It would seem the Black Crowes have flown away and won’t be coming back. They’ve broken up before. They’ve reunited before. But I suspect they’re done for good this time.
I begrudgingly saw The Black Crowes in concert one time and one time only, around 2000, as they were touring with their By Your Side album. “Begrudgingly” because it’s tough to attend a concert for a band you really love when you know you’re not going to love the live version nearly as much as the studio versions that are captured and frozen in musical ember.
The Black Crowes are notorious for being a rock jam band in a rock pop band’s clothing, sneaking into the ears and hearts and consciences of innocent pop rock people like myself, hiding their love for meandering, ever-wandering concert performances with often tight and infectious songs that show great respect for ‘70s southern rock while carrying that brash torch of independence and cockiness into their own kind of sound.
Their concert wasn’t bad because they fell victim to the classic concert blunders -- out of tune, or wasted to the point of sloppiness, or revealed to be hack musicians protected by the careful janitorial work of studio production -- but because what they do in concert is, as all jam bands are, counter to what I enjoy in a good concert.
PLease understand, jam band aficionados, I am not mocking you or your preferences. We all like what we like. But for me, a jam band concert is that moment in Back to the Future where Marty McFly takes what is a rollicking good time on “Johnny B Goode” and turns it into some kind of freak performance where everyone in the audience stands paralyzed, mouths agape, unsure what they’re witnessing or why they’re supposed to like it.
Much like that simile, my own reaction might prove me an old fuddy duddy, or someone who fails to properly appreciate the kind of musical talent that lets a rock musician carry on for stretches in an homage to our jazz music heritage where none of us know exactly where we’re going yet the true musicians can figure out a way to get there anyway. Jam bands are Hansel and Gretel in the woods without bread crumbs, so confident and assured in their talent that they never feel lost.
As for me, I like my paths. I like directional signs. I often prefer pavement or at least some gravel that indicates a human has previously plotted a wise course.
When I think of The Black Crowes, I think of John Bender’s line to Claire Standish in The Breakfast Club, when he tells her that Claire is a fat girl’s name. “I’m not fat,” she says, rightly.
“Not at present, but I can really see you pushing maximum density. See I'm not sure if you know this, but there are two kinds of fat people: there's fat people that were born to be fat, and there's fat people that were once thin but became fat... so when you look at 'em you can sorta see that thin person inside.”
Jam bands are the fat Claire, substituting extra notes, longer licks, and endless ramblings for calories. And I feel far worse about people being prejudiced about weight than I do about live performances that feel and sound bloated. [SIDE NOTE: I imagine this is not unlike many music lovers I know who detest the “wall of sound” approach to production begun by Phil Spector that spawned band explosions from The Beach Boys and the Beatles to My Bloody Valentine and the entire (mostly forgettable) shoegazing era of alt-rock in the ‘90s.]
At their best on their records, the Black Crowes are making Ronda Rousey music, Ashley Graham music, stuff that has strength and heft but isn’t ashamed of it nor should it be. But it still has a beautiful form to be admired, respected and, in certain circumstances, feared.
For a great collection of “The 10 Best Black Crowes songs,” Ryan Leas at Stereogum got 7 out of 10 right on the nose and does a much better job than I could ever do of writing about them.
Rock -- true, great, electric guitar bass and drums-driven rock ‘n’ roll -- is the California of the United States of Modern Music, and we’re watching as the earthquakes of our taste have split this beautiful creature off, and it’s now beginning to drift away from us. The future of rock, ever iffy at best, looks more and more threatened with each legend’s death and each band’s break-up. It was probably, like all of our deaths, an inevitable thing. But more than any single human, more than even myself, the inevitability of its demise scares me beyond reason.