Forget about peace, love and understanding. Brothers in rock ‘n’ roll bands aren’t meant to get along. The unwritten rule stretches back to the Everly Brothers, whose siblings, Phil and Don, cemented their disdain for one another by breaking up on stage in 1973. Similar feuds between Liam and Noel Gallagher (Oasis), Ray and Dave Davies (Kinks), William and Jim Reid (The Jesus and Mary Chain) and Gary and Van Conner (Screaming Trees) have become as famous as their respective groups’ music.
Chris and Rich Robinson fit the same mold. Reportedly at each other’s throats even before their band got signed in the late ‘80s, the Black Crowes cofounders preside over a messy legacy that to date involves two hiatuses; one official breakup; two aborted albums; repeat lineup changes; multiple solo projects; a short-lived collaboration with Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page; and, most recently, a reunion.
Accounts of the brothers’ behavior aren’t hard to find. Especially since the fallout from their rivalry spurred a former associate — drummer Steve Gorman, who survived all the lineup fluctuations until the group’s 2015 split — to pen a tell-all book that added to a saga rife with acrimonious tales.
What often gets lost amid the mudslinging is the fact that the Black Crowes were a damn fine rock ‘n’ roll band that hit stride at a time when its throwback style of rock ‘n’ roll had already slipped from mainstream favor, making its commercial success all the more impressive. Also largely overlooked: The chemistry the Robinson brothers shared with the four musicians with whom they played for a limited stretch in the ‘90s.
Having honed their approach on the local circuit in their native Georgia, the Black Crowes tasted fame soon after the release of their debut, “Shake Your Money Maker” (1990). Opening spots on national tours for Heart and ZZ Top, and a slot on the European Monsters of Rock outing, dovetailed with heavy MTV video rotation and radio airplay. In just 18 months, the quintet earned a triple-platinum record and two Top 30 singles.
In late ‘91, the group added lead guitarist Marc Ford and keyboardist Eddie Harsch. Ford, who declined an offer to fill Izzy Stradlin’s shoes in Guns N’ Roses the same month he joined the Black Crowes, replaced original member Jeff Cease. Harsch came aboard to pick up where session pro Chuck Leavell left off in the studio while recording “Shake Your Money Maker.” The recruits, coupled with a clear turn toward organic soul, roots and blues, proved pivotal. The Black Crowes transitioned from a band that evoked ‘70s classic-rock staples such as the Rolling Stones, Faces and Humble Pie to one that more fully embraced its regional heritage.
Issued in May 1992, just as interest in alt-rock was reaching fever pitch, the sextet’s “The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion” debuted at the top of the Billboard charts. Traces of the group’s initial hard-edged approach remain, yet its sophomore set travels less-beaten paths. Named after an 1835 hymn book, the album takes listeners inside Southern churches without exposing them to spiritual doctrine. Underpinning Chris Robinson’s throaty vocals, the music feels looser, richer, more natural and textured, less planned and finessed. Harsch and Ford’s fingerprints are smudged throughout the grooves; Rich Robinson’s rhythm guitar forges a slippery alliance with Johnny Colt’s bass and Gorman’s powerhouse drumming.
It captures a sweet spot in their career: the span during which they straddled boogie, blues, R&B, country and jam-oriented Southern rock with flair, effortlessness and enthusiasm.
Filmed on the band’s “High as the Moon” tour in support of “The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion,” and before tensions and diversions tore at the band, “Live at Landgraaf 1993” spotlights this robust iteration of the Black Crowes. It captures a sweet spot in their career: the span during which they straddled boogie, blues, R&B, country and jam-oriented Southern rock with flair, effortlessness and enthusiasm.
For all the criticisms that pegged the collective as imitators, the performance bursts with a kind of personality, cohesiveness and charm that’s difficult to mimic — and a lineup nearly impossible to replace. A marijauna backdrop is the closest the Black Crowes come to indulging the excesses that would later creep into their songwriting and temperament. There’s no evidence of internal fractions, none of the meandering digressions the band embraced by the late ‘90s. The group stretches out on “Thorn in My Pride” and entertains an instrumental flight, yet both adhere to a strong musical compass.
Onstage, the band mirrors the vintage strut of its songs. Chris Robinson, wiry as a cornfield scarecrow and barely wider than the microphone stand, relishes his role as an overcaffeinated center of attention who won’t stand still. The introverted yin to his brother’s extroverted yang, Rich Robinson communicates via lean barre chords and push-pull riffs. Playing side-by-side with Colt, the cigarette-puffing Ford lubricates the sound with slide-guitar grease and knifing solos. Harsch hovers over a bank of keyboards, fingering organ and piano lines that gild tunes such as “Remedy” with gospel and funk. Gorman ties everything together by keeping steady time for the back-and-forth interplay.
The alchemy wouldn’t last. Following the well-received “Amorica” (1994), the Black Crowes regrouped for the middling “Three Snakes and One Charm” (1996). Relationships became strained and dominated headlines; the music drifted. Ford got dismissed for drug dependency in ‘97; Colt departed the same year. With Gorman and Harsch still in tow, the Robinson brothers entered another phase. “Live at Landgraaf 1993” depicts a kinder time — and what a band can achieve when disparate personas align and disagreements cool, even if for a fleeting moment.
Black Crowes “Live at Landgraaf 1993” Setlist
1. No Speak No Slave
2. Twice as Hard
3. “The Jam”
4. Thorn in My Pride
5. Stare It Cold/Three Little Birds
6. Black Moon Creeping
7. Sometimes Salvation
8. Jealous Again
10. Hard to Handle