The Black Crowes are celebrating the 20th anniversary of their multiplatinum debut album, 1990's Shake Your Moneymaker, with new music and a major U.S. tour, then a disappearing act. In August, they will release a studio album, Croweology, a two-disc set of fresh acoustic recordings of hits and deep-catalog songs from across the band's career. That month, the Crowes also embark on a four-month tour, performing three-hour concerts nightly, divided into acoustic and electric sets. But after the final dates, six nights in December at the Fillmore in San Francisco, the Crowes' current lineup - the founding brothers, singer Chris and guitarist Rich Robinson, original drummer Steve Gorman, bassist Sven Pipien, guitarist Luther Dickinson and keyboard player Adam MacDougall - are going on an indefinite hiatus. The official title of the tour: "Say Goodnight to the Bad Guys."
"Two years, five years, 10 years - you never know when you jump into the void," Chris says cheerfully, when asked how long he expects the band to be away. "This cycle we've been on has been incredible. Since the summer of '07, when we made Warpaint, it's been the three most fulfilling years I've ever had with this band.
"But if we kept going, we might be playing with fate too much," he adds. "It would be nice to have a 30th anniversary. But we should walk away from this while everyone's in a good mood."
"Plus, we all have babies," says Rich. "I'm expecting one any day now. Chris and Luther just had kids. It seemed like a good time. To me, 'hiatus' means there is no plan. We haven't said, 'Let's get back together in 2012.' And we haven't said, 'Let's not.' "
This is not the first time the Crowes have officially dispersed. The group broke up in 2002, exhausted by 12 years of touring, fighting with record companies, turbulent personnel changes and the Robinsons' famously volatile relationship. "We should have taken that break in 1997," Chris admits. "We could have taken two years off, and it probably would have changed everything. Sometimes I'm surprised we got back in '05. But this time, it is more of an insurance that we don't get into those places. We can go away, but it doesn't all slip away and feel final."
"It really is just life stuff," Gorman insists. "My dad had an interesting way of saying things, like, 'If you squeeze the puppy too hard, you'll kill it.' That's how I felt the last time. It's nice now, to be able to stand shoulder to shoulder, looking in the same direction and say, 'See ya when I see ya.' "
The idea for an acoustic record came up last year, during discussions about how to mark the anniversary of Moneymaker. The Crowes have done unplugged segments in their concerts, on and off, since the late Nineties. But the spark for Croweology was two all-acoustic shows the band played in 2008, at New York's Town Hall. "We captured something different," Rich recalls. "We wanted to see if we could do something more with that concept." They did it fast too: The group cut Croweology live in the studio, in five days, at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. "Most of Chris' vocals are live," Rich points out. "He was just doing scratch vocals, but they sounded cool."
Rich cites the new arrangement of "My Morning Song," from 1992's The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion as one of his favorite surprises on Croweology. "It's a song we play all the time, but we felt it become something different and exciting." Even the Moneymaker hit "Jealous Again", he says, "had a new life in that format. Actually, this is heavy for an acoustic record, more like Led Zeppelin III."
Gorman has another comparison. "The best rock & roll song, in my opinion," he says, "is Rod Stewart's 'Every Picture Tells a Story.' That's an acoustic song. But the drums are thumping. The whole thing is a chug. That, Zeppelin III, the Rolling Stones' Beggars Banquet - those were our reference points. This is a surprisingly uptempo record."
"We're definitely going to play a lot of Crowes songs," Chris says of the fall shows, "but this record is the mantle." The Crowes will open each night with a 90-minute acoustic set, then play another 90 minutes of electric music. "But those songs we play acoustic one night, we can switch and play electric, completely different the next night." There is a pause - you can practically hear the light bulb going off over his head. "We could do one set acoustic, and play that exact set electric the next night." He laughs. "There's still people out there who want their minds flipped - and that's what we're into."
Neither Robinson has a specific plan of action ready for the hiatus, although Chris, for whom perpetual motion is a way of life, has already been busy on the outside this year. He sang with Furthur, the Grateful Dead side trip of Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, at Lesh's 70th-birthday show in San Francisco in March. Robinson has also produced an album by the band Truth and Salvage Co., out in May. "For me, when I hear ' break,'" he says, "I instantly think of producing records, doing shows. Who can I play with? Let's jam." Rich is looking forward to devoting more time to his other art form - painting - and doing movie scores.
