By Tegh Singh Matharu
Excuse the lengthy introduction. I first heard the Black Crowes back in 2010, when I was a sophomore in college. I was just getting into music and barely getting by as a student, athlete, and as a friend to the rest of my roommates. Struck down by doubt and held in place by fear, I retreated from my responsibilities by listening to the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Free, and my all-time favorite band, Faces. While another story in itself, I got into them because my Mom loved Rod Stewart and I in turn began to enjoy the Faces especially after listening to songs like “I Know I’m Losing You”, “Stay With Me”, and of course, “Maggie May”. But after listening to their dynamite cover of “Maybe I’m Amazed” for the umpteenth time on YouTube one day, I scrolled through the comments and came across numerous references to a band called The Black Crowes. Any fan of Faces, they exhorted, must listen to the Black Crowes. Nineteen and impressionable, I followed their instructions, pulled up the first Black Crowes song I found, “Hard to Handle”, and liked what I heard.
The opening lick, the tavern piano, and then the soulful roar of Chris Robinson grabbed me. I bobbed my head along to Rich Robinson’s guitar while scrambling to download whatever Black Crowes album I could find. Because I was short on time and wary of immediately diving into a new band’s discography, I settled on their greatest hits compilation, A Tribute To a Work in Progress, and soon discovered their other songs “Jealous Again” and “Twice as Hard”. Led by the Brothers Robinson, the band rocked and roared until they were the only band I would listen to for months. Eventually, my roommates became tired of being subjected to the Black Crowes, convincing me to listen to something else. I obliged and shifted my musical tastes towards more indie fare such as the Fleet Foxes, Jack Penate, and the Arctic Monkeys.
It wasn’t until 2014 during graduate school when I rediscovered the Black Crowes, again at a relatively low point in my life. Having to deal with a toxic laboratory led by a tyrannical professor and an almost-hour long commute, I was also at my wit’s end just like in college. Instead of finding solace in music, I would always stop off at a Goodwill store on my way home. I would poke around the bookshelves, thumb through the records, and just roam around to give myself some room to take a break from all that was happening in my life. After a few visits, I began to buy a lot of books and albums in what was a strange form of shopping therapy. In particular, I gravitated towards the CDs where I would find old computer games and as luck would have it, a pretty solid collection of essential alternative nineties music. I found Pearl Jam’s Ten, Morphine’s A Cure for Pain, and even Nick Cave’s Kicking Against the Pricks, my first-ever Nick Cave album.
But after one tough day in the lab, I pulled into the Goodwill, went straight to the CDs, and fished out an album with a picture of a lady’s American flag thong with strands of her bush peeking out. It was the Black Crowes’ third album, Amorica. I giggled like a child when I saw the cover and knew that this was an album in need of a good home despite the dirty look the cashier gave me on my way out. After a half-hearted explanation of how I was just buying the album for the music, I immediately popped it into the stereo and drove home accompanied by Rich’s staccato chords and Chris’s soulful cries of “Save me!” on “Gone”. I remember too, after listening to that album again and again on my way to grad school and back, how the two songs “Wiser Time” and “Descending” quickly became my favorite songs that year. “Wiser Time” especially for its soft, dreamy opening with the slide guitar melody which then gave way to Rich’s volcanic, blistering solo. But “Descending” was another story. This was the Crowes at their best, with Chris’ vocal prowess on full display as the music around him swelled and then made room for another of Rich’s great slide guitar. But what makes the song phenomenal is the extended piano melody closing the earnest crescendo at the end of the song. It was like honey for my soul when I first heard it. It’s tough to describe a melody, but it honestly was the warmest, lightest, and most compassionate thing to hear especially during another rough patch in my life. Even though many consider Amorica to be a mixed bag of an album, I honestly think it’s the Crowes’ best album solely due to “Descending”.
Moving forward now to almost a decade after discovering the Black Crowes, I found myself standing amid a throng of Generation Xers all waiting expectantly for the “Brothers of a Feather”, Chris and Rich Robinson to take the stage in a cold, drafty, and sold-out Lincoln Hall. After almost a decade of listening to the Black Crowes on and off again, I was about to see them play live for the first time. For me personally, it was a pretty heavy moment, but for the rest of the crowd the two-man acoustic set was a prelude to a greater and long-awaited reunion of the entire Black Crowes band after a period of hiatus, breakup, and conflict between the Brothers Robinson.
