It’s natural to wonder why Chris Robinson would prefer to tour the country playing small clubs with his band, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, over selling out theaters and arenas with the Black Crowes, the band that made him famous. One might naturally assume that groups like CRB and Robinson’s previous venture, New Earth Mud, are merely side projects designed to fill time between tours with the Crowes and low-risk opportunities for him to pursue his musical whims. Those assumptions would be wrong.
Now nearing 50 years old, Robinson has been a household name (at least in rock-friendly homes) for a quarter century, but he’s not at all content to simply capitalize on the songs that made him famous, like “She Talks to Angels,” “Jealous Again,” and a definitive cover of “Hard to Handle.” Instead, with CRB, Robinson claims he’s reawakened his songwriting muse. Rounding out the group are guitarist/singer Neal Casal and Crowes’ keyboardist Adam MacDougall. The band’s third studio album, Phosphorescent Harvest, was released in April, and it was largely co-written between Robinson and Casal.
This weekend marks a rare three-night stand for the band — their only similar run occurs at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, where they recorded their 2013 live release Betty’s S.F. Blends, Volume One with famed Grateful Dead sound engineer Betty Cantor-Jackson. Perhaps that’s because Charleston also serves as a homecoming of sorts for Robinson, whose mother-in-law lives in Awendaw.
In a phone interview with the City Paper last week, Robinson opened up about his Lowcountry ties and the motivations for making CRB his primary musical focus.
On his childhood around South Carolina:
We were always at Pawleys Island. I was an obsessive, weirdo Civil War kid into battlefields, and I remember taking trips to Charleston and doing all that kind of touristy stuff. You know, people always mention when they meet me [Robinson is from Atlanta] that Georgia is the Peach State, and that might be true, but we always drove to Gaffney, S.C. in my grandmother’s Oldsmobile for peaches.
On his Palmetto State education:
I went to Wofford for like a split second. My senior year in high school I went to a demonstrative and heavily dogmatic private school in Atlanta, and one of my teachers had a connection at Wofford. Even then, I was kind of thinking that my life was going to be less collegiate and more hitting the rails, you know what I mean? I didn’t know if it was going to be music or whatever, but either way I wanted to flee where I was from. I went to a summer thing there and had poor grades. All poets have bad grades. It was a brutally hot summer, and everyone was telling me that The Beacon in Spartanburg was better than The Varsity, which it’s not.
On family in Awendaw and Lowcountry living:
My mother-in-law lives up in Awendaw, and my wife lived in the area as a child. We were just there two months ago visiting her mom, and we’re usually there a couple times a year, whether we’re playing a concert or not. We really love it there. If I could, I would just eat every meal at Husk. That restaurant is ridiculous. And I love fishing, but I never get the opportunity. Allison’s mom has a boat, and we did just buy one of those action-kayak-fishing, super-hardcore survivor-man things, and we went out in the Intracoastal. So we do get out on the water when we’re there.
On perceptions of the local music scene:
For us, it’s kind of hip to play [in Charleston], because people already know what the vibe is going to be. There’s a good hippie scene and people who really want to hear music as opposed to people who just want music for the background. For us, that’s ultimately the most fulfilling part of setting up our little sonic wonder-world in all of the pleasure palaces of the world like the Pour House and playing for hours and hours. It’s that transferal of, ‘Everybody’s here to get down and we came to get down,’ that makes a successful vibe, you know? We wouldn’t come for three nights if we didn’t know we were going to be having a blast.
On mixing up setlists during a multi- night run:
There are probably four or five songs in our rotation that we play a lot, but we look at each show like a Kojak episode. Like tonight’s episode: “Peyote Snow Dream.” Each show has a title that pops up in our heads, but we never write them down.
On the influence of the Grateful Dead:
I consider myself a Deadhead. I’m fairly obsessed, and not just from the inspiration I get having access to people like Phil [Lesh] and Bobby [Weir] and developing friendships and getting to play music with them. But one thing I always thought was funny about Deadheads is when it’s all just about exactly one band for someone. I think the culture has changed though, and it’s a little more open-ended in the jam-band scene. There are a lot of bands within the Grateful Dead culture. It’s the mother seed, you know? Unashamedly, I think we wear it on our sleeves how influential Jerry [Garcia] and the Grateful Dead’s music culture is to this band.
On canceling a scheduled Charleston appearance in August with Bob Weir’s band, Ratdog:
The real bummer to us, besides Bob not being on the road and doing whatever Bob needs to do, is that we just wanted to get out and play and take our little California cosmic musical message to the people.
On his career before CRB:
Being in a band like the Black Crowes for the first decade was on one level — the work was happening. But on another level, the rest could be dramatic and bad-times bleak for someone like me. The opportunity to do New Earth Mud [a mid-2000s project] was like slipping off in the middle of the night in a small dinghy into the great sea under the cover of darkness. One thing about being in a band like the Black Crowes for a long time — everything has two sides, you know what I mean? On the one hand, it’s very successful and people love that music and those songs, and that’s a blessing. But on the other hand, some of us want more change and aren’t satisfied with nostalgia or whatever.
On the future of his music:
I don’t think my motivations or goals really have anything to do with material success. For me, it’s about stirring the cauldron of where my voice is going as a songwriter. Neal and I have never been in a project by ourselves or in collaborations where it’s so free and open with the stuff we discuss. We are into melody and sonic textures. We write this earthy sort of base, and then let Adam paint these inner-space, outer-space cosmic keyboard paintings all over them.
On bucking corporate sponsorship and staying independent:
I’m motivated by a need to make something and write songs, so how do you make it work in this age of super-vapid, superficial corporate duress where everything is bent and everything is polished just to sell it? You have to find the freedom to be creative and passionate enough to say, “Hey, you know what? I’m not going to take money from a big label and try to make records where they’re going to tell me what they want to hear.” The only way to get to where we want to be musically is also the only way to get to people, and that’s just to be playing and playing. You just have to be playing all the time. Music is a very jealous thing. When you’re not doing it, it knows. Appease the music. Appease the gods.