Rock ’n’ roll rewind: The Black Crowes sing from the soul on ‘Late Show with David Letterman’
On June 6, 2001, Georgia Music Hall of Fame inductee the Black Crowes made their eighth of eleven appearances with David Letterman, delivering a solid rock ’n’ soul rendition of “Soul Singing” on CBS’s The Late Show. Fittingly, some 11 years earlier the band had made their network television debut on the rebellious comic’s classic NBC program, and the former Late Show host’s penchant for the ragged rockers remained enthusiastic.
The sophomore single taken from the Atlanta band’s sixth album — Lions — “Soul Singing” became the band’s final hit on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart as of this writing, stalling just shy of the Top Ten at No. 12 [“Lickin’”, the lead single, climbed a tad higher at No. 9].
The Crowes were experiencing a myriad of upheaval and new beginnings as the 21st century emerged. Lead singer and principal lyricist Chris Robinson met actress Kate Hudson at a Manhattan party, fell head over heels in love, and tied the marital knot on New Year’s Eve 2000. The serendipitous relationship slowly but surely impacted the singer’s lyrics.
The band’s core lineup was significantly unstable. Founding bassist Sven Pipien didn’t show up in time for a scheduled show, missed his return flight, and grew agitated when the rest of the band questioned his decision. He was promptly fired and a replacement, Greg Rzab, temporarily took over.
Longtime record label Columbia had not adequately promoted the group’s previous album, By Your Side, so the band seized the opportunity to sign with multi-millionaire Richard Branson’s V2 Records after the impresario promised that there would be no interference from the fledgling label. A wildly successful tour with Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin hinted that the Crowes might be on the verge of a comeback and no doubt fueled Branson’s interest.
A new producer, Don Was, best known for his retro, albeit slick production on latter-day Rolling Stones albums, manned the console during the Lions recording sessions. While the majority of Lions doesn’t rise to the heights of “Soul Singing,” Was admittedly captured the essence of the Crowes’ throwback sound on the tune.
But Chris’ younger brother, Rich, had the crucial ingredient — a churning guitar riff that was alternately acoustic on the verses and electric on the choruses. A catchy sing-along embellished by a quartet of African American female singers provided the icing on the cake.
The Crowes are renowned for channeling an audience’s collective energy, which clearly comes across in the Letterman appearance. The fantastic guitar weaving between Rich and Audley Freed personifies unbridled joy, yet much of the focus is stolen by the elder Robinson.
Clean-shaven with shoulder-length brown hair and sporting John Lennon granny-style purple shades topped off by a Woodstock-era brown fringed shirt, Chris commands the Ed Sullivan stage from the get-go, confidently proclaiming, “I’ve been down, cascading and blue without out a sound, now I’ve traded my black feathers for a crown”… all the while shimmying and dancing as if possessed by the spirit of a fire and brimstone proselytizer.
Upon accepting the Crowes’ prestigious Georgia Music Hall of Fame award a decade later, the frontman vividly summed up his strong musical beliefs. “We grew up in a mid-’80s Atlanta music scene that wasn’t about the passionless corporate attitude that prevails in the world,” said Robinson. “It really was about passion, poetry, madness, and recklessness. Those were the things that gave us the energy and the belief to get involved with music.”
The Black Crowes went their separate ways again following a February 8, 2014, gig at House of Blues in Boston. During a monologue on his Fox Sports Radio program, drummer Steve Gorman placed the split squarely on Chris’s shoulders. “He demanded that my share go to him and that I go to salary,” said Gorman. “That’s entirely true. He demanded that Rich take far less — that’s entirely true. Those were his terms. The band had all agreed and were actively planning to tour in 2015 — a 25th anniversary celebratory tour. He killed it.”
Rich hit the road behind four studio records through Flux and guested repeatedly on the Experience Hendrix guitar extravaganza package tour before forming the Magpie Salute, a Black Crowes offshoot, in 2016. Guitarist Marc Ford and Pipien [pianist Eddie Harsch was also on board before unexpectedly slipping into a coma and subsequently dying] joined their old Black Crowes comrade in reimagining the group’s essential catalog. Tracked in Nashville, a debut studio set of original material is expected in summer 2018.
Chris mostly tours with pet project the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, a solo gypsy caravan endearingly categorized on their official Facebook as “psychedelic filling in a folk blues pie.” They have distributed five full-length studio offerings including 2017’s Barefoot in the Head.
A year after dubbing his estranged brother’s 10-piece project a “Black Crowes tribute band” during an interview on The Howard Stern Show, Chris hypocritically divulged his intention to tour with As the Crow Flies, a sextet consisting of five former Black Crowes alumni. A brief 17-show trek has been announced thus far, and Black Crowes material will predictably comprise the setlist.
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