Just months removed from the release of their debut LP, “Shake Your Money Maker,” and on their first European tour, the Black Crowes play a swagger-filled set at the 1990 Pinkpop Festival in Holland.
Fans weren’t quite sure what to make of the Black Crowes when they tumbled onto the Pinkpop stage in Landgraaf, Holland, at 10:15 a.m. on a gloomy June morning in 1990. With their preening bohemian grandeur and druggy bonhomie, they seemed more like glamorous all-night revelers staggering home after a night of clubbing instead of the opening band for this prestigious festival.
Their debut album, “Shake Your Money Maker,” had been released only four months before, and while it was steadily snaking its way up the Billboard chart (where it would remain for 108 weeks), the Atlanta band hadn’t yet made the leap from obscurity to ubiquity. Given that this was their first European appearance, it was no surprise that the Black Crowes had drawn the opening slot on an eclectic bill that included the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, goth heroes Mission UK, the Neville Brothers and Van Morrison.
Defiantly out of current fashion in their foppish brocade and velvet, and musically anachronistic in this new decade that would soon embrace grunge and alternative music, they had nonetheless won over American fans as they crisscrossed the country in what became a relentless van tour, racking up 250 dates in 16 months. But they couldn’t be sure of the reception they’d be getting from fans here — they wouldn’t even chart in Holland until the next summer, when “Jealous Again” would make it up to No. 34.
In this set, the five of them look a little apprehensive at an hour they are more likely to be going to bed than performing on a stage in front of thousands of Dutch fans. There’s none of the cocksure, blithe abandon they displayed when they made their high stakes TV debut on “The David Letterman Show” just the month before (Letterman enthused afterward, “Isn’t that rock ‘n’ roll the way God wanted it to be?”). Instead they look pale, a little pinched and twitchy in the morning light that threatens rain as festivalgoers file into the grounds.
Period references abound, both musically and sartorially.
On the freewheeling anthem of misadventures and bad women, “You’re Wrong,” singer Chris Robinson minces, pouts, claps and fancy-dances his way across the long stage regaling the audience with his tales of rock-star excess in his scratchy Steve Marriott-like rasp — a theme of more than a few of the songs in the early Black Crowes canon. Period references abound, both musically and sartorially. Robinson looks every inch the archetypical ‘70s rock star: mysterious, a little troubled, with an unstudied cool. Reckless charm radiates from his shagged “Klute” hair, kohl-rimmed eyes, unbuttoned poet’s shirt and the ropes of hippie arcana hanging around his thin neck.
His younger brother, rhythm guitarist Rich Robinson, plays his part equally well with his loose tangle of Peter Frampton curls and angelic face; his eyes similarly lined in black. The younger Robinson’s lean guitar attack echoes Keith Richards’ melodic sense and timing, even in these early days. But the Stonesian vibe only goes so far: the glammed-up, fringe-wearing guitarist Jeff Cease is no Ron Wood to Robinson’s Keith — the two don’t play much in accord. (That would change when Marc Ford joined the band the next year.) But Cease pulls out showy notes from his guitar, reminiscent of a young Allen Collins, the most noticeable clue that this is indeed a Southern band.
Johnny Colt tries to dispel that notion. The hyperactive, tattooed, raven-haired stage hog of a bassist looks as if he’d be happier playing with the New York Dolls, but he and Steve Gorman, the stalwart, muscular drummer, find a tight groove and stick to it, as solid as Humble Pie’s or AC/DC’s throughout the swaggering set.
Showcasing the versatility of an outfit that was always much more than their nervy bar-band beginnings, they slow the pace for the dirgy “Sister Luck,” bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Rolling Stones’ “Sway,” seamlessly segued into a cover of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy.”
Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” turns into an unexpected psychedelic pastiche near the end. “Stare It Cold,” an ambiguous screed about the toll touring extracts on musicians, wanders into Allman Brothers Band “Mountain Jam” territory, as if foretelling how this band will sound in another five years.
“Jealous Again” veers between emotional poles: Is it an indicator of affection or an excuse for intimacy issues? But it’s the strongest song in the set, with its close harmonies, dramatic tempo shifts and insistent serpentine guitar. It’s the first time Chris Robinson allows himself a small blurry smile and you can feel him realizing that they are winning over the audience, like sun breaking through the dreary Dutch sky.
“Struttin’ Blues,” an impudent rave-up with a few too many chord changes, plays them out at breakneck speed, and you can almost see their myth gather steam: Are the Black Crowes the last of the great rock bands or the first of the new ones? In 1990 as now, it’s still a hard question to answer.
Black Crowes Holland 1990 Setlist
Twice as Hard
Jealous Guy (John Lennon cover)
Hard to Handle (Otis Redding cover)
Stare It Cold
One of the first women to work in rock journalism, Jaan Uhelszki got her start alongside Lester Bangs, Ben Edmonds and Dave Marsh — considered the “dream team” of rock writing at Creem Magazine in the mid-1970s. Currently an Editor at Large at Relix, Uhelszki has published articles in NME, Mojo, Rolling Stone, USA Today, Classic Rock, Uncut and the San Francisco Chronicle. Her awards include Online Journalist of the Year and the National Feature Writer Award from the Music Journalist’s Association, and three Deems Taylor Awards. She is listed in Flavorwire’s 33 Women Music Critics You Need to Read and holds the dubious honor of being the only rock journalist who has ever performed in full costume and makeup with Kiss.