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By Photo by Ross Halfin
By MATT MUNOZ, Californian contributing columnist
Popular music at the tail end of the '80s may not have been entirely ready for The Black Crowes retro heaviness.
Neither gangster rappers nor glam rockers, the band's Stones/Faces-influenced blues psychedelia was filled with reminders of a bygone era lingering mostly among revivalists and tie-dyed Deadheads, not the MTV generation.
The Black Crowes
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Fox Theater, 2001 H St.
Admission: $43.50 to $83.50, plus service charge
Information: 324-1369 or vallitix.com
But even as musical tastes changed, these long-haired wild-eyed Southern boys held firm to their original rock 'n' roll beliefs, building a global nest of fiercely loyal fans who, after more than 25 years, continue to follow the group everywhere.
Fronted by brothers Chris Robinson on vocals and guitarist Rich Robinson, The Black Crowes return to the Fox Theater on Tuesday as part of the band's yearlong "Lay Down With Number 13" world tour, which comes to an end this month. Longtime drummer Steve Gorman took a few minutes for a phone interview recently to try and explain the band's enduring appeal.
"If you're a Black Crowes fan, you like our music, you don't like our haircuts, our political statements, you love the music," said Gorman, 48. "The one thing people want from us more than anything else is access to that music. We figure ways to give it to them."
While most of band's discography is still available in stores and on major digital outlets, The Black Crowes have made new music readily available directly through their official website, blackcrowes.com.
"We don't know how websites work; no one in the band is writing code, but we do know how to say to people, 'Make sure every show shows up as soon as possible, and anything people want should be found easily.'"
It's impossible to find a proper starting point at which to detail the group's ride from pre-grunge hippies to tech-savvy rock institution. In Gorman's mind, not much has changed since the release of their debut album, "Shake Your Money Maker," in 1990, shortly after they changed their name from Mr. Crowe's Garden to The Black Crowes.
"We didn't think popular music had anything to do with us," Gorman said. "When we were making that record in the summer of '89 and we turned on MTV, all we saw was Skid Row, Poison and Slaughter. And then NWA's 'Straight Outta Compton' was out. I totally see why some people would say we had a '70s sound, but I can tell you our mindset was very '80s, and by '80s I mean The Replacements, who were more of a model than anybody else."
Although the success of "Shake Your Money Maker" was seen as an anomaly at the time, that view wouldn't last. The group's crossover appeal to rock and college radio formats, plus MTV play, made them early indie innovators.
"I remember us saying in the studio, 'If we sell 50,000 copies, then maybe they'll let us make another record. And if we sell 100,000, they have to let us make another one.' We didn't understand anything about how the music industry worked, and that was very much in our favor, because we weren't concerning ourselves with it. We were surprised that once the record was being readied for release that the distributor of our small record label, Def American, was committed to get us on rock radio. We thought it was kind of a joke."
Following the success of the singles "She Talks to Angels" and "Hard to Handle," an Otis Redding cover, the band managed to avoid the sophomore slump with their follow-up album, "The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion," which spawned the hits "Remedy" and "Sting Me."
But even more than their recording successes, The Black Crowes have proved over the course of their career that they know how to put on a show, both in the band's musicianship and the swagger of natural-born showman Chris Robinson, with his lanky Jagger-like moves and wailing soul pipes.
But as the band would soon discover, with fame comes tabloid scrutiny -- over Chris Robinson's marriage to and subsequent divorce from actress Kate Hudson, and reports that the Robinson brothers couldn't stand each other.
"That's a story that people find really interesting, but it's actually pretty (expletive) in real-life. It's not cool, because it can get in the way of the band and you're talking about siblings. It's just sad that two brothers are fighting. We talked about it, but it was never anything we wanted to play up. In any band, there's arguing, and there's not getting along with each other, and there have been issues with other members of the band getting at each other's throats. It's just nowhere as compelling as when it's brothers."
After going on hiatus for a few years, the band reunited in 2005. In addition to the Robinson brothers and Gorman, there's been a revolving lineup of players. Rounding out The Black Crowes current lineup is Sven Pipien, bass; Adam MacDougall, keyboards; and Jackie Greene, guitar.
"It's a nice change of pace now, this year, and I mean this sincerely, there has not been one argument, no disagreements," Gorman said. "And that goes for everyone. We get along better and function, when the focus is playing music."
With nine studio albums, four live albums, and the ongoing release of authorized and unauthorized recordings, Gorman said the band's songwriting hasn't slowed, nor has its desire to change its the focus.
"My band has never concerned itself with what's going on now. When you're 23 and, say that you sound like a snotty punk and I get it, but 23 years on, we're still doing things the way we always did. So, it is just how we are, and I don't mean to be dismissive of other artists who are successful, I just don't care. If something's good, and number one right now, in another 15 years it should still be good and I'll get around to it when I get around to it."
Asked about the future of The Black Crowes, Gorman said while he can't make any predictions, fans should plan on catching them live while they can.
"The band's not going to end this year, but we don't have a plan for how it's going to continue. We're not going to do anything next year. The end of the tour in 2010 we decided to take a few years off, and I would have bet 50-50 we would come back or just go away forever. I don't feel that this time. I think that there's a huge future for the Black Crowes; we just haven't figured out what it is yet."