The Black Crowes Fly High In Nashville

The Black Crowes at the Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, Tennessee, 9/12/10

The first time I saw the Black Crowes play live, they were opening for the Grateful Dead down in Tampa, Florida. It was the spring of 1995, and the Dead were about to come face to face with retirement, due to the untimely passing of Jerry Garcia a few months later.

I went on a college road trip, an all-night drive from upstate New York to Tampa to take in my very first Dead show. I’ll always remember the following things; my ticket turned out to be a fake, and I had to sprint past the security guards to get in; the Grateful Dead were a colossal let down; and the Black Crowes absolutely killed it.

The album they were touring behind at the time was Amorica. We were all obsessed with the song “Nonfiction”: “I don’t know my telephone number, but you kiss good, and I’d like to see you tomorrow,” was a come on appropriate perhaps for only rock stars and returning college students.

The Crowes only opened for the Dead that one night, but they went on to become a hippie jam band, of sorts, and were able to forge a whole new career that way. When Shake Your Money Maker debuted in 1990, the Crowes were considered hard rockers, the bastard cousins of Van Halen and AC/DC. But their love of Southern rock, the Rolling Stones and Otis Redding was always at the heart of their music, and they weren’t shy about letting their freak flags fly. Songs on NORML comps, tours with H.O.R.D.E. Fest, and gigs at the Fillmore followed. As the band extended their jams and threw up the peace sign, they started appealing to a whole new audience.

Siding with the hippies even allowed for a successful solo career for lead singer Chris Robinson, who formed the band New Earth Mud when he and his brother, guitarist Rich Robinson, couldn’t get along. Before there were the Gallagher brothers, there were the Robinson brothers.

But despite whatever familial fights, band hiatuses and lineup changes they’ve had to endure, the Crowes have always gotten back together. Now, however, they’re taking a break. On the heels of this year’s all-acoustic hits album Croweology, the band have dubbed their latest tour “Say Goodnight To The Bad Guys,” a nod to their old reputation as leather pants-wearing rabble rousers.  Once they’re done, you’ll have to wait until weed is legal or they decide to reunite to see them again — whichever comes first.

Before they flew south for the winter, I was determined to see them one more time. Ironically, there was an issue with my ticket and I almost had to sneak in all over again. Having missed the first few songs, I finally entered the auditorium to the familiar strains of “Nonfiction.” “I don’t know my telephone number…” Just like old times. There they were, commanding the stage just like they’d done in Tampa. Peals of classic rock organ, bodacious back up vocals and pounding congas propped up the Crowes’s twin-guitar attack, adding just the right hints of Santana and Traffic to their rock and soul stew. Exotic rugs were strewn about on stage, giving the Ryman a Fillmore feel. And the Crowes were feeling jammy, tacking on a middle-eastern groove to the end of “Nonfiction” where none previously existed.

The band seemed at the peak of their powers, and not in need of a “hiatus” at all. The show stretched over three hours, with the first half leaning towards acoustic revelry. Rich Robinson broke out the 12 string for “She Talks To Angels,” a song they performed back in 1990 on MTV Unplugged. Newer songs like “What Is Home” (Before The Frost...) and “My Heart’s Killing Me” (The Lost Crowes) were welcome guests among older cuts like “My Morning Song” and “Thorn In My Pride.” If Robinson’s voice has an antecedent, it’s Mick Jagger mixed with Joe Cocker. That likeness was driven home by the opening song of set two, “Feelin’ Alright,” which Cocker famously covered on his Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. A sizable chunk of time was devoted to Amorica’s “Ballad In Urgency” and “Wiser Time,” the Allman Brothers-esque one-two punch that reads like a comment on the Robinson Brothers’ inter-connectivity. “On a good day, I know it ain’t every day, we can part the sea. And on a bad day, it’s not every day, glory beyond our reach.”

The Crowes might be wrapping things up, but it’s fairly obvious we haven’t heard the last of them. They’ll always come back, and come back twice as hard.

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