The Black Crowes stormed out of Atlanta in the late 1980s, conquering the declining empire of album-oriented rock while simultaneously aiding the rise of the long-haired jam bands that, decades later, would become surprisingly popular among real and wanna-be hippies of all ages.
While the singer Chris Robinson and guitarist Rich Robinson have always been the very visible leaders of the Black Crowes, Steve Gorman, 48, has been essential to the success of the band over the last 26 years. In a discussion with CityLife to promote the band’s Dec. 13 show at The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, Gorman considered the formation, growth and endurance of the band, his other interests and the future.
“The music scene that we left in Atlanta, we never felt a part of,” Gorman says of the early days in Georgia. It was a time when another band from Georgia, REM, reigned over the state’s rock music scene. Another band from Athens, Drivin N Cryin, was getting airplay and notice for its mix of heavy rock and country. And of course, hair-metal bands from California dominated MTV and much of rock radio.
The Black Crowes, despite hat-tips to REM, didn’t fit with any of those styles. And the Crowes couldn’t even count on a lot of support from their hometown, Gorman recalls.
“We wanted to get out of Atlanta,” he says. “We played more shows out of Atlanta than in Atlanta… The local scene at the time, people were just too cool.”
Stylistically, both in appearance and musically, the Black Crows were in some ways throwbacks, in other ways precursors. The Robinson brothers wore tie-dyes and bell-bottoms, outfits that would have been right at home in the Summer of Love. And with their extended guitar leads and heavy percussion, their sound came to be more reminiscent of classic Allman Brothers and other blues-based Southern rockers than most of the then-contemporary products of the post-punk 1980s.
Gorman says that what really set them apart, though, was the desire to be big. Bigger than any other band in Atlanta or the South.
“We wanted to get out and play shows,” he says. “When we finally got a deal, we made a record where we swung for the fences… We really wanted to do something great.”
That album, Shake Your Money Maker, came out on Rick Rubin’s Def American label, then a label best known for heavy metal records. (Def American has since become famous for Rubin’s loving production of classic pop artists from years gone by.) The album became an unlikely hit in 1990, the same year the band first played here.
The album, named after a song written by blues master Elmore James (and which was not on the album) has become a modern classic of blues-rock. It was sold more than 5 million copies, reached No. 4 on the Billboard 200 in 1990, and produced two No. 1 singles.
“When the record came out, we were thrust into the world of hair metal bands,” Gorman recalls, saying the band was “horrified” to be identified with those competitors.
The era of hair-metal wouldn’t last long though, as a new flavor of pop punk quickly became ascendant in the early 1990s. In some ways, the Black Crowes straddled musical changes; in just two years after the record, they appeared with everyone from Warrant to Sonic Youth, Aerosmith to Leonard Cohen, the Rolling Stones to Wilco.
“We helped usher in the next thing. We killed the teased hair and makeup, and opened the door, and then grunge ran right over us.”
Grunge made its mark, but not on the Black Crowes.
“That really didn’t have anything to do with us,” Gorman says. “We were always sort of our own band. We’ve just gotten better and better at what we do.”
And while the blues clearly is a constant in the evolution of the band, that doesn’t mean stasis. Gorman in fact argues that change is as important as the classic references to the band’s sound.
“We’re constantly tinkering and constantly learning,” he says. “We’ve never had a grand design for what the band is. “
Along the way, the band has put its mark on Las Vegas. The Black Crowes played at Calamity Jane’s in March 1990 in one of the first gigs outside of Georgia, opening for the now forgotten band, Junkyard. In 2006, the Crowes would come back to play Vegoose. The band last played the area at The Joint in December 2010.
The band and Gorman have changed and explored different directions. Gorman had a stint with the post-punk Brit-pop Stereophonics in 2004, a band stylistically very different from the Black Crowes.
Whereas the Black Crowes leave the door open for improvisation and jams, with the Stereophonics “The songs were presented the same every night,” he says. “The songs, the vocal performance, is the priority with every song.”
Gorman also played with Bob Dylan, the late Warren Zevon, Levon Helm of the band, many other accomplished musicians from the South and beyond, and, starting in 2010, hosted a call-in radio show on sports issues.
Gorman says he plans to go back to a radio show on sports when this tour is done. Along with music, his other passion in life is for competitive sports, he says.
“I follow everything,” Gorman says. “I’m learning to love hockey. I’m hardly an expert; I’m just speaking as a fan, who’s speaking from a different perspective on things.”
He shares some thoughts about the recent controversy in which a Miami Dolphins football player, Richie Incognito, was accused of bullying and ultimately forcing a teammate to quit.
“Incognito is obviously just a husk in human form with no redeeming quality,” he says of the Miami player, who has recently returned to the lineup as an NFL investigation continues. “It says everything about the Dolphins organization… for this to be happening within the team’s infrastructure shows a general lack of direction.” (Parenthetical aside - CityLife had this conversation with Gorman several weeks ago, so his opinion may well have changed in that time.)
Sports fan, timekeeper, rock royalty - Gorman and bandmates, scheduled to play Dec. 13 at the Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel, will carry the crowns of popularity, decades of successful touring and recording, and a lot of fans from 6 to 60.
Gorman says he doesn’t think of himself that way, and he takes such comments in stride, the same way he takes the compliments and claims of influence from younger, sometimes much younger, musicians.
Gorman says he cannot say what mix of originals, classics and covers they will bring to Vegas. “We’re shaking it up every night,” he says. “It’s different every night for sure.”
One of the heavy covers they are performing on this tour is an affectionate tribute to the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.” “That was pretty cool,” Gorman says of a recent performance. “We had to ask ourselves, ‘How have we never played ‘Wild Horses’?’”CL