Situating myself inside a section of the crowd milling about the stage, I couldn’t help but people watch and eavesdrop on some conversations. Many talked about the upcoming Black Crowes show in Tinley Park this summer, while another couple from Kansas remarked about how they won tickets to the show but also how unfortunate it was that they had to visit Chicago in the dead of winter. Everyone wore black, talked about all the bands they had seen and ones they were expecting to see such as the Rolling Stones for the hundredth time. One guy in front of me proudly showed off the signed promotional posters for the brothers’ tour and convinced a group nearby to grab posters of their own. Overall it was pretty quiet until there was a commotion behind me. Two guys got into a heated exchange with each other, which was to be expected considering the chief instigator had walked into Lincoln Hall wearing a bizarre Tudor cap. As everyone knows, bizarre caps like fedoras and Tudor caps attract bad juju like a moth to a lamp and this gentleman was no exception. He kept flicking his fingers in the air as if to cast a hex on the other guy who just stood there calling him out on his lack of sorcery and fashion sense. Before it became a proper rumble, the bouncers soon got involved and neutralized the situation right before the Robinsons took the stage.
When they emerged from behind the curtain, the crowd roared. Chris got behind the microphone while Rich brandished his guitar. They opened their set with “Jealous Again” off their 30-year old debut album, Shake Your Money Maker. The brothers immediately rendered any doubt as to how they would without a full band utterly and blissfully null from the moment Chris began to sing. Even after such a long time performing, many singers lose their singing ability, their voices become weaker and raspier. Thankfully after thirty years of the Black Crowes, Chris Robinson still possessed the same voice that we’ve all heard and loved. The fact that this was an acoustic set with only Rich’s guitar made his voice stand out all the more. Frankly, listening to him still belt out the soulful despair of “Jealous Again” without a waver in his voice made everyone grow quiet with admiration.
Unfortunately, this admiration was marred by this one man standing next to me who coincidentally was also wearing a goofy cap redolent with bad juju. For every time people held up their phones to take a picture, he kept pleading and whining for everyone to put their phones down as if he was John the Baptist. In a herculean attempt to stop myself from passively aggressively continuing to take pictures, I put my phone down for in the end he was right. Any time spent trying to fiddle my phone to get the best photo, was a moment away from seeing Chris Robinson lose himself in a musical reverie or Rich slide across his guitar on a solo. But however noble the man’s intentions were, his entreaties soon became obnoxious as he forcibly manhandled another guy’s camera and then insulted him. A second fight almost broke out behind me with both men squaring up against each other much to the surprise of the people around me just as the Robinson’s continued with their set.
Luckily, the tensions quickly abated as the set continued. The third song, “Wiser Time” began with a lengthy and sharp guitar flourish, Chris and Rich both joined together in opening the song. Soon Rich continued the song with his unparalleled and assured slide guitar melody. Although the song lacked the volcanic fury provided by the backing band, Chris’ soaring vocals and Rich’s assured guitar, at turns alternating between soft and harsh tones, carried it through the roof. For me listening to the song live, in such an intimate setting almost felt as if Chris was personally serenading me! In fact, both brothers didn’t miss beat or falter across their entire set. From hearing the wounded pride of “Thorn in My Side” to hearing the gentle interplay between the brothers on “How Much For Your Wings” made every song utter perfection. Also, too, finally hearing Chris shout, “Feast of fools!” on “Descending” sent shivers even without the piano!
In addition to the songs and just how great the Robinsons sounded, their ease with the audience was another bonus to the night. In between several songs Chris mused on the band’s history, exchanged funny stories about partying with the Allman Brothers Band, and also talked about the stories behind several songs. Moreover, he poked fun at Rich who took the good-natured jabs in stride. One story that I enjoyed during the moment between songs, was his surprise at rediscovering the meaning behind “Twice as Hard” after reading the lyrics, mistakenly attributing it to love gone bad but then realizing it was more about “love gone bad’s sister who was an asshole”. There were many of these disarming moments that added to what was already a perfect set and made the show a genuinely intimate one.
As the night drew to a close, the brothers looked like they were having fun playing to a packed venue. They complimented the crowd, remarking that it’s rare to play in a venue filled with people respectful of musicians and then throwing some well-deserved shade at the crowds in Boston and Philadelphia. Nevertheless, the night closed with an electric rendition of “Remedy” with Rich supporting Chris on vocals and a cover of Little Feat’s “Willin’” for the encore. As Chris’ lanky frame disappeared behind the curtain after he and Rich waved goodbye, tossing picks into the crowd, everyone lingered there for a moment to soak up the set.
Walking out into the cold last night and catching the last purple line of the night, I spent some more time reflecting on the Robinson’s set. Altogether it was a truly singular experience for everyone there to see two rock icons still able to play as if they hadn’t missed a beat and in such an intimate setting. Furthermore, seeing the original members of the Black Crowes live was an opportunity to reflect on how even though my musical tastes often change, the bands and music I might have forgotten have a way of reappearing. But aside from that, the Robinsons’ set proved that the brothers are poised for a successful reunion tour and I for one, am eager to hear how they’ll sound when backed up by a band.