The Black Crowes
Hammerstein Ballroom- New York City
Easter Sunday, 3/27/05
by Mike D'Ariano
Another hot night in America. New York City and the rain is pouring down. The Hammerstein Ballroom is packed to the gills. Sold out and then some, as in sold out to legal regulation and sold out some more until people are packed in tight together straight back to the door. From ten makeshift human rows back from the stage, there doesn't seem to be a terribly good exit strategy in case the place catches on fire, or someone starts shooting.
The air is thin and some jerkoff from DC and his braless large breasted girlfriend are yapping away to my friends and I about how she knows Oteil from the Allman Brothers Band. It's awkward, and it's making the already half-sideways situation of being exhausted and packed into a small space (with only the thinnest hopes of making it to the rear of the room to pay seven bucks for not a six pack but just one solitary brew) just a little more awkward. I'd like to slap them both and shout "Hey you silly bastards, I know famous people too, including the opening act you just spent forty minutes screaming your face off about! I just don't brag about it to complete fucking strangers!" I make such a poor hippy.
Ben Kweller, the aforementioned opening act, was one of five different acts playing that role over the seven nights that this Black Crowes reunion scene was playing itself out in the sold out Hammerstein. I don't really know him as I claimed to just a mere paragraph ago, but I have met him, photographed him, and exchanged pleasantries. He's a nice guy.
I do halfheartedly know his music. I have a copy of one of his two albums. I've listened to it, and as I explained to my friends, the ideal way for his set to go, at least in my world, would be for him to come out, play the three songs that I really like from the record, and then go away. It kinda went like that. He played all three songs I wanted to hear, a fourth and a fifth tune which I wasn't nuts about beforehand, though they sounded much better live, and a handful of other stuff I could have done without.
Oddly, Ben comes off both much more effeminate in person, and as a much harder rocker than on his album. It's a weird mix which in a Spud Webb, little guy that packs a big punch, kind of way, really works for him.
The only real weak spots in his set were the ballads which, while they might've gone over great in front of 200 people sitting at tables with waitresses bringing them fresh glasses of aged single malt scotch every now and then, didn't quite suit the packed-in, hot and thirsty rock crowd that didn't give that much of a shit about what kind of man Ben thought he was.
There were of course the obligatory opening act shouts of "You suck" and "Go Home" and my irritating new friend felt it was his job to counteract them by immediately following them with a scream of "Yeah Ben!" and then looking defiantly in the direction the detractor may have been. When he was done scowling at no one, he turned to his bubblehead girlfriend who smiled approvingly at her jackass of a man.
Generally, the crowd seemed to think Ben was pretty good. They clapped at the ends of the songs and bobbed their heads in time to his semi-ass kicking, slightly weezer-like rock-out moments. When he finished, someone said, "Well that didn't suck." and that about sums it up.
On to the main event. The Black Crowes, playing together for the first time in over 3 years. After a good seemingly unnecessary forty-five minute wait, the lights went down and it was time to start the show. The band, surrounded by a few hundred fake candles, took the stage and welcomed us to the "Sunday Sermon with the Black Crowes" They launched into the first number, and as they did, a dozen strings of lights running from the top of the stage to the front of the balcony blared to life and illuminated the audience. It was that moment, fifteen seconds into their set, which I'm going to go ahead right now and designate the best moment of the show.
The Black Crowes, more or less, have always been the brothers Chris and Rich Robinson on vocals and guitars respectively, and whoever they've got playing with them. The band's personnel has never been the same on more than two albums in a row. Knowing this as I did, walking into the cramped confines of the well oversold show, I was surprised as all hell when walking out of the building, I was professing to my friends that it seemed the rest of the band, the "whoever" if you will, were clearly the stars of the show, and were clearly carrying the Robinson boys through the set.
