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The Black Crowes Rediscovered Their Southern Harmony on ‘Happiness Bastards’ Reunion Album: ‘We Have a Psychic Thing’

Nobody knows you like your brother. But, oh brother, when siblings scrap — you better believe that the bruises are deeper, the damage longer-lasting and the chance of saying something truly hurtful much, much higher.

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That might explain why, for reasons they’d rather not revisit in microscopic detail, Black Crowes singer/lyricist Chris Robinson, 57 and brother guitarist Rich Robinson, 54, did not speak to each other for eight years. Not a single word — resulting in missed birthdays, health crises, birth of children, marriages and divorces, but also the mundane, everyday check-ins brothers are used to making with each other. Not a syllable exchanged after spending more than half their lives making music and touring together.

But to hear the brothers tell it today, there wasn’t one single incident or backstage blow-up that definitively pushed them apart. At least not one either man can manage to (or want to) remember.

“In the Victorian age, we would be considered eccentrics,” says Chris about the hard-to-pin-down story of how the Southern blooze brothers went from wowing crowds to a stony, years-long total communication breakdown that seems hard to fathom. “I’m not sure what you would call that today, but we decided on [this reunion] through an intermediary — someone in the middle who could handle the situation with kid gloves.”

“A band is a family dynamic and on top of that we have an [actual] family dynamic… the two heads of this band are family and everyone has to deal with that, no matter how toxic,” explains Rich — who, in keeping with the sibling’s preference spoke to Billboard on a separate call from his brother; they also keep their own dressing rooms on the road. “That creates its own dynamic in the band and it all became incredibly toxic and we split up for a long time and in those years of doing what we do it allowed Chris and I to really get outside of this thing.”

In classic Robinson fashion, that “thing” also included Chris going solo during their mid-2000s hiatus with the eye-pokingly named Chris Robinson Brotherhood side project. Ouch. The almost too-perfect sibling rivalry storyline marched on following the release of 2001’s Lions and a joint tour with fellow famously quarrelsome brother duo Oasis — winkingly called the Tour of Brotherly Love — after which the Crowes went on hiatus in 2002. They got back together with a different lineup in 2005, then embarked on what seemed like their final tour: the 2010 Say Goodnight to the Bad Guys outing, after which they went on indefinite hiatus again.

Another brief reunion run in 2012-2013, a hard, seemingly final break came in 2015 over what Rich described at the time was his brother’s demand for a bigger share of the income pie. Rich says the split was preceded by the Robinsons falling into the “same traps” in the midst of what had become an “incredibly toxic” atmosphere. That break turned into a hell-freezes-over situation, during which both brothers swear they never once spoke for nearly a decade — until reuniting around the 30th anniversary of Shake Your Money Maker, after a chance encounter in, of all places, an airport Hilton in Cincinnati.

The back-and-forth, hot-and-cold yo-yoing became a trying signature of the Marietta, GA-bred duo who bonded early over their love of classic blues and Muscle Shoals soul, British folk and Southern rock. Rich was just 17 when he wrote “She Talks to Angels” and a year older when the group recorded their 1990 debut album, Shake Your Moneymaker. The division of labor — Chris writes the lyrics and sings, Rich writes and composes the music — worked like a charm, as the band released five more albums throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, scoring such MTV and rock radio hits as “Angels,” “Jealous Again,” “Remedy,” “Thorn in My Pride” and an iconic cover of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle.”

After their hardest break to date, the duo finally got back on the same page last year to record their back-to-the-start album Happiness Bastards — due out Friday (March 15) on their Silver Arrow label. The Robinsons’ first new album under the Crowes banner in 15 years explodes out of the gate with the galloping Stones-y boogie rocker “Bedside Manner” and keeps the torrid, hip-swinging pace through the grungy snarl of “Rats and Clowns,” the hand-clapping, soul stirring first single “Wanting and Waiting” and the pugnacious southern blues “Dirty Cold Sun.” It is a loud, gritty reaffirmation of the Crowes’ signature sound, albeit one spiked with the memories, and scars, of more than 30 years of hard road.

“It wasn’t like I got on the phone and said, ‘Let’s do this, I love you, I want to talk about where I feel I failed us,’” Chris says of the rapprochement. The hard-won harmony came after what the vocalist dubbed years of “greed and avarice” around the band and his own self-described stubbornness and “egotism” mucking up the works. “We’re a bit too Southern for that [I love you stuff], with English stiff-upper-lip bulls–t going on.”

