Photo via As the Crow Flies Facebook Page
By Luis Lucero
One of my favorite bands of the ‘90s is The Black Crowes, a southern rock band helmed by the vitriolic Robinson brothers: Chris (lead vocals) & Rich (guitar). Unlike Phish, I actually did know a bit about the Crowes before getting fully invested in them, mainly through their excellent live album Live At The Greek, in which they were joined by guitar legend Jimmy Page for an evening of blues standards and Led Zeppelin classics. When they broke up for good in 2015, the two went their own separate ways. Rich continued his solo career before forming a new band in 2016 with a couple other Crowes alumni (guitarist Marc Ford and bassist Sven Pipien): The Magpie Salute. Chris on the other hand, went back to his psychedelic jam band side project– the ironically named Chris Robinson Brotherhood– and made it his new full time endeavour.
Not unlike what the Gallagher brothers have done since the collapse of Oasis in 2009, Chris & Rich have engaged in various mudslinging exchanges in the media. The former recently dismissed The Magpie Salute as simply “a Black Crowes tribute band” and accused Rich of not being able to let go of the past. But not even eight months after those remarks, Chris surprised just about everyone with the announcement of a new band that planned to tackle the Crowes’ back catalog, known as As The Crow Flies. Rather than simply rebranding the CRB into this new outfit, Chris invited a few alumni from his old band to join along for the ride. On guitar is Audley Freed, who was in the band from 1997 to 2001, though outside of a couple guitar solos in the studio, he was primarily used for the live shows, since the two studio albums released during that time featured Rich handling most of the guitar parts. Bass guitar was done by Andy Hess, who was only a band member on two back to back tours in 2001, never appearing on a single studio recording. Finally, there is Adam MacDougall, the Crowes’ third and final keyboard player, as well as the only other member to be involved with the CRB. He’s the only musician of the three former members to have substantial studio credits with the band, appearing on their final two studio albums: 2008’s Warpaint and 2009’s Before the Frost…Until the Freeze. Rounding out the band is CRB drummer Tony Leone and an up and coming blues guitarist named Marcus King.
When the tour was first announced, my reaction was a mixture of confusion and curiosity. While I was under the impression that Chris’ current solo direction was in Grateful Dead-inspired music, the chance to hear Black Crowes songs performed by the original singer was a show I couldn’t say no to. At least that’s what I thought until I tried to buy tickets for their debut show at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY. With seats starting $120, it was beyond what I was willing to spend, so I had to reluctantly pass on this tour, which was billed as a one and done event. And for a while, it seemed like it was the case, since Chris immediately resumed touring and recording with the Brotherhood shortly after the tour. But sometime in the middle of the CRB Fall tour, an encore run of shows was announced at the very venue where they made their debut. Luckily, I was able to snag my ticket for the 30th at a reasonable price on the sale date and this show quickly became my most anticipated of my New Years Eve Weekend concert run.
The NYE shows featured a very special treat that wasn’t on the initial tour. In addition to performing with the main band, Marcus King’s solo band also served as the opening act for the two Port Chester shows. Prior to the concert, I only heard a few passing comments about Marcus King. But from what I heard, he’s quickly becoming a new superstar in the world of blues rock. Watching his set at the Capitol didn’t meet my expectations, they went completely beyond them! Everything about Marcus King reminds me of Warren Haynes: his playing style, his singing, and even his tendency to always check up on the audience in between songs. And his incredibly raw and powerful style is supported with his equally excellent band. To borrow a line from a certain Broadway musical, they are every bit as young, scrappy, and hungry as Marcus and it is the makings of one of the best new bands in the rock world. While their original material was great, the highlight of their set was a blistering cover of the Santana instrumental, “Soul Sacrifice”. While the original was a journey in its own right, Marcus and the band takes it to a whole new level and completely makes it their own. It might’ve been eight songs long, but considering what I just witnessed, I wanted more. Lots more.