The 'whoever' in this case was made up of the following. Marc Ford who was fired from the band in 1997, was on guitar. Sven Pipien who left the band with much bad blood in 2000, was on bass. Newcomer, Bill Dobrow, who played in Rich Robinson's post-Crowes band Hookah Brown, was on drums. And Eddie Hawysch, the only band member who stayed with the brothers through most of their original run, was on keyboards. These guys were great. They could easily be a band on their own. As for the Robinson brothers, Chris spent most of the show spastically dancing around the stage in Jaggeresqe fashion, and was clearly in the dark on the unspoken aspect of Sir Mick's dance steps . . . they're not cool at all . . . people only tolerate them from Mick Jagger because he's MICK JAGGER and not just the asshole in the Black Crowes! As far as his job as lead singer goes, Chris seems to be imitating a different rock legend, Bob Dylan. Just like Bob, unless you have a really firm grasp on the material, and are REALLY trying hard, 90% of the time you'll have no idea what the hell Chris Robinson is saying. It's just one barkish shout after the next, and to be honest, in a Louis Armstrong like "vocals as an instrument" kind of way, it was pretty interesting; but I would bet a fortune it's not intended to be taken that way.
Rich on the other hand, did not spend the night swirling and twirling around the stage like some cranked up tart. He chose the far opposite extreme . . . standing stone still, and refusing to show emotion for two hours straight. In fact, the only time Rich actually strayed from his spot on stage was to signal to Dobrow or Ford, that regardless of the passion of the moment, the designated time slot for a given song was over, and all jamming must cease immediately. He did spend a lot of the set with his goofy brother shaking his ass in front of him, and understandably in those moments, he wore the "oh God, I can't believe I'm related to this moron" look on his face.
It's as if somehow, one brother received all the charisma designated in the heavens for the two of them. As a result, one spent the show in a coma and the other spent his time spinning around and seemingly trying to turn himself inside out. Both were off-putting to watch.
Who would've guessed that the spastic one would end up marrying a beautiful young starlet? I only mention it because when Cher arrived in the VIP balcony . . . oh no, wait, that's the wrong scuzzy southern rocker lands hot famous babe story . . . I meant to say Kate Hudson . . . she caused quite a commotion. Most people close enough to gaze upon her turned their backs on her husband and watched her while he performed - at least for a little while. I got to thinking after a while that since Kate was most definitely more pleasurable to look at, and the best parts of the music were the instrumental sections, perhaps she could replace her husband on stage and just stand there looking all pretty while the band rocked out around her. It's an option.
Anyway, the first few numbers of the show all had a gospel feel to them. They featured a pair of black female backup singers, and Marc Ford wailing away on his guitar in a Campbell brothers sacred steel fashion. Marc's instrument was not a lap steel guitar, but somehow the sound was there. Couple that with the fact that Chris Robinson looks a little like Jesus (and a little like comedian Tom Green), the fact that it was Easter Sunday, and the way the lights on the ceiling gave the room a revival tent vibe, and the mood they had set was perfect.
Stare It Cold
Go Tell The Congregation
She Gave Good Sunflower
My Morning Song
How Much For Your Wings?
Bend Down Low
Greasy Grass River
Twice As Hard
No Speak No Slave
She Talks To Angels
The problem is that the vibe didn't change much for the next hour and a half. After each song, I anxiously awaited the band's switch to the more straight ahead hard rocking sound that they're known for. Maybe, I kept thinking, the next song will finally be one of their hits. They were about at the hour mark when they played "Soul Singing." The song was the final single that they released before breaking up, and depending on your definition of the term, could possibly be considered a hit. The song was great, again largely on account of Marc Ford's soaring lead guitar. But when it ended and the next tune was another gospel-tinged album cut, I gave up, and headed through the masses towards the bar.
The entire two hour set consisted of only three songs from the band's greatest hits album. The first of which, "Jealous Again," they didn't get to until an hour and a half into the two-hour show. Their biggest hit, "Hard To Handle" was left out entirely. There were covers of tunes by Joe Cocker, Bob Marley, and The Beatles, which were all enjoyable, but on the whole, the song selection was lacking.
The whole night was lacking in one way or another. If I had it all to do over, perhaps I would've passed on this one, or at the very least not gone to see them just a week after seeing the Allman Brothers Band blow my mind three nights in a row. It's hard to follow greatness. On the plus side, I got myself a new guitar hero, in the form of Marc Ford, and have another interesting story to savor.