their respective post-Crowes bands (both of which included former Crowes members). The plan was to tour in 2020, commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Black Crowes smash debut Shake Your Money Maker by performing the record in its entirety each night along with a handful of other hits and catalog cuts.
To go along with that, the Robinson brothers served up a deluxe CD repackaging of Shake Your Money Maker that includes a lengthy essay penned by Rolling Stone magazine mainstay David Fricke. This turns out to be a rebuttal of Gorman’s version of events. In the Robinsons’ authorized version, the pair always constituted the Black Crowes, relying on a revolving cast of supporting players that ranged from legendary keyboard player Chuck Leavell to a hired-gun drummer from Kentucky named Gorman.
The coronavirus pandemic delayed the Black Crowes tour by a year. During that time, the rejiggered lineup was further modified to now include longtime Crowes bassist Sven Pipien and new recruits Isaiah Mitchell on guitar, Joel Robinow on keys, and Brian Griffin on drums.
That’s the crew the Robinsons rolled into Mansfield’s Xfinity Center with on Wednesday night. Walking into the show, it was hard not to harbor a smidgen of cynicism. It’s not as if the Chris Robinson Brotherhood or Rich Robinson’s The Magpie Salute had been breaking box office records, selling loads of albums, or generating strings of radio hits. So it is logical to conclude that a couple of guys in their 50s might well grab an opportunity to cash out with a nostalgia tour.
My cynicism vanished about a minute into the opening number, “Twice As Hard.” The Robinsons were not messing around; the raucous sound thundered from a stage design that was part barroom, part party shack. There were a ton of lights and a couple of backup singers. In other words, the Robinsons had engineered a big ol’ rock ’n’ roll show.
You would never suspect that this band was essentially toast just a few years ago. In fact, back during its last round of full touring in 2013 the Black Crowes played clubs and small theaters, hitting bigger stages only when sharing headlining status with others.
The Black Crowes 2021 version, however, is not part of some humble strategy, a slow buildup back to the big time. Instead, this is a band that is playing with supreme confidence — it blasts away the detritus that had been clinging to the Crowes’ legacy by way of a focused and poignant concert that hit on all of rock ’n’ roll’s core freak power tenets.
The Robinson brothers were smiling, engaged, and deeply into the music. They summoned all of the rebellious joy their music holds and did so without sounding cloying or desperate.
The show began with a run through all the tunes on Shake Your Money Maker, which is surprisingly well sequenced for a live performance. The disc’s emotional peaks ebb and flow nicely: hard-charging numbers such as “Jealous Again” and Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” are neatly balanced by the soulful balladry of “Seeing Things” and the slow-burning “She Talks to Angels.” Then the band revs up for the concluding (and rarely played until now) “Struttin’ Blues” and the capper, “Stare it Cold”
Mitchell and Rich Robinson blend well as a guitar team, pretty much alleviating any pining for the other talented players who have signed on to be a non-Robinson Crowe.
The “SYMM” portion of the show was outstanding, recapturing the soul and swagger this band brought to the scene upon its arrival, complemented with the finesse acquired over three decades absorbing the success of the album being celebrated.
Chris Robinson was frenetic and frisky, and just to prove that he is not too old to rock ’n’ roll at age 54, he brought out 75-year-old Peter Wolf to join in on a couple of songs. Wolf, introduced by Chris Robinson as hometown rock ’n’ roll royalty, was his usual fabulous and flamboyant self, taking charge of the proceedings. He led everyone through “Cry One More Time,” his first big ballad for the J. Geils Band. The song has also been a hit for Gram Parsons, whom the Robinsons have long paid homage to in their shows by covering his tunes.
Wolf then fronted a supercharged run through the Bobby Womack vehicle “Looking for a Love,” a tune that the Geils band later fashioned into one of its patented house party blowouts.
The Crowes then returned to hits of their own, starting with “Wiser Time,” which was the one song of the evening in which you missed some of the chemistry of the earlier “classic lineups,” a magic that made the song absolutely transcendent. In Mansfield we got a very good “Wiser,” but not a “I’m-quitting-my-job-and-running-away-with-this-band” version.
“Thorn in My Pride” was tightened from the sprawling versions it had evolved into in concerts of yore. Here it recalled something closer to the version first aired on 1992’s Southern Harmony and Musical Companion album. The rollicking “Remedy” from that record brought the concert to a close.
The band returned for an encore of the Rolling Stones’ “It’s Only Rock n Roll (But I Like It).” Is there a better way to end a bona fide rock ’n’ roll show than with a reading from the books of the Saints — Mick and Keith?
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to the Boston Globe, Providence Journal, 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.