Any conversation with Chris Robinson, the former front man for Atlanta-spawned rock sensation the Black Crowes and leader of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood since 2011, can easily turn into entertaining stream-of-consciousness commentary, musical and otherwise.
The 50-year-old singer/songwriter, guitarist and harmonica player brings the CRB (rounded out by guitarist/vocalist Neal Casal, keyboardist/vocalist Adam MacDougall, bassist/vocalist Jeff Hill, and drummer Tony Leone) into the Pompano Beach Ampitheater on Sept. 7 to open for fellow Atlanta blues-based psychedelic rockers Blackberry Smoke.
“I named that band!” Robinson says. “I keep telling them they owe me money for that. The rhythm section [bassist/vocalist Richard Turner, drummer Brit Turner] is composed of two of my oldest friends, and the rest of the band members [vocalist/guitarists Charlie Starr and Paul Jackson, keyboardist Brandon Still] have since become dear friends as well.”
Robinson spoke by phone before a CRB headlining show at Rams Head On Stage in Annapolis, Md., on Aug. 13. The band’s scheduled concert at the Jefferson Theatre in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12 had just been postponed because of the violence and loss of lives that resulted from the disastrous white supremacist march through that city.
“Unbelievable,” he says. “Well, not really unbelievable, actually. That it was the biggest event like that in decades is the staggering thing. We were staying on the outskirts of the city, so we weren’t affected directly, but it was such a bummer all around. We’ve rescheduled that show for October.”
The CRB appears in Pompano Beach a month into its latest tour in support of its fifth studio recording, the 2017 release Barefoot in the Head. Now recording on the small Silver Arrow Records label, and appearing at mid-sized theaters and ampitheaters, is a contrast to the early-1990s, stadium-worthy, major label success of the Black Crowes — the often-infighting 1989-2015 juggernaut Robinson formed with younger brother and guitarist Rich Robinson. But the older brother sounds more comfortable and, to borrow a Crowes phrase, wiser for the time.
“I have an opportunity now, with this band, that I didn’t have with the Black Crowes,” Robinson says. “Everything then happened so fast, and so much actually happened to us when I was younger, and my perceptions were a bit different. Now, I’m in a lot of places where I didn’t use to have time to meet people on a night off. I’ve always liked talking to people, and there’s so much positivity, love and progress; people working hard, and who care so much. So much sincerity. For the ordinary troubadour in the modern world, I can still hang my hat on how love and the human spirit will always overcome the kinds of cultural, spiritual and physical pain we’ve seen recently.”
Based in Marin County, Calif., for the past three years and in California since 1991, Robinson’s current band more reflects its spiritual leader’s wide range of tastes and influences. As with the Crowes, his expressive voice and wide range are steeped, in part, in Southern soul, gospel, blues, and rock — an American cross between Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, The Faces’ Rod Stewart, and Humble Pie’s Steve Marriott.
“Rich and I grew up around a father [Stan Robinson] who was a folk singer on ABC-Paramount Records,” Robinson says, “and he and my mother had a sizable record collection of around 250. We’d hear everything from Jimmy Reed, Mose Allison, and Flatt & Scruggs to Leon Russell, Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson, and Joan Baez. And my father often was singing, so music wasn’t just on the record player or car radio, it was actually alive around us. Plus, being from the Deep South, we grew up around, for lack of a better term, African-American magic and mysticism. And that manifested itself in influential soul, rhythm and humor.”
Unlike the Crowes, the CRB also adds the Grateful Dead-like jam band elements of one of Robinson’s heroes, Jerry Garcia, guided by the elastic rhythms of Hill and Leone, who also shine on the country leanings of certain Barefoot in the Head tracks. Casal is the simpatico songwriting foil that Rich Robinson often was not while the Crowes revived the sibling rivalry wars of The Kinks’ Ray and Dave Davies. And MacDougall’s vintage electric pianos, organs, and synthesizers add funk sound effects a la Bernie Worrell of Parliament/Funkadelic. The result is a very flexible quintet that achieves its suppleness through chemistry.
