Faithful to rock & roll

By Sergio Ariza

If the Black Crowes were a kind of second coming of the Rolling Stones, then Rich Robinson would be the Keith Richards of the band,  the sound maker, and the riffs master with his open tunings, on which, mainly, others shone on the guitar solo. His is like a profile of Keith or Malcolm Young, always in the shadow of the brother who doesn't stay still on stage. But if we talk about the Black Crowes sound, we must talk about the sound of a guy who, from the first chord of Twice As Hard, brought back the best essence of the classic rock of the 70s, showing an absolute love and loyalty to this type of music.

It may have been a derivative sound, but it had a soul of its own, it may have been that his strict musical diet didn't include anything after 1975, but his songs had an identity of their own and, more importantly, they were at the level of the bands they loved. Can Remedy be considered at the same level of a Stay With Me? Of course. Can you compare The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion with Second Helping? No doubt about it. It's obvious that the Crowes were one step below the Stones, but they hold their own against Aerosmith perfectly. Their first three albums should be in anyone's collection with a minimal interest in the classic sound of rock & roll.

Richard Spencer Robinson was born on May 24, 1969 in Atlanta, Georgia, the year in which Led Zeppelin's first two albums were released, Let It Bleed of the Stones or the first album of the Allman Brothers, albums that would have a long shadow on their music. His father had been a musician and had a large collection of records but Rich did not receive his first guitar, a Stratocaster imitation of the company Lotus, until 1984. After learning a few chords, he formed his first band Mr. Crowe's Garden with his older brother Chris, three years older than him.

At first his influences were divided between punk and Georgia's local heroes, R.E.M., but very soon (quite normal, being where they were from) echoes of southern rock bands came in, something you can notice in one of the first songs that Rich wrote, She Talks To Angels, when he was only 17 years old. With his electric guitar unplugged, this melody came out with his iconic tuning in open G which, years later, would appear on the band's debut album.

The band began to gain local fame and in 1987 they recorded their first demos. The following year, already with drummer Steve Gorman in the band, the group was discovered in New York by George Drakoulias, a young producer who worked for Rick Rubin and saw the band's tremendous potential. In love with his live performances he began to get the band together, and make them listen to bands that would be fundamental to their sound, such as the Faces or Humble Pie. In 1989 he signed the band, which had changed its name to The Black Crowes, for Rubin's label and the group set to work to record their first album between Atlanta and Los Angeles. Some of the songs came from the time of Mr. Crowe's Garden, such as She Talks To Angels, to which Chris had added the lyrics and had turned it into a slower tempo. For his recording, the younger Robinson used his favorite guitar, a 1953 Martin D28 that his father gave him when he saw that his passion for music was sincere.

But that first record, called Shake Your Money Maker, went far beyond that song and showed that the Robinson brothers had extracted the best nuances from their favorite bands. They were still in training and those songs clearly referred to their sources, but you could already see that the brothers were excellent composers. The brutal start of the album with the double hit of Twice As Hard and Jealous Again was the closest thing to the rock paradise that had been seen for many years. The first was his homage to Led Zeppelin, with Rich unleashing a tremendous riff with slide slickness, while the second carries the stamp of the classic period of the Rolling Stones. Even the guitar used by Robinson, a Telecaster, refers to Keith Richards. The rest of songs also go back to other bands, in Sister Luck you can see his love for Lynyrd Skynyrd's southern rock, while Thick N' Thin could have have been taken from one of the Faces' albums.

But despite the quality of their compositions, success would come with their cover of Hard To Handle by their countryman Otis Redding, proving that the band also had a lot of soul to offer. Overnight the album began to sell millions of copies and the Black Crowes became 'the next big thing' in rock, opening for names such as Robert Plant or Aerosmith. At a time when the charts were dominated by groups like Roxette or New Kids On The Block, the appearance of the Black Crowes was seen as the second advent by the rock-loving public.

Their concerts were as big as their singer's mouth. The eldest Robinson didn't miss an opportunity to get into trouble, and on a ZZ Top opening tour he ended up attacking the Miller Beer Co. that was sponsoring the tour. They were fired, but every time he opened his mouth and a new shit-storm arose, they sold tens of thousands more copies. Their behavior was as classic as their sound, "sex, drugs and rock & roll ”. In a short time the fights between the brothers became something as normal in the band as the Stone-like riffs.

But the hundreds of concerts were giving them much more weight as a band, and they began to rehearse the songs of their next album. However, the turbulence within the band took out the guitarist Jeff Cease, who was replaced by Marc Ford. Shortly after joining the band Slash called him to replace Izzy Stradlin in Guns N' Roses but Ford stayed with the Crowes. The band had found their own particular Mick Taylor.

