It is perhaps a blessing that CHRIS ROBINSON has flourished in a very inhospitable musical era. When he made his first impact as the charismatic frontman and co-leader of The Black Crowes, robots dominated music: Rhythms were premeditated in software: samples mimicked sounds made by live players; and songs were pieced together like puzzles in a sonic laboratory.
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Music was in desperate need--not for some other prefab celebrity, nor for someone to repackage leftovers and serve them to a hungry public. That's why Robinson and his band made such an impact. In their hands, rock & roll became vital again. It challenged corporate marketing wisdom. It got kids on their feet faster than any quantized, neo-disco beat. Yet it didn't get bogged down in the past. It was, instead, immediate and alive enough to stun David Letterman, on his own show, to ask, "Isn't that rock & roll the way God wanted it to be?"
Today, as former Mousketeers swivel and grin across the landscape, music hasn't necessarily improved that much. But there is hope, for Chris Robinson is still on call. Time has passed, and his views have adapted to personal and social realities. Which is, of course, the point: The best artists don't grow by imitating themselves. They stay true to themselves, which means staying true to the people who believe in them, by taking chances and challenging expectations.
And so we've seen Robinson evolve through The Black Crowes era and into his solo incarnation on New Earth Mud, released October 22, 2002. Even now, in the early stages of planning his next solo album, he�s writing and performing new songs--debuting some of them this summer on a string of U.S. dates with Elvis Costello--while paying attention to what's going on in his own life. For now, he has no idea of where all this will take him, other than to say it will be exactly where he is supposed to be when he gets there.
"This past year and a half has been, to me, like utilizing the Trojan horse," Robinson confides. "I'm trying to slip in under the cover of night, wait until everyone goes to sleep, and take action. In a way, I've been working for this throughout my whole career, to get to where I'm not just talking about freedom; I'm manifesting it by playing the kind of music I want to play, saying the things I want to say, and being the kind of artist I want to be."
Chris Robinson began to feel a new kind of freedom after The Black Crowes went on hiatus in 2002. After moving to Southern California, Robinson began to write material based, for the first time, not on the conditions involved in working with a band, but solely on expressing one person's vision. These songs�including �Safe In The Arms Of Love,� �Could You Really Love Me,� �Untangle My Mind� and �Katie Dear�--traveled with Robinson to Paris, where, as if to challenge any expectations of repeating past triumphs, he assembled an all-English band. In a little more than four weeks they recorded New Earth Mud, his solo debut.
With his New Earth Mud band--keyboardist George Laks, bassist George Reiff, and identical twins Paul and Jeremy Stacey on guitar and drums, respectively--Robinson followed the album release with a tour designed to remind audiences of the power of pre-corporate concerts. Robinson alternated acoustic live shows with sprawling, electric performances, and his impassioned performances were enriched by a more abundant life experience.
Those shows connected with fans. "I was walking down the street in New York this spring," he smiles, "and this girl stopped me and said, 'When you guys played in Boulder last summer, it was the most incredible thing! Thank you so much!' And she went on her way. I know exactly how she feels. I know what it's like when you walk away from a concert and you just feel good to have been a part of it. That's my ambition--to create an environment where, whether it's 40 or 40,000 people, you can leave all the violence, all the negativity, all that shit at the door."
Dan Aquilante of the New York Post described the New Earth Mud album as ��uncharacteristically gentle and very, very heartfelt. The melodies that Robinson plays with are simple and wistful often relying on piano, acoustic guitar and vocal arrangements� (10/22/02). In the U.K.�s Mojo magazine, Sylvie Simmons praised the album for being ��pitched musically, atmospherically and temporally between Humble Pie�s Town And Country, Stevie Wonder�s Talking Book and Elton John�s Tumbleweed Connection�the late �60s/early �70s cusp in other words�there�s nothing egotistical here; its shimmering country-soul ballads and musically complex, simple-sounding rock-Americana are The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion and Amorica�s natural successors.�
A second solo album and a series of electric gigs on tour this fall with Gov't Mule are on the horizon. Beyond plans to record again with his band, and to draw from a cache of some 30 new songs that he's written recently, Robinson is not specific about how the next project will turn out. "I'm interested in a stronger sense of melody," he suggests. "Maybe it'll be a little sonically bigger than the first one. It'll probably be much more visual. I definitely hear places for woodwinds and strings, which would entail getting into dramatic, more theatrical composition. But I might also be happy with the big psychedelic roller coaster that the band sounds like live. I've been listening to these sixties bands--Ash Ra Tempel, the Incredible String Band--and to elements of world music. So I really don't know where it'll end up."
The one sure thing is that Robinson is well along on the second stage of his life as an artist. On his own, he fights the good fight, for the mutual enrichment of artist and fan, and for flushing out a music industry that's still clogged by, well, crap. "I want to put the power back in the hands of the artists and the audience, and take it away from the people who have sucked all of the beauty out of it," he insists. "I'm not afraid of things becoming popular, but that's because there was a time when the fans made the rock & roll heroes what they were. They allowed themselves to be taken into the music they heard, not because of some clever marketing, but because of something in the music itself. And that's coming back. I meet people all the time who feel this way. It could be at a gas station or a bookstore, but you get into conversations and you sense there's something definitely brewing underneath the surface."
Chris Robinson is, as always, on point. If and when the next revolution comes, you know who'll be calling the tune. �I just want to make something beautiful. And that�s something I�ve always felt about the creative process. The strangest thing can be beautiful and the saddest things can be beautiful. I just want to be able to have the freedom to put all those things together�I�m not afraid of that becoming popular and commercial, because truth and honesty will come through in cycles.�
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