There was a time and a place where things were different. There was a time “when you could put a bird on something and call it art, where you could go to clown school, and it was like the Bush Administration never happened.” (Thanks Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein) It was also a time when the Black Crowes weren’t a hippie jam band that prescribed their audiences to 45-minute renditions of “Wiser Time.” There was a time when the Black Crowes weren’t on the fringe of starting a drum circle by Stark’s Pond in South Park. There was a time when this band stepped on the stage and defined the word ‘legendary.’ This time and place was the 90s.
By 1998 and after releasing four tremendous records (“Shake Your Money Maker,” “Southern Harmony and Musical Companion,” “Amorica,” and “Three Snakes and One Charm”), the constant ups and downs of the Black Crowes had been widely publicized to the point of being somewhat of an urban legend. Constant fighting within the band and drug use had taken this Georgia-based band to the brink of break-up and tragedy many times. They lived the reckless rock n’ roll lifestyle on the road that made bands such as Motley Crue notable. The primary difference between the Black Crowes and all of those self-destructive and self-indulgent bands from the 80s was simple; the Black Crowes made good music. It was raw, but meaningful. It was tight, yet so dirty sometimes you felt like you needed a shower after listening to those old records. It was in-your-face southern rock delivered with the caliber of soul that would have made Motown proud.
The 90s was also the time before everyone got on the internet at once to attempt to get concert tickets before the re-sellers bought them up and raped the marketplace. The 90s was a time that we all still went to a Ticketmaster outlet early in the morning and got in line with high hopes. This particular Saturday morning in the spring of 1998 was no different. Being third in line at Peaches’ Music on Peter’s Creek Parkway in Winston-Salem, NC for tickets to see Pearl Jam in Raleigh at Walnut Creek was not too shabby. However, along with 4 Pearl Jam tickets, I requested one little single solitary ticket to see the Black Crowes at Ziggy’s.
Ziggy’s was an unorthodox venue for the Black Crowes to be playing. The Crowes had been playing large venues such as stadiums and amphitheatres. However, one stop on their “Sho’ Nuff” tour stood out like a sore thumb. They were playing the tiny 600 capacity Ziggy’s in Winston-Salem, NC. Curiosity alone would have made a rock fan want to attend. Not to be confused with the modern-day Ziggy’s; the ‘original’ Ziggy’s was situated by a cul-de-sac on Baity Street adjacent to Groves Stadium and Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Its entrance through a wooden fence led to a graveled outdoor portion of the venue approximately 30 feet by 20 feet. A wooden staircase on the right and a long wheelchair ramp to the left led into the actual building. The inside of the venue was like an elaborate wooden deck covered by a tarp. A small bar to the left gave way to a wooden-railed viewing area the overlooked the area below. There were three levels to the ‘wooden deck’ that made Ziggy’s. There was the upper level, a few stairs down as the second level, and a few more down right in front of the stage was the bottom level. Common for mosh pits, the bottom level was the best place one could possibly see a band. The crowd was face-to-face with the band and literally inches away, not feet or yards.
As small as Ziggy’s was, the stage was no different. Many bands had crammed themselves into that tiny space just for a chance to play this legendary venue in the south. However, seeing the Black Crowes take the stage that sweltering hot Tuesday night on June 30th, 1998 was a sight to behold. Two guitarists, a bass, a drummer, a piano player, two back-up singers, and one lead singer fully equipped with a peacock-feathered massive white hat trimmed in rhinestones that would have made any pimp proud at any ‘playa’s ball’ in the country took the stage with a simple “all right, all right, all right.”
As those first three iconic chords of “Remedy” rang out and vibrated the wooden floor of Ziggy’s the capacity crowd that was packed in so tightly they could barely move erupted into a sea of people holding up their Foster’s oil cans in unison as one big ‘cheers.’
Opening the show with a massive hit such as “Remedy” was an indicator that the Black Crowes not only wanted this small crowd on their side (or by their side), but they wanted to annihilate this set. And that’s just what they did. Channeling the energy of “Remedy,” they quickly transitioned to “Sting Me” and on to “Stare it Cold” taking the crowd into a state of mind of southern rock that can only be captured in the south. Everyone would have been just as pleased by a campfire and a keg of beer in the parking lot as long as the Crowes were playing.
Before the crowd caved the wooden floor in and collapsed the building, the Black Crowes took the opportunity to slow the tempo down a bit and give everyone a chance to wipe the massive amounts of sweat from their brows. Although the song wasn’t officially released until a little over a year later, the band tried out “By Your Side.” It’s a mid-tempo track that carries a simple message about being there for the ones you love. “When you feel your heart is breaking; and all your friends are faking. When it’s giving and no taking; I will be by your side.”
Slowing things down a little further, the house lights lowered and the band continued into the poignant “Seeing Things” from their debut record “Shake Your Money Maker.” This track was the slowest one on that record, but was excellent in capturing the harmony and emotion from the back-up singers that tour with the band. They dress the same and dance in unison reminiscent of those ladies that tour with James Brown or Tom Jones.
