Chris Robinson had his dramatic factoid at the ready.
“This is one we haven’t played since…,” the Black Crowes frontman told the audience Thursday night at the Troubadour as he introduced “Struttin’ Blues,” a deep cut from the Southern rock band’s hit 1990 debut. Then he trailed off, having remembered that the last time the Crowes did “Struttin’ Blues” was Monday in New York.
“But before that we hadn’t played this song in 30 years!” he concluded with a swish of his shoulder-length hair.
Such are the risks of the rock-reunion circuit, where the novelty of a beloved group’s reactivation gives way quickly to the reality of making a once-broken thing work regularly again.
This week the Black Crowes — formed near Atlanta more than three decades ago by Robinson and his guitarist brother Rich — announced that they’ll tour next summer to mark the 30th anniversary of “Shake Your Money Maker,” which sold 5 million copies and spawned pre-grunge radio staples like “Jealous Again” and the band’s jabbering cover of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle.”
The success that followed famously drove the Robinson brothers apart. Talking the other day to Howard Stern, Rich Robinson said that even the notoriously combative Gallagher brothers of Oasis (with whom the Crowes toured in 2001) couldn’t believe how intensely he and Chris used to fight. The band finally broke up in 2013, when the Robinsons “vowed never to play or speak together again,” as a statement put it.
Now, like practically every other group that’s ever called it quits, the Black Crowes are back in business, albeit with new sidemen, including guys who’ve previously played with Howlin Rain and the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Within days of the band’s announcement, Rage Against the Machine and My Chemical Romance revealed they were reforming as well — indication that, in an era when rappers and pop stars dominate streaming charts, rock acts understand that butter for their bread is available only on the road.
Thursday’s gig was one of two underplays (along with Monday’s at New York’s Bowery Ballroom) meant to offer a kind of proof of concept ahead of the Crowes’ 2020 arena tour, set to kick off June 17 in Austin and wrap Sept. 19 at the Forum in Inglewood. The crowd at the Troubadour was full of music-industry types, along with some regular folks who’d lined up at the old Tower Records store on Sunset Boulevard to buy tickets for $50 a pop; both groups of people went big on the shaggy “Last Waltz” cosplay.
So what were the Crowes seeking to demonstrate? First, of course, that Chris and Rich have figured out how to be onstage without killing each other. They certainly seemed friendly enough as they descended the stairs from the Troubadour’s dressing room to the sound of James Brown’s “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a)
Sex Machine,” in which the funk legend advises listeners to shake their moneymakers.
Later, as Chris introduced the members of the band, he referred to his brother by his full name, Richard Spencer Robinson — a cordial touch.
More important, though, was whether the Crowes — one of the great live bands of the 1990s — have been recharged by going back to their debut, which they played from beginning to end here (and plan to do on tour next year). Things got pretty bleak for the group during the 2000s, a period recounted in a memoir just published by the Crowes’ original drummer, Steve Gorman.
In interviews promoting his book, Gorman — who calls the current reunion “sad” — has described quarrels over money and “a culture of secrecy and shame” that eventually led to his departure. But the music had already begun to suffer long before that, with tuneless albums and overly jammy concerts increasingly out of sync with what anybody else with a guitar was doing.
“Shake Your Money Maker” captured the band in a sweet spot — rowdy but crisp, soulful yet hard-hitting — even as rock was beginning to transform around it. Rich’s guitar playing was both crunchy and lyrical; the rhythm section had a bottomless supply of groove. And Chris sang with so much raspy passion that it’s a miracle every other skinny white dude didn’t give up right then and there. (Good try, Spin Doctors.)
Not all of that was on display at the Troubadour, where you could see that age had been relatively kind to the still-wiry Chris and to a stouter, commanding Rich. Tempos were maybe a few ticks slower than they used to be, while Chris’ singing didn’t put across quite the same pain.
But with a swaggering “Twice as Hard” and an endearingly weathered “She Talks to Angels,” the show was a strong start; more to the point, it made it easy to believe that the Crowes will get better the longer they play, which is the real trick of any comeback.
“That’s our presentation for you tonight,” Chris said after the band shimmied through “Money Maker’s” sleazefest of a closer, “Stare It Cold.” Then the group encored with an even trashier rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll (But I Like It).”
For a watchword, they could do worse.