In May 2017, Chris Robinson shared his thoughts on the state of the world with Howard Stern on the radio host’s Sirius XM show, saying, “Donald Trump is president, John Mayer is in the Grateful Dead and my brother (Rich Robinson) is a Black Crowes tribute band.” It wasn’t meant to be a thrilling analysis, dinging his brother for his new band The Magpie Salute and highlighting some of the disturbing signs of our topsy turvy times.
A year later, how have things changed? Well, Donald Trump is still president, John Mayer is still playing with the Grateful Dead, but now it’s Chris Robinson who is fronting a Black Crowes tribute band.
Saturday night, Robinson brought his most recent project, dubbed As The Crow Flies, to MontBleu Resort Casino & Spa. The group delivered exactly what everyone in the room, both crowd and band, had gathered for: a nostalgic tear through The Black Crowes catalog.
Joining Robinson on this musical joyride were former Crowes players Audley Freed on guitar, Andy Hess on bass and Adam MacDougall on keyboards, along with Chris Robinson Brotherhood drummer Tony Leone and Marcus King Band guitarist Marcus King, an exciting and appropriate ensemble to explore the Crowes’ blues rock swagger.
It’s been five years since The Black Crowes officially disbanded, putting to rest an influential band whose early years comprised of putting a new, generational face on hip-shaking, blues-inspired rock and releasing landmark albums such as “Shake Your Money Maker” and “The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion.” The band’s latter years produced solid and dependable music, though it was defined by the dismantling relationship between brothers Chris and Rich and the ensuing breakups, reunions and agitated musical paths that highlighted the familial rift.
Time can heal wounds, though, and it seems enough time passed from the whole Crowes thing to allow Robinson the ability to reconnect with the music from a celebratory angle, rather than don it as his musical cross to bear within his career. Enthused fans were all too ready to celebrate with him and they greeted the band with joyous elation. As The Crow Flies took it all in with a smile then opened with a charging “Remedy,” the bluesy bluster of the riff igniting Robinson’s boogie bravado. The group then launched into a juiced-up “Sting Me” for an opening one-two combo that previewed a satisfying night of great music.
When you peel back all the drama that has shrouded The Black Crowes throughout its history, you are reminded how enticing and fun the music is. That’s what this run of shows was supposed to be about and that’s what happened Saturday night as Robinson and company picked through the Crowes’ catalog, namely the material found on its earlier records. “(Only) Halfway To Everywhere” felt loose and crunchy and the laid-back, lava lamp vibes of “Nonfiction” emanated in Robinson’s inspired performance and heady solos from King and Freed. By the time the Southern rock charm of “By Your Side” blasted out the speakers, the band had found its groove and was firing on all cylinders.
The group of musicians didn’t look to take the songs into any uncharted territory or evolve the arrangements into something new for this special run of shows. They understood the purpose was to just have fun playing this select group of tunes, and delivered faithful and satisfying versions of “Sister Luck,” “High Head Blues” and “Good Friday.” The place where the musicians’ individual personalities really shined was on the long-form jams. Freed’s explosive chops were on display during a searing version of the hippie-blues anthem “Almost Cut My Hair,” while a transcendent “Wiser Time” featured a swirling solo of iridescent tones by MacDougall complemented by King’s liquified leads.
The end of the show was the nostalgic heart of the night, with the band closing out the set with the hit-heavy run of “She Talks To Angels,” “Thorn In My Pride,” “Jealous Again” and “Hard To Handle.” The smiles went back and forth between the people onstage and the people in the crowd and everyone was caught up in the moment, living in the joy the music brought. Whether intentional or not, the incredible string of songs that cemented the night effectively served as a tribute to both The Black Crowes’ legacy and to the fans who had built it. For whatever relationships have formed or ended between the members that comprise the Crowes, they and their fans will be forever connected to the music that they made.
So in 2018, Donald Trump is president, John Mayer is playing with The Grateful Dead and Chris Robinson is fronting a Black Crowes tribute band. At least on the last part, that’s a good thing.
— Garrett Bethmann