Playing at a private space in Amsterdam on the 1996 tour for “Three Snakes and One Charm,” the Black Crowes deliver an intimate performance that zeroes in on their band interplay and musical evolution. Originally filmed for “2 Meter Sessies.”
You’ll be hard-pressed to spot any smiles on the faces of the Black Crowes during their otherwise convincing performance on Nov. 17, 1996 at Bullet Sound Studios in Amsterdam. When he teases drummer Steve Gorman for causing the band to pause amid “Better When You’re Not Alone,” singer Chris Robinson finally manages a grin that spreads to a few of his colleagues for the briefest of moments. Largely, however, we see six individuals who don’t appear to like one another much — and seem allergic to having fun while playing together.
Not that the group kept such tension under wraps. In a candid interview with Acoustic Guitar published two months before this live session took place, guitarist Rich Robinson said he and his brother “just fucking hated each other” in ‘95 but, after nearly breaking up, worked out their differences. That fragile peace accord didn’t appear to last.
Amazingly, the iciness between band members doesn’t impact the music. Captured during the Black Crowes’ tour in support of their fourth LP, the uneven “Three Snakes and One Charm,” the film depicts a sextet whose chemistry and experience allow it to anticipate moves, synchronize grooves and blend styles with sage effortlessness. But its expiration date was nearing. The departure of bassist Johnny Colt and firing of guitarist Marc Ford the following fall would permanently alter the collective’s makeup and direction.
Significant changes had already occurred within the Black Crowes’ camp. The lineup seen here coalesced in 1992 after the Atlanta-based band broke through with its smash debut (“Shake Your Money Maker”) and before it released the more multifaceted “The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion.” With each successive year, the group moved further away from hard-driving rock ‘n’ roll and closer to rootsy, organic fare. Its cult-classic “Amorica” (1994) best straddled the divide, with meandering arrangements and a dearth of radio singles signaling a shift in priorities.
Avowed disciples of psychedelia and weed, the Black Crowes approached their craft more seriously than most, with their studiousness translating into a batch of material that has aged fairly well.
The band’s evolution didn’t occur in a vacuum. Steeped in loose jamming and feel-good vibes, a wave of newer artists — from the Dave Matthews Band and Blues Traveler to Rusted Root and Spin Doctors — emerged just as the angst-ridden alt-rock movement began to wane. Avowed disciples of psychedelia and weed, the Black Crowes approached their craft more seriously than most, with their studiousness translating into a batch of material that has aged fairly well.
In Amsterdam, the group wears its recast identity on its sleeves. The Black Crowes look apart from the band that recorded “The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion.” Chris Robinson goes full-on mountain man with a ponytail, scraggly beard, beaded necklace, long-sleeved tie dye and train-engineer overalls. The rest of the band opts for a similarly homey look at odds with the ‘70s rock-star aesthetic it once embraced. The laidback feel extends to the cozy ambience: a darkened space decorated with tie-dye throws and minimal lighting.
The Black Crowes’ hippie-leaning spirit carries over to the 39-minute set. Ignoring its first two albums, the sextet eschews tunes (“Remedy,” “She Talks to Angels,” “Jealous Again”) casual listeners might easily recognize. The Robinsons and company instead draw from “Amorica” and “Three Snakes and One Charm.” They also perform a subdued cover of the Byrds’ “He Was a Friend of Mine” grounded by a purring organ, Rickenbacker twang and between-the-notes spaciousness. Chris and Rich Robinson’s harmonizing underlines the song’s solemnity. Their vocal blending — sweet, rich, swampy, tinged with a Georgia accent — warrants constant attention.
The siblings’ singing intertwines on “How Much for Your Wings?” akin to vines criss-crossing on a wooden fence before a fuzz-dusted guitar solo interrupts the pensive mood. What begins as a folk-steeped excursion ends as a miniature jam that serves as a harbinger of songs that follow. They include “Downtown Money Waster,” a spring-loaded boogie whose rhythms could seemingly scamper for an hour without growing tiresome, plus the R&B-stoked “Let Me Share the Ride” and country-minded “Wiser Time.” The not-so-secret weapon? Ford, whose slide-guitar finesse and slippery interplay with Rich Robinson and keyboardist Eddie Harsch dictate the band’s purpose.
No longer focused on rocking out or raising a ruckus, the Black Crowes of this particular vintage slither and stride, shuffle and stretch out. They occasionally drift, but more often than not, mine soulful veins, even when maracas make an appearance and threaten to detract from Chris Robinson’s concentration. As a bonus, the film’s intimate perspective — and the fact the studio’s tight confines force the band members to play in close proximity, practically unable to avoid eye contact with each other — tells a story that the music alone cannot convey.
Black Crowes “Amsterdam Sessions 1996” Setlist
How Much for Your Wings?
Downtown Money Waster
Let Me Share the Ride
He Was a Friend of Mine (Byrds cover)
Better When You’re Not Alone
Bob Gendron 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 the first Associate Editorial Director at The Coda Collection, he was also the longtime Music Editor at The Absolute Sound and performed the same role 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.