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Black Crowes focus on music and fans, not business


Why worry? The latest Black Crowes record hasn't burned up the charts -- unlike the group's previous two -- but band members aren't ready to weep about it.

The Crowes have reached a point where they're tired of being "a stooge to a record company," singer Chris Robinson says. They want to be judged for more than Top 40 success. They're looking for a community of fans, not for validation through the record industry and MTV.

It's a radical view, but then, the Crowes have become a radical band. They now allow live taping of their concerts, an open-minded gesture that mirrors their support for legalizing marijuana and for fighting censorship of all kinds.

"We are just the Black Crowes. You can take it or leave it," Mr. Robinson says. "It's like what Jerry Garcia said of the Grateful Dead. He said the Dead are like licorice -- some people really hate it, but the people who like it, really really like it. That's sort of the way I think of the Black Crowes."

Mr. Robinson doesn't want to spend much time analyzing why the group's latest album, "Amorica," hasn't done as well as previous mega-platinum discs "Shake Your Moneymaker" (which sold 5 million copies) and "The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion."

Could it be that the new disc wasn't what radio or MTV expected? Was it too cerebral next to past efforts? Was it too experimental in fusing styles from acid rock and Memphis soul to progressive country music?

"You've got to get away from thinking about the Billboard Top 100," Mr. Robinson says from a tour stop in Cleveland. "We're just gonna play music in whatever capacity we want; and we'll see if other bands on those charts stick it out for as long as we've done it.

"People can make fun of Jerry Garcia, but you know, he's still playing," says Mr. Robinson, whose group will open for the Grateful Dead in Tampa, Fla., on April 7. "And I was just in Chicago, where I saw Junior Wells. He's 61 years old. That guy has made more music than Pearl Jam will ever think about -- or that I will ever think about. So why should I give a [expletive] about MTV? I'm a realist as far as that goes.

"I would like for our band to be hugely popular, but we're not going to start wearing shorts and flannel shirts and sing about how kids picked on us in school," he says of the Atlanta-based Crowes. "That's just not our lives. My adolescence was horrible. I'm glad it's over. I want to deal with moving on to the next part of my life. That is a hard thing, because everyone in this band in the next couple of years is going to be 30, so we're not twentysomethings anymore.

"If we had a hit record, I would think it would be hilarious, but I'm not going to start playing music like 'Letters to Cleo' to get it," he says. "When I was 16, we played a certain kind of music. Now I'm 28 and we play a certain kind of music.

"I loved punk rock when I was 16," he notes. "There wasn't a piece of clothing or a notebook that didn't have 'Dead Kennedys' scribbled on it; or whatever band we were listening to. I just always liked things that reeked of real expression -- and punk rock was so immediate. It was the first scene I could get into. But then my interest went back to what I was listening to before that, which was a lot of funk and R&B.; And I always listened to folk music. I would go from Mose Allison to the Modern Jazz Quartet, or from [the Clash album] 'Sandinista' to Sly & the Family Stone, you know?"

Like his band mates, Mr. Robinson is a true music lover, which explains why the Crowes are permitting taping at their shows this tour.

"It adds to the sense of community," he says. "It's not for the kids that watch MTV [which isn't playing the latest Crowes videos]. It's for the people who are really into music who have supported us for five years. They've given us this place to experiment from."

In another gesture that suggests rebellion against the music industry, the Crowes are selling more and more concert tickets through their fan club. It's similar to what the Grateful Dead have done for years.

"We're just trying to really keep it all sort of home-grown," Mr. Robinson says. "Yes, that word 'home-grown' works well for us."

Moreover, like the Grateful Dead, the Crowes hope to reach a point where they can build up a large enough fan base so they can tour without having to release an album.

"We want to get to a level where our work is greater, hopefully, than what's going on in the charts," Mr. Robinson says.

In another unorthodox move, the Crowes have invited as their opening act the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, a jazz-inflected New Orleans group that doesn't care much for Top 40 success, either.

The quickest way to rile Mr. Robinson is to suggest that older groups, such as the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, have nothing to offer today's rock groups. This has been suggested by some of his peers.

"It's bad when you've got musicians going around saying, 'Oh man, I don't listen to that because it's old.' That's like saying, 'I don't read Shakespeare because it's old, man.'

"You go get a dictionary -- there's all the words you can use in there. And when you learn to play music, there's all the notes you want to use right there, too. It just depends on where you want to put them. Words and music I think of in the same sort of terms."

Black Crowes

When: Monday, April 3, 8 p.m.

L Where: Patriot Center, George Mason University, Fairfax, Va.

Tickets: $24

Call: (703) 993-3000, (410) 481-7328


To hear excerpts from Black Crowes' album, "Amorica," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6178 after you hear the greeting.

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