When asked what he thinks the Crowes achieved in the 20 years since Shake Your Moneymaker, Robinson declares triumphantly, "Chalk one up for the weirdos. We live in an age where everyone else is trying to aggressively own the middle. They'll do anything to be more popular." But why go away when the going is so great? "All the great bands take breaks from each other," Chris contends. "The Stones should have done it more. But if this record we made all of a sudden is the most popular thing in the world, we're never going away! Are you kidding?"
And if it isn't?
"Like I said, it's not a final thing."
The Black Crowes Tour Dates:
Aug 13 - Milwaukee, WI @ Riverside Theatre
Aug 14 - Walker, MN* @ Northern Lights Casino
Aug 15 - Apple Valley, MN* @ Zoo Amphitheatre
Aug 17 - Des Moines, IA* @ Simon Estes Amphitheatre
Aug 18 - Kansas City, MO* @ Harrah's Kansas City
Aug 20 - Detroit, MI @ The Fillmore at The State Theatre
Aug 21 - Chicago, IL @ Chicago Theatre
Aug 22 - Columbus, OH @ Promowest Pavilion
Aug 24 - Cleveland, OH* @ House of Blues
Aug 25 - Indianapolis, IN @ The Murat Theatre
Aug 27 - St. Louis, MO @ The Pageant
Aug 28 - Council Bluffs, IA* @ Stir Cove
Aug 29 - Denver, CO @ Fillmore Auditorium
Aug 31- Salt Lake City, UT* @ The Depot
Sep 7 - Salina, KS* @ The Stiefel Theatre
Sep 8 - Tulsa, OK* @ Cain's Ballroom
Sep 10 - Charleston, SC @ Family Circle Magazine Stadium
Sep 12 - Nashville, TN@ Ryman Auditorium
Sep 17 - Raleigh, NC @ Raleigh Boutique Amphitheatre
Sep 18 - Charlotte, NC @ Uptown Amphitheatre at the Music Factory
Sep 19 - Asheville, NC @ Thomas Wolfe Auditorium
Sep 21 - Jacksonville, FL @ The Florida Theatre
Sep 24 - Houston, TX @ Verizon Wireless Theatre
Sep 26 - Dallas, TX* @ House of Blues
Oct 1 - Biloxi, MS* @ Beau Rivage Casino
Oct 2 - Fayetteville, AR @ Arkansas Music Pavilion
Oct 15 - Albany, NY @ The Palace
Oct 16 - Salamanca, NY* @ Seneca Allegany Casino & Hotel
Oct 17 - Red Bank, NJ* @ Count Basie Theatre
Oct 19 - Burlington, VT @ Higher Ground
Oct 20 - Burlington, VT @ Higher Ground
Oct 22 - Boston, MA @ House of Blues
Oct 23 - Boston, MA @ House of Blues
Oct 24 - Hampton Beach, NH* @ Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom
Oct 26 - Waterbury, CT @ Palace Theatre
Oct 27 - Toronto, ON @ Massey Hall
Oct 29 - Philadelphia, PA @ Tower Theatre
Oct 30 - Atlantic City, NJ* @ Music Box @ Borgata Resort
Oct 31 - New York, NY @ Nokia Theatre Times Square
Nov 2 - New York, NY @ Nokia Theatre Times Square
Nov 4 - New York, NY @ Nokia Theatre Times Square
Nov 5 - New York, NY @ Nokia Theatre Times Square
Nov 6 - New York, NY @ Nokia Theatre Times Square
Nov 10 - Baltimore, MD* @ Ram's Head
Nov 12 - Pittsburgh, PA @ North Shore Entertainment Complex
Nov 13 - Washington, D.C. @ 9:30 Club
Nov 14 - Washington, D.C.@ 9:30 Club
Nov 16 - Richmond, VA @ The National
Nov 17 - Norfolk, VA @ The Norva
Nov 19 - Atlanta, GA @ The Tabernacle
Nov 20 - Atlanta, GA @ The Tabernacle
Dec 3 - Portland, OR @ Arlene Schnitzer Concert Auditorium
Dec 4 - Eugene, OR* @ McDonald Theatre
Dec 5 - Seattle, WA* @ Showbox SODO
Dec 7- Santa Barbara, CA @ The Arlington Theatre
Dec 10 - Las Vegas, NV* @ The Joint
Dec 11 - Los Angeles, CA @ Hollywood Palladium
Dec 12 - San Francisco, CA @ The Fillmore
Dec 14 - San Francisco, CA @ The Fillmore
Dec 15 - San Francisco, CA @ The Fillmore
Dec 17 - San Francisco, CA @ The Fillmore
Dec 18 - San Francisco, CA @ The Fillmore
Dec 19 - San Francisco, CA @ The Fillmore
(* = Electric Shows ONLY)