On rare days off, Chris Robinson likes to hunt for vinyl at mom-and-pop record stores in whatever town his tour has landed. Recently, in Oxford, Mississippi, Robinson returned to his room after a lengthy visit to a recommended local spot, The End of All Music, to talk music with the Weekly.
The tone of Robinson’s voice shot up an octave as he listed off his vinyl scores: a rare, mono first-pressing of The Move’s eponymous debut; a sealed copy of Slim Harpo’sRainin’ in My Heart; and Neil Young’s new release of unreleased solo-acoustic masterpieces, Hitchhiker.
Later, Chris Robinson Brotherhood bandmate and guitarist extraordinaire Neal Casal will join Robinson to work on new material.
“This is a pretty typical day off in the old CRB,” Robinson says.
The Northern California psych-rock outfit recently had to cancel nine of their Florida shows in the wake of Hurricane Irma. “The Earth shrugs her shoulders and we all have to deal,” he says.
The CRB’s gangly lead man, an eternal hippie’s hippie, has been a widely recognized figure ever since Rick Rubin’s Def American Recordings released the Black Crowes’ debut, Shake Your Money Maker, which sold over 5 million copies and hatched several singles, including a cover of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle.” A few years of tabloid melodrama proceeded, involving Robinson’s interpersonal relationships and onstage rants against corporate America, which contributed to the disbandment of the Black Crowes.
Robinson makes it clear that he doesn’t play music for the money, he plays because he has to. It’s who he is and it’s a concept that’s difficult for many to accept – even those closest to him – but it’s kept his career alive and relevant as the music industry continues to shift around him.
Last summer was one of Robinson’s most musically intense in recent years. For the first time in his career, the 50-year-old performed three live solo-acoustic gigs, two at The Chapel in San Francisco and one at Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz. The fiery, jam-packed sets featured material spanning Robinson’s entire career, including some Black Crowes classics – “Appaloosa,” “Jealous Again” and “Hotel Sickness” – he hasn’t sung for a long time. The three solo shows were considered practice performances leading up to the only solo-acoustic theater gig of his career, Saturday at Monterey’s Golden State Theatre. Americana folk duo Vetiver opens.
Weekly: Do you have internal dialogue running while on stage by yourself?
Robinson: “Don’t fuck up.” (Laughs.) I’m just trying to feel it. I’m an intuitive, instinctive person. I was never on a showbiz trip. It’s always different and the difference is the tangible electricty between the performer, the audience, the material you’re playing, where you are and how it sounds. There are so many variables that go into making something that can be magic. You’re looking for that mystical door to open so you can run through it. But you have to be available and aware.
Is there “magic” in revisiting the Black Crowes material that’s been dormant?
I think the point is to see the work as a whole piece, decades of writing. I wrote “Jealous Again” in 1988. That’s many years ago. There should hopefully be a quality to the songwriting and something that binds everything together in some cosmic twist of fate.
You often talk about the “authentic experience.” Is that how you’d define your solo-acoustic shows?
Hopefully you’ve had your tetanus shot because my whole career comes with a rusty nail sticking out of a beautiful sculpture. I don’t have a persona or a costume. This isn’t my job, this is my life. These songs are representative of my life. The reason I write songs and I sing them is because that’s how I relate. I am a weird person. I am an artist. I can relate emotionally to any person. I look for authentic experiences, whether it’s Andy Cabic of Vetiver, Neil Young, who’s one of my heros, or even younger kids like Jessica Pratt. They inspire me. I hear the authenticity in their creative waking life. Do I feel that with corporate artists or things that are producer-driven or “normal?” I don’t, but that’s totally cool because John Lennon said, “Whatever gets you through the night.”
For some of us, music has a deeper meaning; it’s a multi-dimensional trip.
Ahead of the CRB’s two-day run at Henry Miller Library a few years ago, Neal Casal spoke about how he respected that you traveled with the band in a shitty van and helped carry and set up the equipment.
If you’re going to build something from the ground up, you have to be there to do it. I didn’t grow up playing guitar. For me to set up my own rig, my own [pedal] effects every night for the first couple years, I had to go to school like anyone else. When it comes to music, I have no ego. How many amazing talented people do I know? How many records do I own? Musicians are musicians and we’ve always been that way. Just because I sold more records at one time than someone else doesn’t mean I can’t set up my own shit. If I’m going to play guitar every day, it’s a devotional practice. This is home for us and this is where I’ve always wanted to be.
You seem to enjoy the freedom of CRB.
I get to do what I’ve always wanted to do and write songs and travel around with my favorite people; and our scene is rad and our fans are amazing. It’s a good trip to be on.
CHRIS ROBINSON with VETIVER opening. 8pm Saturday, Oct. 21. Golden State Theatre, 417 Alvarado St., Monterey. $35-$55. 649-1070, goldenstatetheatre.com