In terms of presentation, the Black Crowes’ arrival at Blossom Music Center in the Cleveland area for their show on Wednesday evening was perfect.

The stage was set to look just like a barroom, with a jukebox and full bar (okay, the bottles of beer behind the bar weren’t real) -- complete with a bartender.

A woman strolled over to the jukebox and put in coins, pressed a few buttons and the familiar strains of Elmore James’ “Shake Your Money Maker” filled the amphitheater.

Enter the Black Crowes.

Guitarist Rich Robinson came walking out from stage left as the rest of the band filed in, digging out the opening chords of “Twice as Hard.”

As the song kicked in, frontman Chris Robinson popped up like the Mad Hatter, from behind a Black Crowes umbrella, pimped out in a white sport coat and hat. He began jumping around, twirling the umbrella behind him as he sang through the initial lyrics.

Watch the Black Crowes perform 'Twice as Hard' live on July 31, 2021

 

To be honest, gauging the energy levels on stage, right there from the jump, it didn’t feel like a minute had passed -- and yet, here we are, more than 30 years removed from the first time the Crowes took this same set of tunes on the road.

“Twice as Hard” and “Jealous Again” sitting back to back in the setlist felt a bit odd, because for years, they would come much later in the show.

But for anyone who bought Shake Your Money Maker in 1990 after hearing the band’s cover of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” on the radio, those were the two songs that they heard when they put the album on.

Those first two tracks, in sequence, were a big indicator that you, smart music fan that you are, had just purchased one heck of an album.

That feeling sticks, watching the Black Crowes perform the full LP in order here in 2021 as part of the current tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of the record. Album performances can be a mixed bag. There’s the classic songs that you know -- and then there are the rest. And how good are the rest of those songs?

With the Crowes, the answer is, “pretty damn good.” In fact, the piledriver rock and roll onslaught of tracks like “Stare it Cold” (which wraps up the album) and “Thick n’ Thin" were some of the best moments of the night. Chris spat out the lyrics on the latter, “Because it sounded like shit to me,” with every bit of gusto found on the original, as Rich and guitarist Isaiah Mitchell dug through riff after riff.

Mitchell is a major highlight of the revised Crowes lineup. He steps into some big shoes, occupied in the past by a number of guitar players, but unquestionably, it’s the legacy of former band member Marc Ford that casts the largest shadow.

The new guitarist was up for the task. A 20 year veteran of the San Diego-based group Earthless, he contributed masterful slide work and took a good number of the solos -- including “Wiser Time” in the post-Money Maker set, where he and Rich traded back and forth as a combo during an extended instrumental section that also found keyboardist Joel Robinow getting in on the action.

Watch the Black Crowes perform 'Wiser Time' on July 28, 2021

That’s one thing that was surprising about this particular Black Crowes outing -- besides “Wiser Time” and a few others -- just how concise the performances were, coming from a band known for stretched out jamming. Even songs like “Thorn in My Pride,” which at times could extend close to the 20 minute mark, were trimmed back.

This revised presentation falls in line with what Chris Robinson told UCR recently, when speaking about the new music they have in the works. “The expansiveness of the Black Crowes has always been something we were into,” he said. “But this, I think we really want to tighten it up and focus on some rock 'n' roll music.”

Honestly, it wasn’t a negative. Spinning through 19 songs in just under two hours, the evening’s performance didn’t feel rushed or abbreviated, it just felt like a well-paced set that had been thought out, with some key attention given to albums like By Your Side (including, the gospel-drenched title track) that had been somewhat put to the side on the more recent tours prior to their 2015 end.

There was a palpable enthusiasm and energy throughout the evening that made the reunion feel like it has the legs to carry far beyond this current run. Yes, former drummer Steve Gorman is sorely missed -- “No Speak, No Slave” was one that felt like it was lacking a bit of the fire and punch that he brought to the mix.

But watching this new lineup perform, the Robinson brothers, Mitchell, Robinow (a holdover from the last lineup of Chris Robinson Brotherhood), bassist Sven Pipien and drummer Brian Griffin, it’s clear that they have the seeds of something new as a group that could be really special if they can hold it all together.

Chris Robinson sounded good and more invested in these current performances than some of the previous shows I’ve witnessed -- which make no mistake, were also really good -- but there’s a particular energy that’s in the air with these current gigs and a sense that the vocalist in particular, is really happy to be back in the Crowes setting.

One of the few negatives? That they didn’t dig into the outtakes that are part of the new Shake Your Money Maker box set. “Don’t Wake Me” in particular, is a classic Crowes rocker and it’s hard to understand how that one got shaved from the original album’s track listing. And given that they put “Charming Mess” out as a single -- and a well-received one at that -- it would have made sense to throw that one in at the very least.

No matter; if the purpose of this tour is to rebuild and reestablish and celebrate the legacy of the group up to this point, they’re doing a fine job of that and it stokes the flames for whatever is ahead after these current tour dates wrap.

Honorable mention to the “bartender” behind the bar on stage. He didn’t serve a drink all night -- and it seems like maybe he was running the on-stage sound for the group (while fully dressed up as a dapper bartender). It was hard to tell for sure, but whatever his ultimate reason for being there was, it was an entertaining addition.

Dirty Honey kicked off the night with a 60 minute set that highlighted their old school band out of time sound. They look like they could be Aerosmith and their inclusion on the bill here is appropriate -- they’re battling against the current musical tide and trends in the same way that the Crowes did when they first emerged on the scene in 1990.

Songs like “California Dreamin’” and the gorgeous “Another Last Time,” which wraps up their debut album, are hints that they’ve got an impressive future on tap.

 

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