Twenty years ago, The Black Crowes altered their flight plan with By Your Side
It should be stated at the outset that the Black Crowes couldn’t claim originality was at the top of their list of talents.
By their own admission, they borrowed their sound from a roll call of well known precedents — the Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Faces, Humble Pie, and any number of bands that shared their southern rock sensibilities. Even after four albums, the Crowes had yet to shake that retro tag and distance themselves entirely from their influences.
With the release of their fifth album, By Your Side, they had achieved the critical acclaim and fan following that clearly suggested they had attained stardom on their own merits, elevated by the success of their preceding albums, the stunningly successful Three Snakes and One Charm in particular. Nevertheless, it had been three years since the release of that particular effort and disagreements with their record label, American Records — which, in the interim, rejected an album they recorded called Band — as well as the departures of guitarist Marc Ford and bassist Johnny Colt, exacerbated their efforts towards a follow-up. For the first time, Rich Robinson found himself occupying the guitar chair all on his own.
Nevertheless, under the watchful guidance of new producer Kevin Shirley, the band gathered enough material to make the record they wanted. Some of the songs were salvaged from Band, while others were written fresh in the studio. In retrospect, it’s clear they were mostly following the same formula that illuminated early albums like Shake Your Money Maker, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion and Amorica. Chris Robinson’s obvious infatuation with Rod Stewart continued to inform his roaring, raspy vocals, and indeed, on songs such as “Kickin’ My Heart Around,” “By Your Side,” “Go Tell the Congregation” and “Virtue and Vice,” the comparisons to seminal Faces is all but unavoidable.
On the other hand, there were signs that the band was making an effort, even if oh-so slightly, to expand their template. There was a more soulful side to the By Your Side songs, occasionally bringing to mind James Brown and David Ruffin through Robinson’s raucous delivery. There’s a hint of humor as well, particularly when Robinson prefaced a track with a grunt or an invocation to get down and get funky. (Likewise, consider the fact that the video for the album’s second single, “Only A Fool” was directed by none other than Weird Al Yankovic.) Whether this attempt at reinvention is convincing or not is a matter of personal perspective, but by this point it was clear that for all their posing and posturing, the Crowes would rather be a caricature of someone else rather than mimicking themselves.
In the years following the release of By Your Side, the band found themselves in the midst of a tangled trajectory. The internal friction that existed between the Brothers Robinson eventually convinced the group to go on hiatus, only to regroup in the mid 2000s and score a successful comeback with Warpaint. Eventually however, they opted to call it quits and both Chris and Rich embarked on solo sojourns that proved highly successful.
“You don’t have to pander,” Chris Robinson once told this writer. “You can keep looking for a way to keep your creative instincts intact.”
With By Your Side, that’s what they intended to do.