AS THE CROWE FLIES Rich Robinson

With a
new solo album just out, the Black Crowes guitarist turns the page on a new
chapter in life.

 

BY DAVE GIL DE RUBIO

 

The Swiss philosopher Henri-Frederic Amiel once said, “To
know how to grow old is the master-work of wisdom, and one of the most
difficult chapters in the great art of living.” It’s a lesson that Black Crowes
guitarist/vocalist Rich Robinson has grown to embrace over the past ten years.
With his recently-born fourth son being the latest addition to his family, the
42-year-old Robinson has become more comfortable in his own skin. It’s a
philosophy at the heart of Through a
Crooked Sun
(Spunk), his newly-released second solo effort.  “The theme that’s running through this record
is leaving all my old shit behind and moving forward. And having a real love in
my life and what that means. Moving more in that direction and letting go of
the past,” he explains. “Once you get past all that clutter and bullshit of
being stuck in the past and you realize that there’s a whole new shift going on
in the world. I feel like [everything] is changing and I feel positive about
it. Letting all that shit go allows your creativity to flow a lot better and it
allows you to be in this place where you have a lot more clarity and can move
forward.”

 

Aided by longtime drummer Joe Magistro, Particle keyboardist
Steve Molitz and a handful of guest artists including Warren Haynes and John
Medeski, Robinson touches on a number of personal issues. Paced by a
lightly-strummed acoustic guitar, “Hey Fear” finds him having a conversation
with his insecurities and dealing with them by embracing a life of simplicity
that is missing from “It’s Not Easy,” an atmospheric warning about the dangers
of materialism. And while the pleading yearning of “Lost and Found” is a nod to
the newfound happiness he’s enjoying with his current wife, the ethereal “Bye
Bye Baby” and its mesh of crying pedal steel and slide guitar are the musical
bed for a song that asks what the next act is following a life chapter bursting
with youthful accomplishments. It’s a question that’s definitely shaped
Robinson’s current outlook.

 

“Back then when we started out 22 years ago, I was 19, had
just graduated from high school, and it was euphoric and stressful at the same
time. There was a lot of chaos for someone who grew up in a middle-class family
in suburban Cobb County, Georgia. It’s great but all of a
sudden you go from going to school every day and doing your thing and next
thing you know you’re going around the world and touring with people who were
your idols,” he recalled. “Every day is a different scene, you meet different
people every night and I ended up being bombarded with sensory overload for at
least twelve years until the band split up in ’01 or ’02. I’ve gone through all
that and have kind of seen both sides of it. I’ve seen huge success and I’ve
seen the other side of that and I think that gives you a proper perspective.”

 

Controversy has never been far from the Black Crowes. In the
beginning, the multi-platinum success of its 1990 debut Shake Your Money Maker was derided by lazy critics who accused them
of being nothing more than Faces/Rolling Stones revisionists. The Crowes’
outspokenness also got them unceremoniously dumped from opening for ZZ Top in
1991 tour after Miller Lite reacted negatively to Chris Robinson’s nightly
rants against corporate sponsorship. In later years, the band caused further
waves by openly endorsing the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana
Laws (NORML) and plastering its third album Amorica with a crotch shot of a woman with pubic hair sticking out of the top of an
American flag bikini bottom. Outside pressures manifested themselves into a
revolving door of band members, disagreements with record company executives,
broken marriages and a contentious relationship between the brothers Robinson
that led to a three-year Black Crowes hiatus that began in 2002.

 

 

It was during this time when Rich Robinson wondered, what
now? An attempt at creating a side project called Hookah Brown fell apart after
playing a brief string of shows. It was a transitional period with a number of
rough patches and self-discovery that eventually led to his cutting Paper, his solo debut. “When I made the
first solo record, I felt like it was a lot more frantic. I had written all
these songs and I was used to 15 years of writing for Chris [Robinson] and for
a singer that sings that way,” he explained. “So I wrote songs that suited him
and I’d put together Hookah Brown and that fell apart and it was a bummer. Then
I said, ‘fuck it,’ and decided to do it myself. It was cool to get in there and
do it myself because it was a learning process but on the flip side, I bit off
too much. I played most of the instruments, produced and mixed it myself. I was
going crazy and couldn’t fucking relax. And I’d never sung before and to start
singing by yourself, it’s a very naked and vulnerable feeling. The whole scene
was a bit weird.”

 

Indeed, the songs from this 2004 outing are baby steps
beyond what Robinson was creating with his main band. With its raunchy riffing
and harmonies, the heavily syncopated opener “Yesterday I Saw You” could have
been a mid-1990s Black Crowes outtake. And while much of Paper cleaves to this particular stylistic approach, songs like the
pedal-steel soaked weeper “Forgiven Song” hint at the rootsier vibe that he was
headed towards both with the Crowes on 2008’s Warpaint and his sophomore follow-up. It also reflected a time of
musical experimentation that included attempts at collaborating with the Los
Angeles Philharmonic by replacing traditional symphonic instruments like a
violin with a more exotic sarinda.

 

“Dealing with the classical music world was definitely a
hurdle that wasn’t going away. We were ready to do it but then were told to
[recruit] celebrities like Bono. We started going back and forth and what I
wanted to do they decided would amount to little more than ten minutes,”
Robinson said. “These guys couldn’t get out of the kind of archetypal thinking
where things are they way they are can be changed. These instruments were not
going to be able to do everything that a full symphony could do but that was
kind of the point – to smooth the edges of this music see how people who’ve
never heard it before were going to interpret it.”

 

Recent years have found this intellectual curiosity manifest
itself in different ways ranging from his involvement with the Howard Zinn
documentary The People Speak (“It was
a really cool and worthwhile project to be involved with [given that] Howard
was an incredibly kind, smart and charming person”) to the recording of the
2009 Black Crowes album Before the
Frost…Until the Freeze
. “Chris and I had always wanted to make a live
record of all new shit, but we never did because we got into a fight and [that
idea] fell apart,” Robinson explained. “Chris went to [one of Levon Helm’s]
Rambles up in Woodstock
and he said, ‘What if we just went a made a record live and invited two or
three hundred people to come and watch us make a record?’ It was a really
interesting process.”

 

Cynics might think this new Zen outlook is a ploy to sell
copies of his new record, but this wholesale change is readily apparent during
Robinson’s two-date stand at The Winery, a cozy venue in downtown Manhattan. In two-plus
decades of seeing him play with the Black Crowes dating back to his band’s
first national tour opening for Aerosmith in 1990, it’s the first time I can
recall the normally outspoken rock star take the stage in such a relaxed state,
bereft of the severe and oftentimes scowling visage he frequently bore in his
younger years. Instead, the Georgia
native was relaxed, sharing a shy grin with his bandmates and the audience
in-between numerous self-deprecating quips. But before anyone can accuse him of
going soft, Robinson capped off a cover of “Billy 4,” a Bob Dylan nugget off
the Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid soundtrack by linking the song’s theme of freedom to the Occupy Wall Street
movement and the rancor directed at the one percent of “…assholes having all
the money.”

 

It’s a reminder that however serene life may have become for
Rich Robinson, there’s still plenty of ragged idealism roiling beneath the
surface.

 

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