Music News & Reviews

Ex-Black Crowes frontman brings new band, new harmony to Hangtown Festival

Chris Robinson Brotherhood
Chris Robinson Brotherhood Jay Blakesberg

In this day and age, lots of bands get their start through social media – posting self-made videos of songs on YouTube, and using other sites, such as Facebook and Myspace, to promote their songs and generate a following and parlay that awareness into record deals.

Chris Robinson, former frontman of the Black Crowes, had a more old-fashioned approach to starting his current band, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, in 2011. There was no big hype surrounding the group’s arrival – even though it brought together some notable players, including guitarist Neal Casal (a respected solo artist in his own right) and keyboardist Adam MacDougall (a latter-day member of the Black Crowes).

Instead, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood simply set out on a low-key tour of West Coast cities to see how the band would work live, have fun and see where things went from there.

It was about as different a beginning as possible from the way the Black Crowes arrived on the national scene. With brothers Chris and Rich Robinson at the helm, the band made a huge impact with its 1990 debut album, “Shake Your Money Maker.”

With the singles “Jealous Again,” “She Talks To Angels” and “Hard To Handle” (an Otis Redding cover) leading the way, the debut went multiplatinum and immediately took the Black Crowes to stardom. The next album, “The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion,” debuted at No. 1 on “Billboard” magazine’s album chart and spawned four singles that topped the magazine’s Album Rock Tracks chart, including the signature rocker “Remedy.”

The Black Crowes never reached those commercial heights after that, but the band remained popular, selling some 30 million copies of eight studio albums released during a frequently stormy run that included multiple breakups and reunions and plenty of lineup changes before the band split – seemingly for good – in January 2015.

Becoming rock stars so quickly was a trip and a half, Robinson openly acknowledged in a recent phone interview. But with the excitement came a good deal of conflict – both within and from outside of the band.

“You’re 23 years old and your first album sells 6 million copies. It’s a … head trip for a kid, who a year earlier was begging people to come put them on the guest list at a club in Atlanta,” Robinson said. “There’s a lot of money, a lot of egos, some fame, and then you have all these other (outside) elements coming in and trying to wedge their way in. How do you play the games, money games and ego games? And at the end of the day, it will eat you up. It will eat you up and turn you inside out, and it’s sad, but at least that was my experience.”

So the Chris Robinson Brotherhood experience has been a breath of fresh air for the singer/guitarist, who says none of the tension the Black Crowes experienced exists in his current band.

A fortuitous mix of personalities and musical talent may play a part in the harmony, but Robinson and his bandmates have also avoided record company politics by independently releasing their albums and kept the touring business as grass-roots as possible. Robinson sounds fully credible when he says the CRB is all about the music, creating a sense of community with the band’s audience and enjoying the adventure of making music and touring far and wide.

“Given the opportunity, do we stay at the Ritz Carltons and the Four Seasons and fly a private plane? No. Is it fancy restaurants and s--- like the Black Crowes would (do)? No.” Robinson said. “Every night we sleep on the bus. It’s just different. I’ve never been tired in the CRB. People don’t believe it, but we’ve made all these records and done all these shows, and we’ve never had a blowup. I mean, we never argue. There are never ruffled feathers. Everyone’s eyes are on the prize.”

“If you’re not here for the love of it and for the adventure, then this is the wrong gig,” he said. “But everyone is in the right place.”

And Robinson said he feels the CRB is only now beginning to hit its full stride. After releasing three albums in quick succession – “Big Moon Ritual” and “The Magic Door,” both in 2012, and “Phosphorescent Harvest” in spring 2014 – the group revamped its rhythm section, with drummer Tony Leone and bassist Jeff Hill joining Robinson, Casal (guitar/vocals) and MacDougall.

In the space of just one year, the group has come out with three additional releases, the full-length album, “Any Way You Love, We Know How You Feel” in July 2016, the EP, “If You Lived Here, You Would Be Home By Now” last November and now the full-length, “Barefoot in the Head,” which arrived on July 21.

Some of this latest flurry of material, Robinson suggested, is a function of pent up creativity being unleashed, self-producing the albums and finding a conducive environment for songwriting and recording – a studio that overlooks the Pacific Ocean in Northern California, where the band members could live together and focus on being creative.

“If you’re including ‘Barefoot in the Head’ and the EP and then the (album) before it, there had been almost three years since we had released a record, three years since we had been in the studio,” Robinson explained. And it went so well, and we took the reins and we moved (studio) locations and put the production sort of, we put that on us. Neal and I were talking, and Neal was like ‘Man, that’s a lot of compositions in a 14-month period.’”

The CRB has delivered both quantity and quality on the three most recent releases, and also evolved a bit stylistically. Especially with “Barefoot in the Head,” the group has progressed in a bit more relaxed, folkier, more Grateful Dead-ish direction, while still supplying plenty of melodic hooks and songcraft to savor. The new album doesn’t have any full-on rockers, but tracks like “Hark The Herald Hermit Speaks,” “Behold The Seer” and “If You Had a Heart to Break” generate a good measure of amiable energy.

Instead, “Barefoot in the Head’ is defined more by warm, laid-back songs like “She Shares My Blanket” (with a country-ish feel, smile-inducing melody), “Blonde Light of Morning” (with its rootsy, soulful, psychedelic blend) and “Blue Star Woman” (which has a pleasantly swampy, backwoods Southern vibe).

Robinson also credits the arrival of Leone and Hill with taking the CRB to a new level, both in the studio and live, where the band can really showcase its playing and improvisational skills.

“I think it’s a huge difference,” he said. “That’s not to take away from the people who contributed (before), but it’s like anything else. Jeff and Tony as a rhythm section, I guess they’ve probably done close to 140, 150 shows together (now). So at three hours a night, add a couple of hours at sound check, we’re starting to get up to some (serious) hours (playing together) ... Now everyone, all that intuition, all of that sort of unspoken stuff (is happening).

“Everyone has to have great ears in this band and trust everyone,” Robinson said. “And that comes with that time in playing. So having our rhythm section fully in place for the last cycle and then into this cycle, it just gives us, you know, your foundation is solid. Then in this case, we can go anywhere and we have lots of colors and textures at our disposal.”

Chris Robinson Brotherhood

When: 5:45 p.m., Oct. 26

Where: Hangtown Music Festival, El Dorado County Fair & Event Center, 100 Placerville Dr., Placerville

Tickets: $55.50 (single day pass)