By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
A bird in the hand
Ah, the '70s, when the road of excess led not to the palace of wisdom but to the amphitheater of even more excess and the cradle of southern boogie. With 1990's Shake Your Money Maker the Crowes re-invigorated the genre, pulling it out of the trailer park to which it'd been consigned by newer, hipper styles.
Live, few bands in the '90s could channel the "boogie til ya puke" ethos of the platform shoe era like the Black Crowes (notable exception: Page and Plant's Led Zep rehash). Few shows in recent memory featured as many wall-eyed, wasted, wobbly fans as the Crowes last Bomb Factory gig: Truly impressive numbers of people were being carried out, necks limp and foreheads bouncing along the concrete, or lay mumbling and asleep in a pool of (hopefully) their own (hopefully) unidentifiable body fluid.
The Atlanta band--personified by brothers Chris (vocals) and Rich (guitar) Robinson--was a willing focal point for such rowdy energy. Ardent and obvious dope smokers, they were throwbacks to the age of bands like Mott the Hoople, wherein rock stars were a species apart; who else would wear a green velvet jacket and a top hat? Constant Kinks-style friction between the brothers kept things interesting and gave MTV's oxymoronic music news plenty of interesting gossip to report, and their jam-band heritage fit well within the ever-more popular psuedo-Dead scene. The guys are also savvy showmen, smart enough not to rely solely on what is boogie's great failing, the quickly wearing grind-a-rama. A Black Crowes show will usually feature stilt-walkers in costume--the devil, a black (duh) crow in an Uncle Sam suit--and other stageside diversions.
1994's amorica, the band's third album, betrayed a certain staleness. Funk touches that sounded borrowed to the extreme seemed to highlight the fact that the band's two best-known hits--Otis Redding's oft-remade "Hard to Handle" and the Stonesy "Jealous Again," both from 1990--were at their hearts retreads, although the lads again showed that classic rock star touch by immediately becoming the center of controversy when it was discovered that the album's cover was a women's pelvis covered with the tiniest of American flag g-strings and from around which pubic hairs peered playfully. The music was not nearly as noteworthy.
With their newest release, Three Snakes and One Charm, the band has managed a partial recovery, taking a tour of southern soul and funk influences and presenting them in a way that bears a personal stamp: a little Muscle Shoals here, a little Poke Salad Annie there, a dab of Stax/Volt and a whole lotta Memphis. It's a better album than amorica, but it isn't enough to change the one essential truth about the band: Showmanship aside, they're one pony with a lot of tricks, not a horse of a different color.