Stepping out of the shadows, it takes a second for your eyes to adjust to the light. It’s been a similar thing for The Black Crowes’ Rich Robinson since stepping out from behind the shadow of his older brother and Black Crowes’ frontman Chris Robinson. The 45-year-old singer/guitarist is on tour supporting his third solo album The Ceaseless Sight showcasing his more confident, road-tested voice.
“Normally, a guy sings in clubs for five years and nobody gives a shit,” says Rich Robinson from Los Angeles, where his family relocated a couple years ago. “Then they figure it out and put out their record, and it’s, ‘Oh that guy’s great.'”
Of course, Robinson didn’t have the luxury of honing that part of his craft outside the spotlight. Indeed, the entire enterprise was sort of forced upon him by his big brother’s pique. Not only is Chris nearly two and a half years older, but he’s the band’s lead singer, which entitles him to the common rock delusion that he can do better without his band.
“Chris thought he could be bigger without us, and that we were holding him back,” says Rich of the band’s January 2002 hiatus. “The first thing that popped into my mind was ‘Great, I get to be a frontman. That’s not really what I wanted.’ After a few attempts of trying to find people and it just didn’t work out, I just said ‘Fuck it.'”
Robinson released his debut Paper in 2004. He has no regrets and suggests he did the best album he could. It’s not like his singing mars the album, but there’s a tentativeness to the vocals that sometimes undermines the song’s underlying rock spirit. By 2011’s Through a Crooked Sun, he had a better handle on what he wanted to do.
“Fortunately or unfortunately, the Crowes got back [together] in ’05 and we toured solid for five years without stopping. By 2011, I was like, ‘OK, I have these songs. I’m going to go in and make a record,’ and that’s what I did. I found it far more confident and comfortable. Just to know what my voice can do and write towards that and in different keys that work … And then I just carried that through to this record as well.”
As songwriters, it’s obvious why Chris and Rich have had a difficult time writing together. While the Chris Robinson Brotherhood is a loose and woolly jam outfit, Rich Robinson’s work is much more in the singer/songwriter tradition, albeit with a slightly different psychedelic bent. Both brothers use roots as their jumping-off point, and there are clear intersections (such as Crooked Sun‘s meandering “Bye Bye Baby” with Warren Haynes), but Rich seems much more in tune with the crunchy psych of Neil Young and former Dream Syndicate leader Steve Wynn.
Like both Wynn and Young, Rich Robinson’s a great guitarist, who also happens to sing, and he shares a penchant for terrific guitar tone and texture. On Ceaseless Sight, those coolly knotted licks of distortion underscore more dynamic vocal strategies, from the cool Lou Reed-like speak-sung delivery of “Inside” to a roots/gospel soul duet with Levon Helm’s daughter Amy in “The Giving Key,” and the folk-blues croon of the triumphant album highlight, “Down the Road.”
“That song could be a representation of the whole album,” Robinson says of the latter.
It’s not only the album’s centerpiece, but it was also a thematic springboard for the rest of the album. Coming on the heels of the sudden divorce that blindsided him and led to Crooked Sun, Ceaseless Sight is the wreckage viewed from a few miles up the road.
“It’s almost like processing. This record is what it looks like now that you’ve gone and cut that cord and let go of that behemoth of bullshit that you carry around,” Robinson says. “There are so many layers of reaction piled on top of the actual act that happened, and there is ego and there is hurt and there is pain. All these things are so piled on top of it that you have a hard time even recognizing what you have to let go, and so it’s that process of peeling back all those layers and deciding what you need to let go.”
The album’s process reflected that spirit in a way. Robinson only had a couple of songs written before he went into the studio. It was very similar to the situation before the Black Crowes’ second album. Rather than overthink it, they went in and hit record. That second album, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion sidestepped the common sophomore slump by charging forward, and that was sort of Robinson’s strategy as well.
“Often I’ll go [into the studio] with solid songs finished,” Robinson says. “That’s how it was on Crooked Sun and a lot of Crowes records, but this record I felt like letting all that go and took a different approach. I went, ‘I have a couple parts, but let’s just use the energy of the studio and see where it goes.
“It has an energy to it. It has an abandon a lot of times like this could go either way,” Robinson continues “That’s what rock ‘n’ roll is to me, and that’s why I like it.”
While the Black Crowes continue to play and tour, the act of creative collaboration has become all but impossible as the two personalities pull in opposite directions. It has become a fruitless endeavor for everyone involved. “A lot of times the compromise just weakens what is going on,” he says.
Rather than leave both Robinsons unsatisfied, they are both following their own path, and like children of divorce, there’s a nice side benefit — twice the musical goodies, at least for the time being. It’s certainly hard to complain when Rich Robinson is making albums as good as Ceaseless Sight.
“It all comes down to older brother/younger brother,” Robinson says. “It’s this weird dynamic like, ‘This is what I’m going to do,’ and I’m, like, ‘Well, no, you’re not.’ It becomes, ‘I want to go this way, I want to go that way.’ It’s the most cliché thing of all, but it is what it is.”
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