The Black Crowes 2024
Photo: Ross Halfin / Rogers & Cowan PMK

The Wanting and Waiting Is Over as the Black Crowes Return

The Black Crowes’ Happiness Bastards gives us ten good reasons to believe that rock and roll is still a long way from the graveyard.

Happiness Bastards
The Black Crowes
Silver Arrow Records
15 March 2024

It’s been a month of Sundays since I could fake a smile…
Always drunk on Sunday, tryin’ to feel like I’m at home…

That first line is from “Wanting and Waiting”, the lead-off single released in January to tease the Black Crowes‘ first album in 15 years, Happiness Bastards. The second line is, of course, from “Jealous Again”, the inaugural release from their debut, Shake Your Moneymaker, 34 years earlier.

How fans react to the similarities will determine how they feel about the new record. Some will smile, nod their heads, even pump their fist in recognition at the sly recall (both songs’ verses are melodically, virtually identical), while others will roll their eyes and accuse the Robinson brothers of leaning on nostalgia to appease their aging fanbase. But nostalgia is inescapable when you’ve been carrying the torch for rock’ n’ roll as long as these guys.

Happiness Bastards is the Black Crowes’ Voodoo Lounge, or, more accurately, their Bridges to Babylon. Those two 1990s-era albums from the Rolling Stones found the quintessential rock ‘n’ roll band 30-odd years into their career, shaping their signature strutting riffs and swaying grooves into a slightly harder, darker sound for a new generation bitten by the grunge bug but without sacrificing their pop craft. For every “Thru and Thru”, there was a “Has Anybody Seen My Baby”.

The Black Crowes in 2024 are at a similar point in their career, navigating a musical landscape that has changed drastically since their previous studio album, 2009’s Before the Frost…Until the Freeze. (The fantastic acoustic re-recordings-and-covers compilation, Croweology, was released the following year.) This time, they’re no longer up against the Seattle sound or any other guitar band-based rock subset. They’ve arrived in a world of 15- and 30-second snippets of songs that may or may not be sped up for maximum impact to play behind a frantic Tik-Tok video.

Yet, it’s not really a bad thing. Gen Z is discovering classic rock every day, sharing those sounds with their followers as if they’ve stumbled upon some long-lost artifact. Will any of that positively impact the promotional cycle of Happiness Bastards? Probably not. But the Crowes still have a rabid enough fan base that it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the brothers Robinson seem to have buried the hatchet…for now.

After a tour through the US and Europe and a live album in 2013, the brothers had another of their famously dramatic fallingouts. Calling it quits at the beginning of 2015, they re-emerged four years later on The Howard Stern Show, reconciling and announcing plans for a tour.

But there was a catch: Drummer and co-founding member Steve Gorman was not invited back. Neither was any former member at the time. Instead, the Robinsons assembled a group of backing musicians to hit the road to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their debut before being shut down due to COVID. Once back on the road, their plans to open for Aerosmith‘s massive farewell tour fell through after only a handful of dates due to Steven Tyler’s vocal issues. In the midst of all this, while they were on the road, the brothers worked up dozens of new songs, from which Happiness Bastards gives us an even ten.

The first single, “Wanting and Waiting”, promised a familiar and comfortable mix of Shake Your Money Maker shenanigans filtered through the massive rock production of By Your Side. Happiness Bastards mostly delivers on that promise. Producer Jay Joyce knows how to get a big, slick sound out of his artists – he even made John Hiatt and the Goners’ bar band aesthetic sound arena ready on 2001’s The Tiki Bar Is Open while guiding the sound of everyone from Eric Church to Cage the Elephant and Carrie Underwood over the years – and he does the same for Robinson brothers.

In addition to the Robinsons and longtime bassist Sven Pipien, the Crowes are rounded out on Happiness Bastards by guitarist Nico Bereciartua and drummer Brian Griffin with backing vocals from Vicki Hampton, Joanna Cotton, and (Cry of Love, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and current Sheryl Crow bassist) Robert Kearns (a link to the Crowes’ tenure with Kearns’ frequent bandmate, guitarist Audley Freed). Jay Joyce handled “additional guitar and keyboards”.

Happiness Bastards acts as a summation of the many highways and side roads the brothers have taken over the years. There are Easter eggs for longtime fans hidden throughout: the half-time breakdown in the opener “Bedside Manners” that recalls “Sting Me” or the Amorican sway of “Cross Your Fingers”. The closing “Kindred Friend” recalls the folky psychedelics of Three Snakes and One Charm and Lions while giving a nod to 1970s-era Elton John.

The ominous ballad, “Wilted Rose” (a duet with up-and-coming country star Lainey Wilson, who stands as the first co-credited guest artist on a Black Crowes track) meanwhile, could be an outtake from the Southern Harmony sessions. The most obvious acknowledgment of the past, however, is the cover. Chris Robinson’s wife, Camille, painted over a faded version of the artwork of The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, the band’s second album. It’s a not-too-reverent tip of the hat, quite the rock ‘n’ roll move.  

And yes, the Black Crowes’ debt to the Rolling Stones is still being paid on Happiness Bastards. “Dirty Cold Sun” and “Bleed It Dry” find Chris Robinson, rock’s last great frontman, channeling Sir Mick. It’s not an imitation; it’s an acknowledgment that the Black Crowes are the torchbearers of a dying breed. Yes, it’s now the Robinsons’ show with backing musicians. And yes, the swing and inventiveness of the mighty Steve Gorman is missed, but as always, the songs are what matters most, and Happiness Bastards gives us ten good reasons to believe that rock and roll is still a long way from the graveyard.

RATING 7 / 10