The latest version of the flock known as the Black Crowes welcomed home an exiled former member and ended a nearly four-year “hiatus” with a triumphant first show in a weeklong Gotham run.
In an unusual instance of a hardcore fan base rejoicing over the return of an integral member of a popular group while the average record buyer goes “who?,” guitarist Marc Ford is back trading soaring leads and licks with founder-guitarist Rich Robinson. Estranged since 1997, he has now rejuvenated the others and himself in the process, as Ford’s tone and style of playing contribute an undeniable spark to the songs of Rich and his brother, vocalist-focal point Chris.
Ominously bathed in electric candelabra lights surrounding the stage and with a downright messianic look in a full-bearded Chris Robinson’s eyes as he soaked in the crowd’s adulation, the newly regathered band emphatically kicked into opener “Gone” from 1994’s classic “Amorica” as if they had never left.
In fact, with all the drama that’s encircled the reformulation (beginning with Ford’s ouster long ago and up through the recent mystery of just who would form the reconstituted lineup), Chris Robinson made little acknowledgment onstage of what’s transpired during the members’ time apart. Ford has toured and recorded with Ben Harper and played L.A.-area clubs with his own band, the Sinners; Rich Robinson started and aborted a side band and then put out a studio record and live album; and Chris Robinson recorded and toured behind two solo discs under the guise of New Earth Mud.
Chris Robinson remains one of rock’s best white soul voices, whether on the siblings-penned ballad “Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye” and their aptly named “Soul Singing” or inspired readings of Bob Marley’s “Time Will Tell,” Bob Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” or the Bramlett-Clapton tune “Comin’ Home.”
Newcomer Bill Dobrow has the unenviable task of filling the seat previously occupied by Steve Gorman, the only drummer the Crowes had ever had. Given the various passages and tempo changes their repertoire often possesses (yes, there are still jams aplenty in the set, as even their well-known cover of Otis Redding’s three-minute “Hard to Handle” becomes an extended discourse live), Gorman made his tasteful fills look so effortless. Dobrow not only looks spent and drenched in sweat after every song, he has to weather the admonishing looks of either Chris or Rich (or both), the latter of whom dictates the rhythm far more so than in the traditional bass player/drummer relationship.
And it’s that group dynamic that looms as the primary question mark at this juncture, as Ford, bassist Sven Pipien and longtime keyboardist Ed Hawrysch, all apparently enjoying themselves, initially appear a bit detached in what is and evidently always will be the Brothers Robinson show. That shared sense of purpose so vital to the success of any group appears to be a work in progress, but if in fact they can resurrect that on a new record as well, the sky will again be the limit for the Black Crowes.
Tour route has them confirmed through June in the East and beyond with a summer leg forming, possibly with Tom Petty. Openers in New York include the John Butler Trio, Hackensaw Boys, the Soundtrack of Our Lives, North Mississippi Allstars and Ben Kweller.