In theory, it seemed too good to be true: the Black Crowes, who not only live up to their acclaim as the world's most rock & roll rock & roll band but, on a good night, make the tag seem like an understatement -- together on stage with Jimmy Page, the heaviest heavy metal blues mofo to ever plug in a Gibson. In a club, for God's sake. Souls and children have been bartered for less.
The marriage worked beautifully when Crowes Chris and Rich Robinson joined Page onstage three nights before at NetAid for a couple of songs, with Chris playing out his Robert Plant fantasy to the tune of "Whole Lotta Love" and "In My Time of Dying" before a worldwide Internet, television and radio audience. But on Oct. 12, the first of a three-night-stand at New York's Roseland Ballroom (part of a six date mini-tour to include stops in the Boston area and Los Angeles), ol' sister luck wasn't quite with them. Blame the sound guy, who in the haze of pot smoke clouding the room apparently thought turning bassist Sven Pipien and drummer Steve Gorman up to eleven on the mixing board would turn them into John Paul Jones and John Bonham. Or blame the sheer over indulgence of it all, wherein having two very good guitarists (Rich Robinson and Audley Freed) and one great one all playing at once doesn't so much build a stairway to heaven as it does a whole lotta sludge. Whatever the reason, for a good half of the two hour show the whole lot of them might as well have been playing under muddy water.
What really hurt was they looked like they were putting on one hell of a show. Gorman pounded through the opening "Celebration Day" like Moby Dick was on his tail and gaining fast. Rich Robinson, Freed and Pipien took to their axes with more passion than the entire army of air guitarists in the crowd combined. Chris Robinson shook his skinny ass like a rhythmic chicken and belted out "I just want a piece of your custard pie" with a gleeful sho'-nuff-I'm-singing-with-The-Man shit-eating grin on his face. Even Page cracked a smile or two as he wiped his brow on his long black sleeve between solos. And sure enough, when the mix finally cleared up seven songs in, in time for a cover of Elmore James' "Shake Your Moneymaker," it sounded pretty great too, in no small way due to Rich Robinson's mean slide work and the jukejoint keys of the wraithlike Eddie Harsch. Even better was the greasy, harrowing "In My Time of Dying" that followed, the highlight of a heavy helping of Zeppelin that steered mostly clear of the obvious (bar the set-closing "Heartbreaker" and the final encore's "Whole Lotta Love") in favor of deeper album cuts like Physical Graffiti
's "Sick Again" and "Ten Years Gone." Through it all, Chris Robinson proved an infinitely more interesting Plant substitute than Page's regrettable one-night-stand-in David Coverdale, wailing less like a banshee at the gates of Mordor than a back alley stray cat in heat.
Page, of course, could do no wrong with the crowd, who cheered each and every signature riff and solo like he was performing miracles. Truth be told, though, Zoso was only so-so, larger-than-life not so much because of great tone or care as simply by merit of the holy texts from which he read by rote. Any hint of subtlety, of the awesome light and shade beneath the thunder that shaped his legend, was lost in the mucky mix. And on the rare and welcome occasions when the thick Led levee broke long enough for a Black Crowes' song -- "No Speak, No Slave," "Wiser Time," "Remedy" and their trademark Otis Redding cover, "Hard To Handle," -- Page made little effort to loosen up, instead playing like the world's heaviest rhythm guitarist and sinking the snaky, swaggering rockers like, well, the proverbial lead balloon.
The Crowes, meanwhile, regrettably seemed too content and happy playing the Zeppelin tunes by the book, with Harsch's jangling keys the only constant hint at the gloriously sloppy swap meet of southern blooze and English hard rock that coulda, shoulda been. The closest they came all night was on the too-few covers, namely Jimmy Rogers' appropriately titled "Sloppy Drunk" (featuring two Page and two Freed solos) and the Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac classic, "Oh Well." The latter song cut a deeper groove than even "Whole Lotta Love," and when Page came flying out of the far end of it with a white-hot solo aimed for some point just north of heaven, he goosed up more chills than when he tickled his theremin.
Alas, after a quick blast to the past with the pre-Page Yardbird's nugget "Shapes of Things," it was back to the more familiar "Heartbreaker," chased (after a short break) with the encores "Hey, Hey What Can I Do," "Hard To Handle," "Out on the Tiles" and "Whole Lotta Love." All parties -- sound guy included -- were good and limbered up by now, and the results were predictably hot and in the pocket. But frankly, given the bill's never fully realized potential, a little more over-the-side might have yielded a greater thrill. "Pagey showed them how to do it!" gushed one fan on the way out. "Yeah," nodded another, "whoever he plays with, no matter how good, they just become his backup band." On this night, with this
band, that was a big part of the problem.
Written by RICHARD SKANSE for RollingStone.com News