“It’s Tony’s third year in the band now, and Jeff’s second,” Robinson says. “So if you look at it pragmatically, we play more than a hundred shows a year, at three hours per show. So that’s more than 3,000 hours of playing together, and that doesn’t even include sound checks, sessions and rehearsals. Adam brings so much humor in his playing, and Neal has expanded his palette from being a tasty guitar player to also being so capable of improvising. We really bonded when he was playing in a great Los Angeles-based band called the Beachwood Sparks. And he was perfect, because I didn’t just need a guitar player. I needed a songwriting partner, too. And I feel like we’re still constantly turning over stones, like musical prospectors.”
“Chris is a rare and gifted front man,” says guitarist Derek Trucks, of the Tedeschi-Trucks Band, “and an encyclopedia of ’60s and’70s rock, funk and jazz. When we did a tour with the Black Crowes [in 2013], it was a blast. The deejay sessions on the tour bus were pretty over-the-top.”
Much has changed for Robinson since the then-young man decided to go west during the Crowes’ heyday more than 25 years ago. But his studious knowledge of music history has only deepened, and he hasn’t forgotten under-recognized musical roots from the ’70s (ahead-of-its-time Atlanta funk/rock act Mother’s Finest) to the ’90s (incendiary fusion group Aquarium Rescue Unit, led by singer/guitarist Col. Bruce Hampton, who collapsed onstage and died during his own all-star 70th birthday tribute concert at the Fox Theater in Atlanta on May 1).
“Atlanta is known as one of the most progressive Southern cities,” Robinson says, “where there’s a sizable gay population, and African-Americans also appear to have more power and equality. We had a Mother’s Finest listening party a couple months ago. They were a great multi-racial act, yet seem to be overlooked. Except in Germany, where they’re apparently huge! As for the Colonel, I was invited to attend his tribute concert but couldn’t make it. Practically everyone I knew was there, and while it ended up being very sad, realistically, the man said in 1969 that he was going to die onstage. He was surrounded by practically every musician who loved him, and by 5,000 people who were beaming their love on him. Very few people, other than Hindu saints, get to exit on that kind of sea of love.”
Being on major recording labels like Columbia and Def American meant that the Black Crowes dealt with very different expectations, at a much younger age, within a very different music industry, in the 1990s. The group’s hit singles from its 1990 debut Shake Your Money Maker and 1992 sophomore effort The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion created its commercial apex, even if efforts from the subsequent Amorica (1994) to Lions (2001) arguably featured even more creativity, and risk, yet sold significantly fewer copies.
“The Black Crowes was a rock band that certainly knew how to rock,” Robinson says, “but it didn’t necessarily know how to swing. Plus, now I’m in a band that has an audience that isn’t demanding of a show biz trip. Not having hit records, and probably not having them in the future, the way the world works now, gives us an amazing opportunity to be like a new band every year. I don’t have a promoter, manager, or A&R guy breathing down my neck now. I’m the record company guy. Which means, Jesus Christ, what a topsy-turvy world.”
With Rich Robinson currently also firmly ensconced in his 10-piece rock band the Magpie Salute (which plays at Revolution Live in Fort Lauderdale on Oct. 27), complete with other former Crowes Marc Ford (guitar) and Sven Pipien (bass), it appears that one of the groups that defined ’90s rock — yet has remained off-and-on since the turn of the century, releasing only two recordings during the second half of its 26-year career — may now be permanently flightless.
“We were a blues-based rock band that had a hard time rolling,” says Robinson. “This band is a completely different architecture, with a poetic construct of stories and images that I contribute as the folk-ish songwriter kind of guy. Black Crowes fans don’t seem to like this band as much, since there isn’t as much rock, angst or tension. This band is more indebted to the concert scene in California, where it’s rock music with country, jazz and funk undertones. It’s more of a kick off your shoes and dance theme.”
See The Chris Robinson Brotherhood and Blackberry Smoke at 7 p.m. on Sept. 7 at the Pompano Beach Ampitheater, 1806 N.E. 6th St., Pompano Beach ($29.50-$39.50, 954-519-5500).