When the Black Crowes and Velvet Revolver play back-to-back South Florida shows, it's not tough to spot the trend: Tomorrow's bleeding-edge anachronism is surely surly '90s alt-rock. Goodbye, jittery and angular. Hello, brash and swaggering.
Every tie-dyed longhair and half-drunk frat boy who flocked to downtown Fort Lauderdale hours before last Tuesday's Crowes show was aware of one simple fact, at least on a subconscious level. All of rock 'n' roll is some form of imitation, and the Crowes are master baiters. Taking their musical cues from Southern boogie and psychedelic blues-rock, the band was the lysergic jester in the angst-ridden grunge court of early '90s alt-rock. Too paisley for the flannel-clad masses, they remained outsiders like fellow H.O.R.D.E. Tour mates Phish and Blues Traveler, boasting a rabid fan base but never making much of an impression on post-collegiate minds.
Their Revolution show drew a sellout crowd of old-time fans curious to observe brothers Chris and Rich Robinson on-stage together for the first time in three years. Chris' Southern soul vocals and Rich's Stax-twang guitar have always been the driving force behind the band; for the most part, this show was no different.
"How 'bout some good ol' hippie rock 'n' roll?" Chris asked the crowd (like we had any choice in the matter). Over the years, the band has increasingly dabbled in flighty instrumental excursions, which further separated them from the mainstream's short-attention-span theater. By overindulging that whim during the show, they obscured the most potent elements of their songwriting.
So when they ripped into their original hit, 1990's "Jealous Again," the crowd sang along dutifully to the chorus, but as soon as they meandered into a blues-jam cul-de-sac, the audience grew subdued and restless. The brothers Robinson seemed to mirror each other's detachment -- rather than doing his usual swishy dance, Chris was given mainly to intermittent golf-claps during Rich's wayward solos. Two guitars, bass, keys, drums, and Chris' stoned-sultry drawl added up to a slushy swirl of sound; too many unfocused elements fought for ear space. Revolution's sound system, unusually subpar in the outdoor stage setup, didn't help.
Loose as the Crowes were, moments of crystalline greatness rose out of the muck. "Wiser Time," an opiated ballad from their '94 masterpiece, Amorica, struck the right balance between space-shot soloing and earthy structure, and the slow, barroom rag "Girl from a Pawnshop" climaxed with gorgeous drama. Still, the blooze blowouts, tacked like congressional riders onto several great numbers, only diminished their power.
It wasn't until an hour and a half into the show that the band fired on all thrusters with "Remedy," the '92 radio hit that long ago solidified the Crowes' brilliance. Here's Chris letting the rough edges of his voice tear into the soulful core of the song; here's Rich leaning hard into his guitar like the riff is the only thing holding him upright. It was easily the peak of the night. It was also the final song of the set.
Whether the Black Crowes (who open for Tom Petty in West Palm this Wednesday) are still rusty from their three-year hiatus or are intentionally spinning their wheels in a jam-rock limbo was impossible to tell. It was an uneven, confounding show for the crowd and the band. Hopefully, the reunited Crowes can flock together long enough to figure it out themselves.
The following night, Velvet Revolver went the opposite route, sporting hard-rock blinders that kept them as intent and unsubtle as a team of Clydesdales. Like a retarded giant with killer tattoos, the band was wonderfully oblivious in its focus, stomping through a soggy, willing Sound Advice Amphitheatre audience.
VR's pedigree extends back to the Crowes' age but originates from the other end of the '90s alt-rock spectrum. Lead singer Scott Weiland is best-known for his felonious waltzes with heroin and cocaine, but a few folks also remember him as the voice behind faux-grungers Stone Temple Pilots. By skimming the Seattle scene's most sweeping melodies and going for grand on-stage spectacle, STP helped steer grunge away from the gutter and into the arena. For this, they were mostly vilified.
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Weiland's backing band is, of course, an Axl-free Guns N' Roses. Merge Slash/Duff cock 'n' balls ferocity with Weiland's dope-sick preening and it's like your senior year of high school all over again. Naturally, the prospect of Guns N' Pilots, or Velvet Roses, or whatever, playing live at a backyard keg-party-type shed like Sound Advice, attracted a rock-ready throng, but the crowd was far more white-collar and less black-concert-T than expected.
Exploiting all the free-range glory of wireless amps and microphones, Weiland, Duff, and Slash ran laps across the stage like a shaggy-shorn flag corps. Weiland even sported an SS officer's brimmed cap and spent half the night barking through a megaphone into the mic. "We are Velvet Revolver," he announced early on, "and we play rock 'n' fuckin' roll." To emphasize the point, an enormous Rock & Fuckin' Roll banner unfurled behind the band. Nice touch.
VR didn't diverge from the heavy alt-rock template of their single album, Contraband. They did slip in a GNR song and an STP song, probably because they can blow through their entire album in 40 minutes, given their relentless pace. But even as it was cartoonishly exaggerated and swimming in testosterone, the earsplitting spectacle Velvet Revolver offered was also shamelessly fun. The lead trio struck enough quintessential rock poses at center stage to fill several issues of Creem magazine, while the music went down like a stick of Juicy Fruit -- a rush of artificial flavor that's gone way too quick. And everyone likes Juicy Fruit, right?
That's what rock is -- a sweet, short-lived thrill, forgotten as soon as some other tasty bit comes along. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, since it helps us forget life's middling crap as much as recall its golden highlights. And hell, as Beatcomber remembers them, the '90s were a decade of highlights. Bring 'em on.