At 9:30, Chris & co. finally sauntered on to the stage and launched head first into…a cover of “Feelin’ Alright” by Traffic. The song wasn’t bad, but if Chris is gonna market this band with a heavy emphasis on his time with The Black Crowes, he should’ve at least started with a familiar band number. The band did two more covers later in the show, but I’m getting a little ahead of myself here…
Familiarity finally came in the form of “Sting Me”, off the Crowes’ 1992 sophomore effort, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. And you couldn’t have picked a better way to kick off a celebration of The Black Crowes than this song. The band’s performance also showed, firing off on all cylinders. The only major problem is that after this song, the show becomes a roller coaster ride in terms of quality. And it never again reaches the same high as they achieved in “Sting Me”
In contrast to the CRB or even late era Black Crowes, the setlists are structured more like a traditional concert rather than a completely different set of songs with each new show. While a song or two may be swapped every other show, As the Crow Flies always includes the obligatory Crowes classics. For comparison sake, when The Magpie Salute went out for their first tour, their setlists largely made up of Crowes songs. But they made an effort of always covering a different selection of band material each night. And they weren’t limited to hit singles and popular album tracks either. More often than not, they would play non album b-sides and even material that has never been given an official release. Chris’ new band primarily focuses on the three most popular Black Crowes albums: 1990’s Shake Your Money Maker, their aforementioned second album, and 1994’s Amorica. Aside from the previously mentioned covers, the only real deviation from this are the songs “Good Friday”, off 1996’s Three Snakes & One Charm, and “Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution”, the lead single off Warpaint. While I understand that the fans would absolutely dig the hits, it also would have been nice if Chris cut into the vast back catalog of Crowes songs the way Rich did with The Magpie Salute. And considering that he clearly has no plans for As the Crow Flies beyond 2018, Chris really dropped the ball with making the most out of his legacy with The Black Crowes.
Another major point of comparison between both bands is their overall band chemistry. Watching The Magpie Salute, it becomes very clear from the atmosphere that they are essentially The Black Crowes without all the crippling emotional baggage and sibling rivalries that bogged the original group down. Seeing Rich, Marc, and Sven play the songs without stressing about the inevitable backstage fights with Chris was a nice sight to see and their chemistry with new members like frontman John Hogg and drummer Joe Magistro made it feel like they have been playing together for the same length of time as The Black Crowes. As The Crow Flies makes it clear that Chris is the show. Audley and Andy, while being great musicians in their own right, are never given any room to really stand out in the show. Probably due to the fact that their own contributions to the Crowes were too limited to make a difference. And while Adam’s keyboard work on both the final Crowes studio albums and the CRB are good for the most part, here he is mostly just covering the parts originally written by longtime Crowes keyboard player Eddie Harsch. He does get a solo spot during one of the songs though, but once again, I’m getting a little ahead of myself. The other two members are really just there to complete the band package. And in the case of Marcus, his amazing talents are severely underutilized during the songs. Despite showing himself to be a clearly capable guitarist, he is basically relegated to just rhythm guitar, with Audley taking most of the solos. Which really begs the question: Why bring in a fresh and talented musician like Marcus King and then proceed to just leave him in the background? As The Crow Flies has the potential to be a live powerhouse in their own right, but they completely squander that opportunity and the end result is a band that ironically seems more like a Black Crowes tribute band than The Magpie Salute ever was.
While technically a separate group, a couple elements of the CRB still manage to seep into As The Crow Flies. The Crowes were well known for their cover songs, so it was expected that a few would make it to the new band’s setlists. Sure enough, there were three covers that night, but they were not the ones that fans were well acquainted with. In lieu of classics like Willie Dixon’s “Mellow Down Easy”, Bob Marley’s “Time Will Tell”, and their highly popular cover of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle”, songs from Johnny Winter and Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young were played, in addition to the previously mentioned Traffic cover. While their renditions were fine, they felt like the type of songs that would normally be featured during a CRB concert, rather than a Black Crowes show. While the songs were mostly kept at their original lengths, the band couldn’t help but do some lengthy jamming when performing the popular ballad “Wiser Time”, complete with solos from Adam and, for the only time, Marcus. In regard to the former, what was originally a simple electric piano solo on the studio version, turned into an overly long and meandering psychedelic borefest from Adam, bringing the song to a grinding halt. Marcus’ solo on the other hand, completely brought down the house, in addition to making it even more obvious that he should have been lead guitarist instead of Audley.
By the end of the last encore, I really had no idea what to make of the whole experience. While it was nice to finally hear classic Black Crowes songs being performed by the vocalist who brought them to life, I still had no real clue as to what really motivated Chris to form this project in the first place? If he wanted to get back at his brother for forming The Magpie Salute, then he failed miserably and ultimately made himself look worse in the process. If he wanted to simply go back to a well regarded point of his career, then he did a fairly serviceable job. But still not as good as it could and should have been. One thing, however, was very clear to me: I really need to catch up with Marcus King’s work and hopefully catch a full set with his amazing band.