After surfing through a very tight version of “My Morning Song,” it was apparent that the ‘quiet’ part of the set was over. “A Conspiracy” crashed through Ziggy’s like a tsunami a surfer looks forward to. It was a key track on their record “Amorica” and has always been a live staple that has gotten audiences on their feet ever since. Although it has been rarely played after this tour, “Blackberry” found its way into this set list. Lead singer Chris Robinson, who can sometimes be ‘stand-off-ish’ and sometimes outright rude to audiences was in rare form on this night. His interaction with the up close and personal crowd covered in sweat from the southern humid summer heat was light-hearted and showed a sense of excitement. If a crowd catches Chris Robinson in a good mood, then they are in for a great show that they won’t soon forget. His banter was brief, but nobody seemed to mind because one great song after another rattled the eardrums of everyone in the place; as well as those a few blocks away.
Once an audience hears the drum intro to the song that put the Black Crowes on the musical map, “Hard to Handle” (originally done by Otis Redding), it’s like a church of elated people ready to have a drink together and sing along. (Sho’ Nuff) Follow that with the ‘southern harmony’ of “No Speak No Slave” and we have the recipe for the ending a main set with a bang, with feeling, with soul, and with a lot of happy sweaty people.
The sound and vibration of people stomping the wooden floor throughout Ziggy’s demanding an encore was enough to make one almost spill their drink (if they had one). As many great bands that played that venue, it is seriously divine intervention that it never collapsed. This night was a perfect example of that fact.
Rich Robinson walked out onto the stage amidst a flurry of applause and cheers and began the first notes of “She Talk to Angels” which was met with a roar of excitement from the tiny crowd that had Ziggy’s packed like a boat of refugees. It was the song from their wild and boisterous debut album that showed the band had the range to not only write a slower and intricate song such as this but showed that Chris Robinson had a deeper side that wasn’t shown on the first half of the record. It continues to be a fan favorite to this day.
There is one way to certainly just floor a crowd and push to the end after coming out of an encore break with “She Talks to Angels.” The way to do that is to follow it with the first two tracks of their debut record that were wild, that were hard, and that were impossible to not sing along to. Those songs were “Jealous Again” and “Twice as Hard” (in that order). By extending the end of “Twice as Hard,” which they often do live, it gives that song an extra punch. It’s that extra little knock-out punch that can officially wear a crowd out and have them ready for bed.
As the house lights came up and people rushed to the graveled area outside for fresh air if nothing else, the party continued to rage. Beers were still flowing from the bar to the parking lot outside and across the street at the porno store. People weren’t ready to go home. They had just witnessed one of the greatest rocks bands from any period set foot on the legendary stage that was the ‘old’ Ziggy’s. People stood around their cars and had friendly drinks well into the night after Ziggy’s had officially closed. It took a few hours for people’s clothes to actually dry in the humid air outside from being soaked with sweat inside. It’s that feeling that makes a good concert a great concert. It’s that feeling that makes it something special. It’s that feeling of one’s ear ringing but not caring. It’s that feeling inside when you know you saw something special that not many people have seen or will ever see. It’s that feeling knowing that you just saw one of the greatest rock bands on the planet absolutely tear up the stage in a tiny venue on a backstreet that didn’t even have an official roof on top of it.
The Black Crowes went on hiatus in 2001 and made a return to touring in 2005. They put out a solid record the next year entitled “Warpaint” and supported that record with multiple tours. However something was different. Maybe it was the band growing as musicians and finding a way to stay together. Maybe it was just drugs and family issues. The Black Crowes began as a rock band and at some point between 2001 and 2005 became a ‘jam band.’ The abandoned playing songs and went with jams and hippie grooves instead. Having seen multiple shows since their comeback in 2005, they show flashes of what they used to be from time to time. However they spend most of their time adding 10 minute solos that go nowhere into songs where they shouldn’t be and covering obscure b-sides from The Band or Warren Haynes. The Black Crowes seemed to transform into wanting to be more like Phil Lesh or Bob Weir than sticking to what made people come see them in the first place: rock n’ roll.
The Black Crowes are again on hiatus following a tour and the release of a collection of acoustic re-imaginings of their hits entitled “Croweology.” It’s a brilliant collection that is a chilling reminder of just how talented this band is despite its decline in the late 2000s.
No matter how the music sounds now, there is still nothing they have done since that has matched that feeling inside that was felt walking out of Ziggy’s covered in sweat in the early AM hours of July 1st, 1998.
The official set list for the Black Crowes at Ziggy’s in Winston-Salem, NC June 30th, 1998 was as follows:
Stare It Cold
By Your Side
My Morning Song
Hard To Handle
No Speak No Slave
She Talks To Angels
Twice As Hard
There is a rather good audio recording of this concert in circulation. However, not sure of the Black Crowes’ stance on bootlegging no link will be posted out of respect for the artist.
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Dustin M Pardue