While Chris says he couldn’t articulate precisely what he missed about working with his brother at the time of their break-up because of calcified, long-running “real or imagined” resentments he harbored, what he knew was that music was, and has always been, “the glowing heart” of his soul. And so, he knew he had to get over the roadblocks they’d each set up to kickstart his rock ‘n roll heart again. “We were happy and excited and there was definitely some trepidation about what it would be like,” Chris admits, saying that anxiety stemmed in part from the realization that they had dug such a cavernous hole in their professional and personal lives.

“The things that I missed and made me feel low was, ‘Oh Richard has some medical operation,’ and the human part of being a brother thinking how that must have been scary — and I wasn’t there for you,” Chris says, adding that, yes, it was “very weird” that they hadn’t met each other’s kids: Rich has seven and Chris has two.

Though Rich went on to tour with Bad Company, produced other bands, wrote and produced four solo records and make three others with his his band The Magpie Salute, what would always ultimately happen was he would look to his side and see what was missing. “I was always still writing for Chris… every song I write I still think about how he will sing the chorus and about giving him a platform to sing over,” Rich says in a blood-is-thicker sentiment that no amount of water could dilute. “It’s hardwired in there.”

That’s why after that hotel bump-in Rich says they agreed to clear the decks, take responsibility for the triggers that set them off and not let “some external force come back in and f–k around with us… start from scratch, bring in new people and put our relationship first.”

The fire this time is evident from the opening Happiness salvo, “Bedside Manners,” in which the brothers sound shot out of a cannon on a track Rich says came together in a lighting flash five minutes, much as “She Talks to Angels” did three decades before. “This one f–king plopped out and it was so great, Chris and I were both right there with it,” he says of the song that rumbles with his galloping guitar topped by his brother’s go-ahead-and-read-into-it-what-you-will, snarling lyrics about “what you’re doing to me/ Stab a knife in my back and then you want a please/ With friends like these who needs enemies.”

Chris says the homage to decadent rock and roll living and trashed hotel rooms also has a message about dealing with other people’s judgement, as well as an undercurrent of the Robinsons’ determination to retain an “element of defiance in a world dictated by compliance… we can deal with that and we’ve survived that,” the singer says.

You can also hear the Robinson’s unique alchemy reignited in the patented ache in Chris’ voice on the churning “Cross Your Fingers” and the Exile on Main Street-like acoustic ballad “Wilted Rose,” which features backing vocals from country singer Lainey Wilson, a frequent collaborator of the album’s producer, Jay Joyce.

Both men say the high-energy first single, “Wanting and Waiting,” came in a flash, though Chris thinks his brother might be under the impression that it’s a love song, while he sees it as more “woeful.” In another classic Robinson move, they haven’t discussed the song’s meaning — because of what the vocalist says is a superstition that if they started hashing their inspirations out, “these things might go away.”

It is also easy to put on your therapist cap to deconstruct the seemingly olive-branch-extending, heartbreak lines in Beatlesque album-closing acoustic ballad “Kindred Friend.” On that touching track Chris croons, “Kindred friend, where have you been?/ I guess it’s been a while/ Through thick and thin/ And many times again/ Always make me smile.” Rich loves that the sentiment in the song is “cool but not obvious — it could be that or something else,” while Chris agrees it could work “on a number of levels,” chronicling his relationship with Rich, a dear old friend he’s fallen out with, a former lover or even the band’s audience.

“The mystery is that as different as we are he believes equally in that pure heart of things,” Chris says lovingly of his younger brother. The singer pointed to the moment that proved that to him: a 2019 audition for new band members that marked the first time the brothers had performed together in years. “It was just so powerful,” he recalls. “I can’t take one of the most unique guitar players in rock ‘n roll history out of how important that is, and he feels the same way about my talent and what I do.”

Chris Robinson chalks it up to a “psychic” connection, but a brotherly one as well — and says the new album’s rich tapestry and heartfelt emotion is also a result of the emotional depth each man developed to deal with one another during their time apart. “What we do is special and that’s what we have to nurture,” he says. “It has given us so much.”

Check out the Black Crowes’ first music video in 16 years below.

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