But the first thing the new guitarist had to do was acclimatize to the strange atmosphere of the band. In his first rehearsal as a member of the Crowes, Ford had to watch as the Robinson brothers engaged in a fist fight for the tempo of Sting Me. Although he had entered at Chris' request, it would be with Rich that he would form a wonderful musical relationship, adding his excellent licks over the open chords and riffs of the little Robinson. The result of their chemistry would be verified in The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion, the band's second album and their great masterpiece. Ford's Stratocaster was perfectly intertwined with the wonderful structures created by Robinson, with a growing collection of guitars, in which economic success was noticeable, including several Telecasters, a Les Paul Goldtop or a Gibson ES-335.

The Robinson brothers had not invented the wheel, nor did they pretend to, they were basically a group that thought like Homer Simpson, that "Rock reached perfection in 1974, it is a scientific fact". But there's no reason why The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion shouldn't be counted among the best albums of the 1990s. An album that opens with the double impact of Sting Me and Remedy, the best song of his career, deserves all possible praise; the group finds its own voice as a band, without forgetting its most obvious influences. Their maturation as musicians can be seen in songs like My Morning Song or Thorn In My Pride, a song in which Rich once again demonstrates his talent with acoustics, this time a 1961 Gibson Dove, in a song in which he gets a song styled after his beloved Nick Drake but, at the same time, sounds perfect on a rock & roll album. If the first album was much more immediate and direct, this was more funky and relaxed, sounding more like themselves than the previous one.


The album was an instant hit, climbing to #1 on Billboard's charts and getting their four singles to the top of Billboard's rock charts, an achievement that surpassed Tom Petty's previous mark. But while enjoying this success, they watched the scene change again, leaving them once more, swimming against the tide. The guitars had returned but this time they were the guitars from the alternative nation led by Nirvana, the grunge, and the alternative music were the new mainstream and the Robinson brothers were again left out of a scene that revered the Pixies, Sonic Youth and R.E.M. but did not have such a good opinion of Rod Stewart or the Rolling Stones.

That's how the band went from being the standard-bearers of the rock resurgence to a cult group with a legion of loyal followers. The curious thing about the case is that their third album was on a par with the two previous ones, it was called Amorica. A darker and more complex album, which shows how the band continues to evolve musically, with longer jams and the first echoes of the influence of the Allman Brothers, but without forgetting their roots, or their desire to start their albums with two of their rockiest songs, in this case Gone, with its Latin percussion, and A Conspiracy, another of the band’s best songs, built on another great riff, yet this time with wah from Rich where his brother sings things like "What is left for us to prove, I've never stolen nothing, not a thing. Tried to stay away from this year's big thing”, in which you can see their discomfort with the critics and their acceptance of their condition as outcasts of the big media.


But if the press had pushed them aside, the big rock stars were looking at them and were still counting on them. Between April 1995 and January 1996 they opened for bands like Grateful Dead, the Rolling Stones at Wembley and the reunited Page & Plant. Their relationship with Led Zeppelin's guitarist would take them on a mini-joint tour that would produce the magnificent Live At The Greek, a double live album in which they rock several of Led Zeppelin's hits, as well as covers such as Oh Well by Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac or Elmore JamesShake Your Money Maker, which was the title of the band's first album. For contractual reasons it was not possible to include songs of the Crowes in the album.  (By that time the band had already dismissed Marc Ford and the bassist Johnny Colt had left fed up of the fights between the Robinsons).

In 2001, Lions, the band's sixth album, was released and the group embarked on the tour, ironically called The Tour Of Brotherly Love, along with Oasis, another group with a volcanic sibling relationship. Curiously enough, the Robinsons and Gallaghers got along well enough to finish each performance with Noel on stage along with the Crowes doing some cover of a Bowie, Stones, or Stooges classic. But things between Chris and Rich had not improved and after the departure of Steve Gorman they announced their first split. And the 21st century has seen them join and separate on several occasions with each of the brothers using the time to get to work on their own. But while they were together they never stopped being one of the best live bands in the world. In 2009 appeared Before the Frost...Until the Freeze, recorded in Levon Helm's studio in Woodstock in front of a small audience, it was their last album with new songs and you can see the band facing maturity, closer to The Band than to the Stones.

Finally the band seems to have split up definitively after Rich Robinson released a statement in 2015 accusing his brother of wanting to take his share of the group's property. Since then Rich has released his fourth solo album, Flux, in 2016, and formed The Magpie Salute in 2017 with Marc Ford, bringing together the best guitar couple the Black Crowes ever had, and bassist Sven Pipien, who was part of his former band since 1997. The essence remains the same, echoes of the Zeppelin, Allman Brothers and the omnipresent Stones, but, thanks to the unmistakable Robinson label, the Black Crowes themselves can also be added to that list. They were never the height of originality but knew how to keep their own fire alive in the flame of the best rock & roll. Guys like this dude may be more needed today than ever.