The once-chart-topping southern blues and folk-rockers almost hung it up for good earlier this decade, only to reunite and push through a series of sometimes-frustrating lineup changes to get to where they are now, which is making some of their best music ever.
If the story of the Black Crowes circa 2009 weren’t so knotted and tricky, well, it wouldn’t be the Black Crowes. The once-chart-topping southern blues and folk-rockers almost hung it up for good earlier this decade, only to reunite and push through a series of sometimes-frustrating lineup changes to get to where they are now, which is making some of their best music ever.
“It’s funny, looking back there are the times when we said we were stable and we really weren’t stable,” said drummer Steve Gorman in a recent interview. “You realize just how many times you were selling that to yourself rather than being it. But now, more so than any time in the 15 years, we’re looking ahead with an idea of where we’re going, and we’re all moving in the same direction.” Gorman would know; he’s the only member of the Black Crowes to have been with the soulful, volatile Robinson brothers – vocalist/frontman Chris and guitarist/vocalist Rich – since the beginning of the band, which was more or less 1989 (though the roots of the band, through other ensembles, stretch back at least five more years).
He was there for the band’ s triumphs in the early-to-mid-'90s, and then for its decline over the next few years. Gorman officially quit the band as it went on hiatus in 2002 and returned a few months into its 2005 reunion tour. Stability, at that point, still didn’t come easy. The reunited Crowes brought the return of departed guitarist Marc Ford, who had been booted from the band in 1997, only to see Ford exit once more in 2006, worried that life back in the Crowes lineup would cause a relapse of well-documented substance abuse issues.
The band also parted ways with longtime keyboardist Eddie Harsch, paving the way for a new lineup of the Crowes – featuring guitarist Paul Stacey and keyboardist Rob Clores – that was in place for a year. In late 2007 came keyboardist Adam McDougall, and, finally, North Mississippi Allstars guitarist Luther Dickinson, whose slide guitar dexterity, rich tone and fiery playing have made him the Crowes’ most exciting lead guitarist since Ford’s heyday with the band. Nowadays, the Crowes are once again touring like there’s no tomorrow, and following the excellent “Warpaint” (2008) have a second album with the stabilized lineup about to arrive: a two-disc effort called “Before the Frost...Until the Freeze,” a combination release of new studio material and outtakes.
The Patriot Ledger caught up with Gorman.
PL: You quit the Black Crowes in 2002, and when the reunion happened in 2005, you didn’t return on drums until something like the twentieth show of the tour. What finally brought you back?
STEVE GORMAN: The simplest thing is that I could never get past how it ended. I didn’t come back with an eye to the future – I just wanted to clean up the mess we left behind, and at the time, I thought, if this turns into one year of shows and nothing more, at least we ended up shaking hands. It was like overtime: I wanted to get one more goal.
I think that’s where everyone’s head was – no one felt good about how it had ended. The last few years leading up to 2001, the band was fading and everyone was just exhausted and pissed off. We needed a break somewhere in the late '90s, we should have taken a year back then, but it didn’t go that way.
PL: So what convinced you it was time to give it another go?
SG: Well, when I left at the end of 2001, I really did leave. It wasn’t an angry, piss-off-I’m-outta-here type of thing either, it was several years of thinking. I’d been doing other things and then everyone was kind of happy pursuing their own thing. I didn’t want to go back at first, but I was intrigued. I really wanted to set some stuff straight and finally I said, hey, I’d still like to do this and they said, OK great. I went back with only doing just that one year in mind.
PL: How early did you know it could go longer than just that “shake hands and be done with it” year?
SG: By the time 2005 ended we were already talking about 2006. I didn’t want to go back to a new record; I was adamant. It was tempting to immediately run into the studio, but looking back, that’s what we always did. We never took the time, and what lead us to falling apart – one of the things anyway – was that we were so impatient throughout the ‘90s. So this time, we said, let’s make sure we’re solid. And there were a couple of guys who came back who didn’t stay very long, so we were concerned again. But, and I think Chris and Rich would say the same thing, when we finally went in to make “Warpaint,” it was the first time I thought, OK, hey, this is going to be a band again.
The last two years have felt like that: we’ve been patient and we’ve been solid. It’s shocking to be old and realize you can learn something about patience, but friend, that’s the truth. It was not cool that guys left the band but it’s how we responded that made us different. “Shake Your Money Maker” is 20 years old – holy [crap] my knees are killing me! – and we’ve made a ton of mistakes and done some stupid [stuff] and done some great [stuff]. We wouldn’t have been the Black Crowes if we’d been on this rational, reasonable path the whole time. It’s easier to make sense of things these days, much easier to discuss how we feel which was never the case in the old days.
PL: Having been in the figurative foxhole with Chris and Rich for so long, how have each of them changed over the years?
SG: For Chris, he’s better about two things: one, communicating what he hears in his head so he’s not frustrated when people can’t read his mind. He trusts everybody and how they approach things. Two is how he reacts to things. He and I hardly ever speak verbally about what we’re doing musically, but now he’ll ask everyone for suggestions, what did you see, what do you hear, what do you think. We all communicate a lot better.
I’d say a lot of the same for Rich, and he’s also much more expressive as a player. He’s freed himself up. I think going away from the Crowes and being the frontman in his own band and having to sing every song every night, he came back to the Black Crowes with a totally different sense of how he could be a singer. At the end of the day, it’s funny: Chris and Rich, after all that, are still brothers.
They’ve never not known life without the other one there, which isn’t always an easy thing.
PL: Tell me what Luther and Adam bring to the band. They’ve both had to ramp up pretty fast, and by all accounts, they have.
SG: They’re both real good players and creative guys and they’ve been such a huge kick in the ass for us. Luther is great at saying why did you do this, or why did you play something this way. When someone comes in like that as an outsider, you do stop and look at things differently. You know, why did we do it that way? [laughs] Adam’s the same way – lots of creativity in what he does. We never asked them to be Marc or Ed, you know? They brought themselves to the band.
PL: Crowesbase.com lists your first area gig as the Black Crowes as being in March 1990 in Providence. What do you remember from your early shows up in this area?
SG: Oh yeah, we did all of it then, 1990 in Providence and at the Paradise and the Channel in Boston and all these places. That area was one of the first to embrace us when we came north, and the reception’s always been great. Good to be coming back.
The Patriot Ledger
CATCH THE CROWES
The Black Crowes play at the Cape Cod Melody Tent on Wednesday, at Bank of America Pavilion next Thursday, and Sept. 16 at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence.