NEW YORK Last year's pairing of former Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page with the Black Crowes resulted in a sold-out tour, an Internet live album and a hit single.
But more important, Crowes singer Chris Robinson said, it saved him from weariness and despair over his roots-rock band's place in a pop-dominated world.
"In a world obsessed with things that are only popular for the sake of being popular, trying to do something that has more meaning and more dimension ... can bum you out," Robinson said earlier this month, sitting next to Page on a plush couch in the Trump Plaza hotel. "You do wonder, why am I doing this sometimes? Why do I put myself through this bullsh-- industry that can give a flyin' rat's ass?
"Then we do something like this, and it's like, that's why," he said, turning to Page, who nodded sagely. Robinson wore aviator sunglasses and a shirt bearing the logo of the anti-drug program D.A.R.E., which seemed to amuse Page.
Page dressed inconspicuously for a rock god in a short-sleeved black button-down said he, too, was energized by his tour with the Crowes. The outing has been immortalized on the album Live at the Greek.
"I knew it was going to be good, but I didn't know quite how good it was going to be," Page said. "The first night ... it was electrifying, and it kept getting better and better. ... It was so intense."
Groundbreaking Online Album
The live album, available exclusively through online music company musicmaker.com, is on the verge of making music history. It appears to be fulfilling the company's hope of becoming "the first dot-com company to break music on the radio," in the words of Larry Lieberman, musicmaker.com's president of worldwide marketing.
The Page/Crowes version of Led Zeppelin's "What Is and What Should Never Be" (RealAudio excerpt) was the most-added track at rock radio stations across the country in its first week of release, according to musicmaker.com.
Last week, "What Is and What Should Never Be" was #17 on trade magazine Radio & Records' rock airplay chart.
Live at the Greek is available as a two-CD set, but fans also have the option of picking tracks for a custom disc, or downloading tracks one at a time. Though it would not release sales figures, musicmaker.com said enough Page/Crowes live songs have been downloaded to make the album the best-selling paid music download ever.
Even though their music is being distributed via modern technology, the bond that formed between Page and the Crowes was sealed by their shared roots in the music of the past, according to Page.
"Because I'm older, I accessed them earlier," Page said. "But we've got the same roots certain numbers like [the blues standard] 'You Shook Me.' I know they originally accessed the original Muddy Waters version, I'm sure of that."
Robinson and his brother, Crowes guitarist Rich Robinson, seemed at ease with Page. The guitar hero and his new bandmates interrupted each other's sentences and laughed together at inside jokes, even as they acknowledged the strangeness of the partnership.
"It's really rare to have the mix of something like Jimmy and us someone as established as him, and our band, sort of put together," Rich Robinson said. "[It's] really sort of an odd pairing. A lot of people don't really ever pick up on the link between Zeppelin and us. They're too busy comparing us to the Faces and the Stones, which is annoying for f---ing 10 years."
Comparisons to those '60s bands have dogged the Crowes since they issued their debut album, Shake Your Money Maker, in 1990 and scored a hit with their cover of Otis Redding's "Hard to Handle" (RealAudio excerpt). Some critics have accused the band of being excessively derivative.
Mutually Beneficial Pairing
Page, though, had nothing but praise for the Crowes. He said playing with the band allowed him to craft arrangements of Led Zeppelin songs that were closer to the album versions than any live performances even those of Zeppelin itself had been.
"With 'Ten Years Gone,' it was a classic example I never heard it like that on a stage," Page said. "It gave me the vehicle to be able to play very well, confidently, because of the backup, the infrastructure that was going on behind me, which was a dream."
On that song, Page's wah-wah-ed lead riffs meld with rhythm parts played by Rich Robinson and Crowes lead guitarist Audley Freed to create a thick wall of guitars.
"We definitely wanted to impress Jimmy," Chris Robinson said. "We've gone about music very seriously since we started I think we definitely wanted to prove to Jimmy we're not just a bunch of yokels."
The experience, which may continue in a tour this summer and a possible studio album, has already affected the Crowes.
"Wait till you hear our next album," Robinson said to Page, laughing.
Last year the Black Crowes released By Your Side, an album that marked a return to driving blues-rock after two discs of experimentation with psychedelic rock and other styles.
Before his association with the Crowes, Page released two albums No Quarter (1994) and Walking Into Clarksdale (1998) with former Zeppelin singer Robert Plant.
Led Zeppelin, whose hard-hitting riffs and painstakingly crafted arrangements influenced countless rock and metal bands, broke up in 1980, following the death of drummer John Bonham.