Better than: Hippie bullshit, man.
It is occasionally necessary for us to break the proverbial fourth wall when reviewing a show. This adds perspective, tempers the critiques that toe the line of hyperbole, and allows us to shamelessly express glowing opinions that, without preface, would undermine our dedication to unbiased reviews.
With that said, there was a time in my life when I wanted to be a member of the Black Crowes.
As a guitarist and a music fan, I thought the Crowes' first four albums were everything I had ever wanted from a band. It was as if Steve Marriott was fronting the Mick Taylor-era Rolling Stones, had they spent their period as tax exiles in the swamps of Gainesville rather than the French Riviera. And while most people tend to focus on the Southern-sounding parts of the band's music, the Black Crowes have gracefully touched or referenced all that is great in roots and rock music over the course of a monster discography with the swagger, piss, and vinegar that grunge (Soundgarden not included*) had all but stomped out in the early '90s. The Crowes weren't just a vintage-flavored rock band with some gutsy riffs: The songs were fantastic to boot!
Unfortunately, the trappings of the golden-era of rock music came with the sounds and look, and frontman Chris Robinson's history with the needle is now as storied and documented as that of his heroes. Robinson has since beat the odds and avoided the spot many had reserved for him on the list of greats taken too soon, and the band has come through what would seem an endless cycle of lineup swaps, in-fighting between the brothers Robinson, and increasingly less potent records to re-form and hit the road again.
When it was announced that the Black Crowes were one of SunFest 2013's headliners, there was a healthy dose of trepidation on our end. Would our attendance be met with by meandering jams and hippie-flavored jangles of the band's late career? When we saw Robinson perform with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood recently, there was not a single soulful howl granted over the entirety of a three-hour performance, leaving us to assume the fire that had lived in the man's belly may well have been (understandably) quenched in the name of recovery and age.
However, before the Black Crowes made their return to South Florida, we found our way to the Tire Kingdom Stage and packed in with the poncho'd masses to catch Texas-bred guitar phenom Gary Clark Jr. perform.
Clark was neck deep in the throes a fuzz-riddled guitar fit when the rain let loose again, further saturating the already wet crowd. The young man -- now the darling of every guitar magazine on the stands -- wrung the piss out of his Epiphone Casino as he rode wave after wave of Hendrix-approved fuzz to the adulation of the crowd. The set moved nicely, and Clark's band kept the grooves deep and the pocket cozy during the more R&B-influenced numbers he sang. Heavy raindrops turned to vapor as they assaulted the cans of hot stage lighting overhead during Clark's final romp of the night, which started with a devastating cover of Jimi's "Third Stone From the Sun." During the song, Clark dropped a guitar solo that sounded like a DJ scratching a record into the man's own take on Albert Collins' "If You Love Me Like You Say" and closed with a vicious rundown of "Bright Lights" that had the the soggy crowd swaying.
The Black Crowes made it to the stage after a quick swap of the back line and appearance by Captain Morgan himself. The Captain came out to shoot T-shirts out of a gun while surrounded by leather-clad women and to remind us to drink responsibly and how shitty our jobs are compared to his. The brothers Robinson appeared in good spirits, Rich wielding a Fender telecaster reminiscent of Keith Richards' famed Micawber and Chris smiling brightly as he stepped to the mic. When the music hit, we were overcome by the realization that the lazy tempo of the intro was in fact a lead into the burning Southern rock of "Jealous Again," and while the tempo remained sluggish for the song, the groove was greasy, and Chris Robinson was not only singing like his former self but appeared to be having a blast doing so.
The set continued the trend of early catalog numbers, though we waited with baited breath for the impending 20-minute jam or post-Grateful Dead noodler; it never came. With "Hotel Illness," the band finally hit a stride: Chris Robinson blew a raunchy harmonica solo during the classic number, newly anointed lead guitarist Jackie Greene earned his stripes with a blazing guitar solo that smacked of former guitarist Marc Ford's blazing riffage, and drummer Steve Gorman hammered away at his kit with the same fervor that helped us fall in love with this band in the first place.
The set turned out to be a dynamic collection of early album favorites. "Wiser Time" gave the crowd a brief reprieve from the incendiary blues-rock salvos of guitar and pounding drums of "Remedy" while showcasing Chris' huge range -- still unspoiled at his age. "She Talks to Angels" was a crowd pleaser to be sure, an aural sigh during the otherwise high-octane performance, however, it was the rockers and the burners that signified the return of the Black Crowes to their roots as an absolutely deadly rock 'n' roll unit. Rich Robinson's ability as guitarist has grown immensely over the years; once content being mostly a perfect rhythm machine, he pulled out leads worthy of any one of the band's famed former guitar foils, and his slide playing in particular made for some of the set's zenith guitar moments.
The night ended with a romp through mega hit "Hard to Handle," and the crowd singing along at full tilt. The rain had let up, everyone on stage seemed to be grinning, and as the band melded Deep Purple's "Hush," things felt right in the world. And while it might just be the fact that the band essentially selected the almost exact set we would have chosen, it is beyond exciting to see a group come back from the brink of jamland -- even if only for the sake of nostalgia. Hopefully, however, we can expect a new album with from the Crowes that flies in a similar direction to Friday's performance.
Personal Bias: Duh.
Random Detail: We're pretty sure Chris Robinson was wearing the same T-shirt at the Brotherhood show last year.
Random Detail 2: Ed Sheeran sounded like he was crying while I walked back to my car.
Black Crowes Set List:
-"Thick and Thin"
-"She Talks to Angels"
-"High Head Blues"
-"Thorn in my Pride"
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-"Twice as Hard"
-"Hard to Handle/Hush"