On “Remedy”, the biggest single off The Black Crowes’ second album, Chris Robinson slithers along to the band’s fidgety Stones groove and sings, “If I had a remedy, I’d take enough to please me.” In the best way possible, it sounds like a confession he couldn’t possibly have written. It sounds more like a line in any number of blues songs written and sung and recorded and forgotten about long before this Atlanta band played their first note together. That word “remedy” carries a lot of meaning in the American South, where it’s associated with medicine shows and snake oil, with Tom Sawyer and stump-water (that’s rainwater steeped in an old tree trunk, said to be good for whatever ails you).
A remedy might be drugs to make a hard time bearable, or it might be whatever makes those drugs bearable. It might be sex, or it might be whatever makes you forget you’re not getting any. It might be a hoodoo or a mojo. A remedy is, essentially, the opposite of the blues. On The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion, which is arguably their best album, The Black Crowes write and perform with the knowledge that they’re participating in something larger than themselves. They’re digging deeper into Southern lore and Southern music. This new reissue, celebrating the album’s 30th anniversary, reveals a band stepping up and confidently putting their own stamp on a wide range of sounds and influences.
Not that they ever accepted the mantle of Southern rock. They weren’t rednecks, but hippies in flared corduroys and paisley vests. Chris and Rich Robinson, two brothers from the Atlanta suburb of Marietta, formed the band as high school students, and they fought hard and often enough to make the Gallaghers look well-adjusted and chill. Originally they called themselves Mr Crowe’s Garden, after a book by the English writer and illustrator Leonard Leslie Brooke, but wisely changed the name before signing with Rick Rubin’s label American Recordings. As teenagers, they saw themselves not as Southern rebels, but as part of the ’80s underground rock scene. Rather than the Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd, they looked to British Invasion bands for inspiration and saw REM and The Replacements as peers.
Still teenagers, The Black Crowes had the good fortune to release their debut, 1990’s Shake Your Money Maker, at a pivotal moment in rock history, right after hair metal ran out of Aqua Net and right before bedheaded grunge hit hard. They covered Otis Redding, shouted out Elmore James, and wrote originals that channeled The Rolling Stones and The Swampers in equal measure. Money Maker, however, thrust them into the mainstream before they really had a chance to define themselves. The album sold five million copies and notched a barrage of hit singles, all before they were of drinking age. For eighteen months they promoted and toured the album tirelessly, playing 350 shows and earning a reputation as a combustible live act. Granted, “combustible” can be a good virtue or a vice: on one hand, The Black Crowes were dropped as openers for ZZ Top in early 1991 after criticizing the headliners for taking corporate money. On the other, in August 1991 they played Monsters Of Rock and held their own against heavier bands like AC/DC, Metallica and Motley Crüe.
Perhaps it can be chalked up to youth: The Black Crowes barely took a day off before they started recording their follow-up. The Robinson brothers had been writing prolifically on the road and at home, amassing a store of songs that pushed wiry grooves, massive riffs and psychedelic poetry to the forefront. With success came harder drugs and more disagreements, and the band endured their first major lineup change when guitarist Jeff Cease left the group. He was quickly replaced by Marc Ford, from the LA blues-rock group Burning Tree, who had an instant rapport with Rich Robinson.
Working at Southern Tracks Studio in Atlanta, with George Drakoulias once again at the helm, the band needed just eight days to track The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion. On the live-in-studio version of the soulful “Sometimes Salvation” and the bluesy “Black Moon Creeping”, they sound like a band putting the lessons of the last 18 months to good use. They’re not just confident, but joyfully cocky, as though they can’t believe what they can do together.
On these songs The Black Crowes dig deeper and channel a greater range of influences and experiences. Even that album title, which Chris stole from a hymnbook, suggests a cataloguing of regional sounds. Southern Harmony is expansive and excitable, and songs like “Sting Me” and “No Speak No Slave” never stop squirming and shimmying. They lean into rough, gravelly grooves anchored by the rhythm section of drummer Steve Gorman and bassist Johnny Colt. Both Rich Robinson and Marc Ford are ingenious soloists who can find new corners of a melody or take a song in a subtly new direction, but Southern Harmony is more about towering riffs and rhythms. “Remedy” explodes with an enormous fanfare that collapses into a Stonesy undertow, while “No Speak No Slave” unleashes a volley of eighth notes like a machine gun.
Abandoning the bluesy plaints of Shake Your Money Maker, Chris Robinson sings like he’s making up kaleidoscopic verses on the spot, and he invests “My Morning Song” and “No Speak No Slave” with charisma and warmth. He sympathises with lost junkies on “Hotel Illness” and identifies with the voiceless on “No Speak No Slave”, less a rock singer than a soul shouter. While he may lack the force and authority of Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett, Chris Robinson compensates by deploying every trick he knows: he wails, caterwauls, shout his throat raw, flattens certain syllables and syncopates certain lines as though singing against the music. He may have been a mess offstage (as chronicled in the 1992 documentary Who Killed That Bird On Your Window Sill?), but he conveys a startling sense of empathy on these songs.
If The Black Crowes discovered themselves while touring behind Shake Your Money Maker, the band that took Southern Harmony out on the road was very different. The live tracks on this reissue, all recorded at a February 1993 show in Houston, are dense and heavy, yet nimble and slippery. They sound only slightly more laidback: perhaps weary of their reputation as quick-tempered brawlers, Chris Robinson actually tries to break up a fight toward the end of the non-album instrumental “Jam”. They’ve had to scrap and spar to get there, so now they just want to have a little fun: “Jam” even includes a tangent where Chris starts singing The Byrds’ “Old Blue”.
The highlight of that show – and one of the highlights of the album itself – is “My Morning Song”, which toggles between swampy rocker, hippie anthem, gospel jam and sweet soul ballad. It has echoes of Muscle Shoals and Macon and Woodstock, as though the references themselves are comforting. “I find truth in a fable, faith in a rhyme,” Chris sings. Music is the ultimate remedy: comfort and companionship against the horrors of the world. Southern Harmony is the product of a band that had been out in the world and had observed how their own music could impact an audience. They took their calling seriously: “If your rhythm ever falls out of time,” Chris promises, “you can bring it to me and I will make it alright.”