All the fun of the flares

BY RIGHTS, the Black Crowes should be dead and buried. When they first appeared on our shores in the early Nineties, it seemed doubtful whether singer Chris Robinson's etiolated frame would last out the year, let alone five albums. And as for their music, the word "retro" only skims the surface of the wallowing nostalgia that characterises the band's sound. Considering our exhaustion with all things retro, we should really have been stoning the Crowes, not begging them for more.

But time has stood still for them. The Black Crowes trade in old-fashioned rock'n'roll, harking back to a bygone era of flares, stack heels and, with the addition of guitarist Audley Freed, big hair. Naff? Possibly, but taste doesn't come into it when you wear your fashion faux pas with the confidence of a newly made millionaire. The Crowes are the epitome of rock'n'roll glamour, in a seedy bar-room sort of way, and arrive like a joyous rush to the head next to today's crop of pretenders.

Robinson is an electric frontman who has clearly taken several leafs out of Mick Jagger's book. He is all elbows, knees and pouty lips, and is clad in trousers that could have been tailor-made for a grasshopper.

He performs with a conviction that is usually the preserve of soul musicians, and has a voice that could similarly make you weep. The ubiquitous poodle hairdos - off stage as well as on - fade mercifully into the background as Robinson's vocals take hold, veering seamlessly between a bluesy purr and a Rod Stewart-style rasp. A pair of raunchy backing singers, doing the kind of synchronous moves that would make The Supremes blush, imbue a handful of tracks with a rich gospel vein.

My only quibble is how easily the Crowes resort to rock'n'roll cliche. As if song titles like "Virtue And Vice", "Girl From A Pawn Shop" and "HorseHead" aren't bad enough, the band seems hung up on the notion that the bigger the chorus, the dirtier the riff and the dizzier the drums. As a result, subtle R&B and blues textures are sadly lost beneath a cacophonous din with their gentle melodies reduced to a distant squeak. More alarmingly, the Crowes seem to be firm believers in the guitar solo. Some self-aggrandising interludes from Freed seem steeped more in heavy metal than blues, rendering Robinson's singing talents a distant memory and sending swathes of punters to the bar.

If the Black Crowes do last the course, then it will be solely down to Robinson and his magnetic presence. The rest of the band? With hair like that, there's always panto.

Fiona Sturges