By Dean Goodman
After an ill-advised flirtation with Grateful Dead fans and the departure of two deadweight band members, the Black Crowes are still alive and kicking.
The group is one of the few mainstream American rock bands to endure since the late 1980s, often despite the best efforts of co-founders Chris and Rich Robinson. Not only did the brothers' occasional hatred of one another almost kill the band, its last two records were commercial and critical busts.
Now the Atlanta-based Crowes have a new attitude, a new label, a new lineup and a new album that recalls the Southern-fried swagger of their first two multi-platinum efforts,
It is a cliche to say a band has rediscovered its roots and the Robinsons are not entirely happy about being cast as latter-day prodigal sons. Every album is "an accumulation of our musical experiences and our personal experiences, too," maintained Chris Robinson, aged 32, the band's vocalist.
In which case its new album,
(Columbia), the band's fifth, would be the product of a litany of unhappy experiences.
"You have divorce and then you fire someone and then someone quits and then you change labels, and there's all this stuff going on," Rich Robinson, aged 29, the band's guitarist, said.
Perhaps most frustrating from fans' perspectives was the Crowes' deviation from traditional "retro" rock to more free-form experimental fare on 1994's
, their last album. The Crowes were making a play for Deadheads and they got to headline the 1997 Furthur Festival, which featured Dead-oriented bands.
"It was pretty funny," Rich recalled. "When they announced us to be on the tour [the organisers] got a lot of complaints about us headlining it. Some people thought we were Satanists or something freaky. I think our fans and their fans didn't really mesh well."
His brother said the crossover failed because "our things always revolved around heavy rhythms and those bands were very trippy-dippy, happy-happy sorta music that just bounced along."
But the deviation served a purpose: it allowed the Robinsons, who write the songs, to return with a renewed purpose.
Urgent and taut,
is brimming with Stones-inspired guitar riffs supplemented by horns or gospel harmonies. Critics complained the band was too derivative, too mindful of its roots.
"For people to get on their high horse and tell us that what we do has been done before, I just tell 'em `Yeah, exactly. That's the point.' It's a part of this bigger thing that has been going on for a lot longer than MTV has been on the air," Chris Robinson said.
Drug abuse is another great rock tradition and the Black Crowes have been honest about their dabblings, once even making the cover of
magazine, the pot aficionados' bible.
But the heroin habit of guitarist Marc Ford was just too much and he was fired in August 1997.
"I will always be happy knowing that Marc Ford didn't die while he was in the Black Crowes," Robinson said, adding that he is doing well and making music with friends in Los Angeles.
Chris Robinson has never been a big fan of heroin and his preference these days is psychedelics. "I don't mind a creepy acid trip every once in a while. I've been saying that when the acid trip is over you've got to get back to Mother Earth."
Around the time of Ford's departure, bass player Johnny Colt, who did not play on
... and who had become a spare part in the band, resigned.
Now the lineup consists of the three remaining original members, the Robinsons and drummer Steve Gorman, and salaried members keyboardist Eddie Harsch, bass player Sven Pipien and touring guitarist Audley Freed.
"Audley's great," Rich Robinson said. "When we're playing
he'll play the same song, which is what Marc didn't do."
Meantime, Chris Robinson and his wife divorced and he is now dating actress Alisa Leonetti. Rich and his wife had a baby. And the brothers are even getting along fine.
"We're very different people and I love him and he loves me. It's just sometimes we don't like each other," Chris said.
To complete the happy picture, the Crowes' American Recordings label folded, which was a blessing because the Robinsons never got along with label owner Rick Rubin who, they claim, never took an interest in the band. A request for reaction from Rubin's office was passed on to a Columbia Records spokeswoman who declined to comment.
The Crowes are philosophical about regaining the commercial success of their first two albums but they realise the market for rock bands is not hot right now.
"If it does well then I'm happy and if not I'm still happy," Chris Robinson said. - REUTERS
Who: The Black Crowes
What: New album
When: Released next week
Pictured: The Black Crowes.