By Josh Herwitt //
Back when MTV was in its heyday, I remember seeing the music video for The Black Crowes’ “Hard to Handle” routinely flash across my television screen. It was my first memory of the now-defunct Southern blues-rock band fronted by Chris Robinson, whose soulful croon for nearly 25 years helped the Crowes sell more than 30 million albums.
But despite all of their success together, Robinson and his younger brother Rich often didn’t see eye to eye. That’s why after two separate hiatuses, The Black Crowes made it official late last year, announcing that they were done once and for all.
For Robinson, the breakup signaled an opportunity for him to focus primarily on his other project, the eponymous Chris Robinson Brotherhood that formed several years earlier and leans more heavily toward the West Coast jam scene that the Grateful Dead pioneered than the feel-good rock ‘n’ roll that The Black Crowes were well-known for fostering in the 90’s.
At this point, CRB are a well-oiled machine. With five LPs — including two this year in Any Way You Love, We Know How You Feel and If You Lived Here, You Would Be Home By Now — under its belt, the five-piece has established itself as one of the hardest-working bands out there, both in the studio and on the road.
With the release of If You Lived Here, You Would Be Home By Now in early November, CRB had already been up and down the West Coast for a couple of weeks by the time they arrived in the city where the group was formed. It was a unusually cold, winter night in LA last Saturday, as Robinson (lead vocals, guitar) and his fellow bandmates — Neal Casal (guitar, vocals), Adam MacDougall (keyboards, vocals), Tony Leone (drums) and newest addition Jeff Hill (bass) — walked onstage at The Fonda Theatre for the very first time.
After all, since CRB formed in 2011, the El Rey Theatre has served as their LA home, like it has for many jam-related acts. But over the past year, The Fonda has reasserted itself as the venue for jam bands. Both Lotus and Galactic have made the move, with each scheduled to perform at the 1,200-person venue that’s changed its name a handful of times in February.
The Fonda, on this night, appeared to serve CRB well, well enough to mix in their newest material like “Roan County Banjo” and “New Cannonball Rag” off If You Lived Here, You Would Be Home By Now with covers of The Byrds’ “Lazy Days” and Robinson’s past solo project New Earth Mud. There were cuts from Any Way You Love, We Know How You Feel, particularly during the band’s second set as CRB plowed through “Ain’t It Hard but Fair”, “Leave My Guitar Alone” and “Forever as the Moon” before wrapping up with “Narcissus Soaking Wet”, which opens the eight-track record that reached as high as No. 118 on the Billboard 200.
CRB are among a rare breed of bands. With Robinson’s roots in Georgia despite moving to California more than 20 years ago, there’s still a Southern quality to his music. His unique voice puts you at ease, and although guitar is still fairly new to him, you wouldn’t know it from the way his playing jives so seamlessly with Casal’s. Yet, as a Marin County resident where friends Phil Lesh and Bob Weir also live, you can see where Robinson’s allegiances have started to lie. Intertwining elements of psychedelic rock, blues and jam, CRB are an amalgamation of Robinson’s many influences. Maybe no better example of that was their cover of swamp rocker Tony Joe White’s “Saturday Night in Oak Grove, Louisiana”, which showed up as “Saturday Night in L.A.” on the setlist. So, as Robinson and company closed with their own rendition of The Velvet Underground’s “Rock & Roll” that had fans singing along to the words Lou Reed once wrote back in 1970, it felt like a good way to celebrate a Saturday night in LA.
Set 1: Lazy Days (The Byrds cover), Roan County Banjo, Badlands Here We Come, Clear Blue Sky & The Good Doctor, Sunday Sound (Chris Robinson & New Earth Mud cover), Meanwhile in the Gods…, California Hymn, Saturday Night in L.A. (officially titled “Saturday Night in Oak Grove, Louisiana”) (Tony Joe White cover)
Set 2: Rosalee, New Cannonball Rag, Ain’t It Hard but Fair, Reflections on a Broken Mirror, Leave My Guitar Alone, Forever as the Moon, I Ain’t Hiding (The Black Crowes cover), Narcissus Soaking Wet > Rosalee reprise
Encore: Rock & Roll (The Velvet Underground cover)