After the Black Crowes went on hiatus following the 2001 release of Lions, many wondered if frontman Chris Robinson could hack it on his own. After all, the recipe for the band’s 11-year success story was the potent chemistry between Chris and his brother Rich and his Stones-meets-swamp guitar work. Without Rich, some wondered, would the magic still be there? Well, good news awaited fans last Tuesday when Robinson took the stage at B.B. King’s bar and grill in Manhattan. Tearing through a blistering 90-minute set, the 36-year-old rocker proved his worth, serving up a piping hot collection of funk, Americana and straight-up rock.
The evening began with New Jersey-based rockers Rana, who impressed the crowd with a solid, guitar-driven set. Unfortunately, latecomers were left to puzzle out who the band were, as they didn’t give out their name after taking the stage. As they walked off, applause and cheers were mixed with people calling out “What’s your name?” Thankfully, an information booth at the front of the venue answered all of their questions.
After Rana wrapped their set up, the crowd was kept waiting nearly a full half-hour. All the while, techs flitted about the stage, twanging guitars, thumping drums and grunting “check” into mikes. Their continued presence only served to irk the crowd, who had opted to kill time between sets by visiting the bar. By 9:30, beer-fueled pleas of “Come on!!!” were heard from all corners of the house. Finally, Robinson took to the stage, strolling out so nonchalantly that he was at first met with almost no reaction. Most likely the crowd thought he was another techie come to tune up the bass.
Once onstage, Robinson made the wait worthwhile, launching headlong into the rocker “Sea of Love”, followed by the psychedelic “Hi Speed Transportation LA City Limit Blues”. Chris and the band, made up of guitarist Paul Stacey, drummer Jeremy Stacey, bassist George Reiff and keyboardist George Laks, were in grand form, trading licks and jamming like seasoned pros. Robinson himself seemed more relaxed than he ever did during his 15 years with the Crowes. Watching him joke with his bandmates and the crowd, it was apparent that both marriage and impending fatherhood agree with him. At times the mood onstage was so hassle-free, one had the feeling of dropping in on a back porch jam session instead of a concert in the heart of New York City. Their laidback aura easily passed on into the audience, particularly during “Sunday Sound”, a cut from Robinson’s solo record, New Earth Mud. The freewheeling deep-south-in-July vibe of the song was infectious, and had hands raised throughout the room.
For the most part, Robinson stayed away from playing tracks off of New Earth Mud. Aside from “Sunday Sound”, only the greased-up funk number “Ride” made it into the set. The rest of the night was devoted to material (such as “Like a Tumbleweed in Eden”) that may show up on Robinson’s next record, due sometime in 2004. During the night the band also dipped into a few covers, tossing off a stellar take on the Stones’ “No Expectations”. Stacey’s molasses-smooth slide guitar and Robinson’s haunted vocal delivery made the song feel brand new again. The band also detoured into Louisiana honky tonk, ripping through a version of Jimmie Rodgers’ “T For Texas”. The closing number, a Dylan-esque track called “Last Of The Old Time Train Robbers”, seemed to speak, indirectly, to the future of Robinson’s old band. “When it’s all over,” he sang, “split the money and go your own way.”
If there was a downside to the entire evening, it would have to fall on the shoulders of the venue. B.B. King’s midtown location proved to be a flame that drew more than its share of bridge-and-tunnel moths more interested in drinking beer in a theme restaurant than catching a killer rock show. Too often, the freewheeling hippie glow cast by the band was sullied by sweaty, silk-shirted fratboys shoving their way to the bar or calling out “‘Freebird’!!!” in a failed effort to impress their dates. Nonetheless, even their ilk could not dispel the magic worked by Robinson and his band. By the time they knocked out their encore, a smoking double shot of the Dead’s “Sugaree” and Clapton’s “Blues Power”, everyone stood transfixed. The Black Crowes may be gone, but the alchemy they created, fusing bawdy ‘70s-era Southern rock with a shot of 20th century mojo, is alive and kicking. The torch has been passed to Robinson, and, if this is any indication, he just might use it to set the music world on fire.