"This is rock & roll, dammit," croaked a dazed-looking Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes last month from the stage of Tipitina's in New Orleans' French Quarter. The city, still hung over from Mardi Gras and smelling like a sewer, made a good match with the hedonistic guitar rock of Atlanta's hardest-partying band.
Drunk and sloppy may be the vibe, but the Crowes came across as downright invigorated. Robinson swivelled his hips, pointed at the soused crowd and belted his way through "Jealous Again," "Hard to Handle," "Twice as Hard" and tunes from the new "By Your Side" album. His brother Rich, the band's lead six-stringer, ripped out economical solos, sometimes locking into bittersweet harmonies with guitarist Audley Freed. Longtime drummer Steve Gorman and new bassist Sven Pipien provided the rhythmic punch, and Eddie Harsch pounded out the honky-tonk piano.
The Crowes have opened another chapter in an unpredictable career that dates back 15 years. They've switched labels (from American to Columbia) and eliminated the jam-band excess in favor of a more streamlined sound rooted in the British Invasion influences of their early recordings. "We're definitely more of a rock band, and I think it took us headlining the Furthur fest last year to reach the point where we had to look at ourselves and say, ‘What are we?'" says Rich Robinson.
Although not as close to the top of the rock hierarchy as they once were, the band never quite went away. But "By Your Side" still sounds like a comeback. It's been treated that way, with rave reviews everywhere from the Boston Globe to the Village Voice. It's tough to forget the early reaction to the band, whose classic-rock leanings got them accused of ripping off the Faces, the Stones and Free. Robinson still feels the pain.
"What about where [those earlier bands] came from, which is basically where we come from?" he asks. "We were listening to all those same people that Eric Clapton and the Stones were listening to. People compare us to 36 different bands ... On our first record, we had our influences worn on our sleeves. I was 19 when I made that record. I'd been playing guitar for three years. After that, we went [different] places."