Touring together for the first time in nearly eight years, Black Crowes leaders Chris and Rich Robinson perform an intimate, all-acoustic set at the Chapel in San Francisco on March 6, 2020.
Black Crowes cofounders Chris and Rich Robinson reunite after years of silence
The brothers showcase genuine camaraderie, artistry and respectfulness
Songs — stripped to guitar, voice and harmonica — resonate with a fresh dynamic
Though breaking up is said to be hard to do, getting back together appears to be much easier. At least in the world of rock and pop, where reunions are de rigueur and often translate into big paydays. Akin to what happened with the stigma associated with artists who license songs to advertisements, the cynicism that once greeted reformations has faded. The notion of “selling out” by staging a reunion now feels as antiquated as the cassingle.
Despite the welcoming environment of that new normal, the announcement by Black Crowes mainstays Chris and Rich Robinson in late 2019 that the band would reunite (again) to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its debut album was met with some consternation. After all, the group’s feuds stretch back decades and its turbulent membership history involves a revolving door of instrumentalists. By a conservative metric, the latest iteration would constitute Black Crowes, Act IV.
In addition to a planned tour, the Robinsons immediately agreed on another matter: Rounding out the band with an all-new lineup to avoid the potential flareup of old problems. Though they dashed hopes of bringing peak-era players like guitarist Marc Ford back into the fold, the siblings elected to try and preserve their renewed relationship. Like grudges, ghosts of the past tend to linger. In interviews, guitarist Rich Robinson said the siblings’ repaired bond remained fragile; vocalist Chris Robinson revealed he spent eight years in therapy.
To prepare for the full-band trek, and rekindle their chemistry after a long period devoid of communication, the brothers embarked on a brief acoustic tour of intimate venues in early 2020. A week after the final date — performed March 6 at the Chapel in San Francisco, and presented in crisp black-and-white on this film — the pandemic halted everything. “Brothers of a Feather” shows the results of what got interrupted and what could still happen if the Robinsons maintain the camaraderie, artistry and respectfulness displayed here.
For the Black Crowes, fellowship has never been a given. At shows throughout their career, emotional distance often divided the members. They gave the feeling they were onstage to do a job and not necessarily hang out with one another after the gig. That chasm has been especially prevalent between the oft-warring Robinson brothers.
Separated only by a small table, and standing just a few feet apart, the Robinsons change course in San Francisco to an extent that might surprise ardent followers. They seem revitalized, unburdened, focused, grateful to be playing together. Physically, they look refreshed: healthy, clean, bright and free of any obvious chemical baggage. The brothers spend a great deal of time making eye contact and reading the other’s moves. About a third of the way through the 75-minute concert, after finishing “The Garden Gate,” Chris Robinson showers praise on his mate in a way that appears spontaneous and sincere.
Who are these guys? Imposters?
“There’s not a lot of people in the world that can do fancy picking and fun strumming in one...,” the singer gushes, tripping up on his enthusiasm for what he just heard. “In one motherfucker like that!” Rich Robinson, prone to wearing poker-faced expressions that would be the envy of the Queen’s Guard, can’t help but grin. Later, the pair jokes about each other’s personalities — Chris, the extrovert; Rich, the introvert — in complementary fashion. Who are these guys? Imposters?
Whether the positivity serves as atonement for prior transgressions matters not; the dynamic feels genuine and fuels the performance. Stripped bare, and presented with just voice, guitar and harmonica, the music exposes the grit of the songs and sturdiness of the arrangements. The brothers bring everything full circle — “This is the closest to the way all of these songs were written, just me and Rich, by ourselves,” says Chris Robinson — and touch on most phases of the group’s career, emphasizing its first three (and finest) LPs and penultimate album, “Warpaint” (2008).
Fully invested in the moment, each brother spurs on the other. Chris Robinson is in excellent voice; Rich Robinson handles the slide as if it’s an everyday eating utensil and, when desired, makes a single 6- or 12-string acoustic guitar sound like two. Tunes such as the back-porch-ready “Hotel Illness,” harmonica-coated “Whoa Mule” and jubilant “Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution” stir with country, blues, folk, raga and rock ‘n’ roll elements. A pained, pleading “Thorn in My Pride” allows room for an upbeat jam interlude that concludes with the brothers wearing smiles.
Two covers, neither an obvious choice (nor Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle,” a massive hit for the Black Crowes in 1990), signal where the brothers’ interests lie. A devotional rendition of country-rock legend Gram Parsons’ “She” crackles with soulful harmonizing and gospel electricity. His eyes closed, Chris Robinson occupies a spiritual realm that expands when he arrives at the bridge and sings “hallelujah” with a pronounced Southern drawl.
Cosmic vibes also surround the encore, a rustic version of Ry Cooder’s “Boomer’s Story.” Like Parsons, Cooder remains better known in musician’s circles than by the mainstream. It’s a space the Robinsons seem comfortable occupying decades after their dalliance with commercial fame and a legacy of disagreements.
Bob Gendron is the associate editorial director at The Coda Collection. He has been obsessing over music, albums and audio ever since he landed a job at an indie record store at age 13. A longtime contributor to the Chicago Tribune and former Director of Communications at Music Direct, he spent 11 years as the Music Editor at The Absolute Sound and performed the same role for eight years at TONEAudio. Gendron is the author of “Gentlemen” (Bloomsbury) and a coauthor of “Nirvana: The Complete Illustrated History” (Voyageur). His writing has also appeared in DownBeat, Rolling Stone, Revolver and other outlets.