“You need people like me,” snarls gangster Tony Montana in a classic Scarface line, surrounded by mountains of cocaine with a semi-automatic pistol in hand. “Say goodnight to the bad guy.”
Music in 1990 needed a band like the Black Crowes — the kind of guys who could get kicked off of or be ostracized from ZZ Top and Aerosmith tours for being too high, too wild, and too outspoken. It’s even been said that the Crowes killed hair metal (perhaps with unintentional help from Nirvana), ushering in a reborn era of balls-out hippie rockery unseen since the early ’70s.
Twenty years later, the Crowes are borrowing Scarface‘s signature “Say goodnight to the bad guy” line for their final tour before taking an extended and indefinite hiatus.
“We didn’t bring the drugs or the guns, just the slogan,” says drummer Steve Gorman. “These days it’s pretty clean.”
Formed in Atlanta in the late ’80s, the Black Crowes soared to instant stardom with 1990’s Shake Your Money Maker, featuring hits “Jealous Again,” “Hard to Handle,” “Twice as Hard,” and “She Talks to Angels.” They’ve been through a myriad of lineup changes, but the core of Chris and Rich Robinson on vocals and guitar, respectfully, and Steve Gorman on drums has remained constant. Their current sextet features Luther Dickinson on lead guitar, Sven Pipien on bass, and Adam MacDougall on keys.
After 20 years of touring and constantly evolving lineups, many of the band’s classic songs have changed dramatically in performance. Recognizing the shift in their sound and seeing a hiatus on the horizon, the Crowes responded with this year’s double disc, Croweology. The album’s 20 tracks revisit the band’s entire catalog, reworking their favorite songs in mostly acoustic arrangements. Their Say Goodnight tour follows suit, with the band playing two 90-minute sets, one acoustic and one electric. For the first time in their career, they’re playing their core hit songs each night.
“When we say we’re doing the greatest hits, we’re talking about seven songs. It’s not, like, 20,” says Gorman. “We’re really going all through the catalog with the rest of our set, doing tunes we’ve never put on a record and trying to make every night be a good representation of the different things we’ve done. I love getting to soundcheck and having to relearn tunes we haven’t played in 10 years.”
The band considered re-releasing old material, but with new members like Dickinson on guitar helping to redefine their sound, they found that 20-year-old versions of some songs were no longer compelling to them.
“Listening to Shake Your Money Maker is like looking at my prom picture; it’s like, yeah, I remember that, but I’m much happier now,” says Gorman. “We had to put the current stamp on those old tunes. It’s exciting to play songs in new ways that are restructured rhythmically. We’re not sentimental people.”
Many songs on Croweology, like “Morning Song” and “Downtown Money Waster,” have dramatically different arrangements, allowing the band to mix versions on the spot or play songs differently night to night.
“I always see us like an amoeba, constantly changing shape on stage,” says Gorman. “There are certain songs where everybody’s locked in, on the same page. But there are just as many where it’s a little different every time. Sometimes Chris is singing a little differently, sometimes Rich seems like he’s in a hurry, sometimes I’m dragging.”
Even with plans to eventually reunite, splitting up may seem counterintuitive to the Black Crowes progression, but Gorman says it has everything to do with self-preservation. Three of the band’s members have infant children, and they’ve been consistently touring for six years. Gorman recalls their burn-out in 1996 as a time when they’d originally agreed to a break, but stayed together.
“It just makes sense to go away. We’re doing great. Let’s pull the plug,” says Gorman. “If we come back, let’s feel great about that. We don’t want to back ourselves in or paint ourselves in any corners. It’s for everyone’s emotional and mental well being and for the long-term health of the band.”
In the meantime, the Black Crowes aren’t exactly hiding in corners. Chris Robinson made the news last week when he said that Taylor Swift “might be cute, but she’s horrible,” throwing her into the group of auto-tuned, over-produced pop stars he says lack individuality. Gorman would likely agree; if the Black Crowes did kill hair metal, he says, it’s because the music was “designed for immediate consumption, like McDonald’s food.”
Gorman says it was never the Black Crowes intent to inspire young artists or break new ground, but he wishes more bands today could find success in the old rock ‘n’ roll vein.”