The Turbulent Path of the Black Crowes: An Amorican’s Perspective
Following months of rumors, it was officially announced in early January that Steve Gorman, drummer and one of the 3 original members of the Black Crowes, had left the band. It was also stated that the band would be taking an indefinite hiatus with separate solo projects to be expected by Chris and Rich Robinson. The news shocked and confused thousands of loyal Amoricans who read the brief and cryptic message posted on the band's official website. Yet other fans see the hiatus/breakup as a much needed occurrence, and will state that the band has been creatively finished since 1997, following the dismissal of guitarist Marc Ford (Blue Floyd) and subsequent departure of bassist Johny Colt (Brand New Immortals).
The Black Crowes were never a typical jamband, and they certainly were never fully embraced by those in the jamband community. In fact, the Crowes were never really comfortable being labeled in any category. They didn't appreciate the constant comparisons to the Stones and Aeorosmith in the early 1990's. The media than portrayed the band as poster-boys for the legalization of marijuana following their performance at 1992's Great Atlanta Pot Festival, an image they have tried to avoid ever since. The mid 1990's found rock journalists referring to the band as nothing more than neo-hippies, a frustrating pigeonhole that the Crowes would take drastic measures shed. The Black Crowes have always worn their influences on their sleeves, whether it be the Faces, Sly and the Family Stone, Gram Parsons, or Neil Young. Yet this never stopped them from creating their own sound, a type of music that Chris Robinson refers to as "Soul Music… music for and from the soul."
After releasing two straightforward rock records in the early 1990's, the Crowes took on a more ambitious and complex sound, resulting in the release of 1995's Amorica. Emotional lyrics that only Chris Robinson can write, intricate guitar work from Rich Robinson and Marc Ford, and Ed Harsch’s delicate piano work were the driving force for this ground-breaking work. The album stretched across all musical genres, from the hard hitting opener of "Gone" to the beautiful ballad "Descending" which closes the album. In between, elements of funk, country, and blues criss-crossed the nation of Amorica.
The tour that followed showed a different side of the band's live performances as well. Always encouraging fans to record their performances, the Crowes rewarded listeners with varied setlists, a plethora of covers- and b-sides, and a more jam oriented feel than ever before. Their repertoire was expanding, and the possibilities seemed endless.
At the height of their creativity, the Crowes recorded their next work, Three Snakes and One Charm in an old Georgia mansion, dubbed Chateau De La Crowe. The album once again touched on all the aspects of the Crowes wide range of influences, and produced such gems as "Bring On Bring On" and "Good Friday." The tour in support of 3 Snakes is still legendary in the minds of every die hard Amorican, and can best be compared to Deadhead's feelings of the 1972 tour. With opening acts God Street Wine and Gov't Mule warming up the crowd, the Crowes took the stage ready to jam. They did not disappoint their legions of fans that traveled with them, but those in attendance to hear radio hits like "Twice as Hard" and "She Talks to Angels" were severely disheartened. If these radio only fans were lucky, the band might play "Hard to Handle," but they were most upset that it had been re-arranged into a fifteen-minute jam. Nonetheless, hardcore fans knew that they had witnessed something special every night, an experience that could not be obtained by listening to the albums only. Hauntingly beautiful b-sides like "Feathers" and "Title Song", 20 minute jams, as well as guest appearances by Warren Haynes on "Dreams" and "Willin'" were the highlights of a tour that will never be forgotten.
The 3 Snakes tour grabbed the attention of many musicians in the jam-band circle, and the Crowes were invited to headline 1997's Further Festival. The Crowes had opened for the Dead shortly before the death of Jerry Garcia, and apparently had made some friends in the process. Despite the admiration from performers like Bob Weir, Jorma Kaukonen, and Bruce Hornsby, few audience members accepted the Crowes, who possibly offended the crowd of deadheads by having the headlining position. The Crowes peppered their sets every night with long jams, a great choice of covers, and multiple guest musicians, but the dead-heads were still unhappy. The disdain and vulgarities of the aging hippie crowd can be heard throughout many audience recordings of those magical nights.
Immediately following the Further Fest, the Crowes made two major decisions that alienated many of their long time fans. First, they fired guitar virtuoso Marc Ford ironically citing Marc's excessive drug use as the problem. Secondly the band opted to all but eliminate their jamming and spontaneity, and returned to a straight-ahead rock act. The following shows, which were performed with replacement Audley Freed (Cry of Love) on guitar, were full of energy, but they lacked the creative force that had once been the trademark of a Black Crowes concert. Their next release, Your Sideseemed to be a step backwards for the band both musically and lyrically. Stagnant setlists plagued the Souled Out tour, causing once loyal Amoricans to dub it the "S-0-L-D Out" tour.
But creativity and musical experimentation would soon be revisited, although it took the form of a tragedy to initiate the resurgence. The death of long-time friend and Gov't Mule bassist Allen Woody landed the Crowes a gig at the One for Woody Benefit. Many Amoricans were skeptical about the Crowes playing the same stage as Gov't Mule, the Allman Brothers, and Phil Lesh and Friends, considering the Crowes recent departure from the jam band scene. All anxieties were put to rest as the Crowes played a set comprised entirely of covers (many of which had not been touched in 4 years) and made frequent appearances with the other musicians throughout the night.
Creative juices continued to flow as the band released their sixth studio album, Lions, in the spring of 2001. While not as psychedelic as Amorica or 3 Snakes, it was a vast improvement over By Your Side. The following tour, entitled Listen Massive, found the Crowes jamming and mixing up setlists much more so than they had since the dismissal of Marc Ford. The tour, which concluded on Halloween at Boston's Orpheum Theater, dusted off a few of the Crowes hidden treasures. "Feathers" and "Title Song" were played a handful of times, and some of the new jams showcased the deadly accuracy that Rich Robinson and Audley Freed were capable of together. Unfortunately, it appears that the Halloween show may be the last Crowes show ever, and it contained one particular moment that may or may not shed some light on the demise of the band. Near the end of the Crowes 2 hour set, Chris Robinson introduced the band, but skipped past drummer Steve Gorman. It took the usually soft-spoken Rich Robinson to remind the crowd that the Black Crowes do in fact have a drummer. The omission of Steve's name seemed like a simple mistake, but as the band re-emerged for the encore, Gorman was no where to be found. After waiting for a moment, Rich broke into the chords for "Miracle to Me" and the band continued to play without a drummer. Gorman appeared part way into the song, oddly enough with half of his head shaved, and the other half sporting long hair, leaving his bandmates staring at him with their jaws on the stage. The Crowes finished up the next few songs, waved good-bye and thanked everyone for coming. Two months later, it was announced that Steve Gorman had left the band. Whether or not there is some connection between the events is unclear and unlikely, but with only vague information being given to long time fans, rumors are bound to fly
Future plans for the Black Crowes are unclear, but it is fairly certain that Chris Robinson is preparing a new project entitled The New Earth Mud, featuring members of the Mother Hips, as well as long time friend and ex-Black Crowe Mr. Marc Ford. This news could not be more exciting for anyone who has heard the results when Robinson and Ford have collaborated outside of the Black Crowes in the past. I know I speak for all Amoricans when I say best of luck to you all in your solo careers but may the Black Crowes fly high once again in the not too distant future.