At Home in the World of Artistic Freedom with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood
By Eric Sandy
on Thu, Sep 15, 2016 at 12:04 PM
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Here’s how Chris Robinson’s days began while laying down the new album with his band: Wake up at 7 a.m., take his daughter to school, brew some tea, listen to some music. It’s sort of like most other days for the lifelong songwriter, because, now, Robinson is more at home than ever with the latest twist in his career.
Arguably, this record, Any Way You Love, We Know How You Feel, is the Chris Robinson Brotherhood’s most comfortable album yet — one that finds the musicians totally in the zone and looking forward with relaxed eyes and ears.
The CRB finds itself wholly in its element now, a few years after frontman Robinson’s alma mater, the Black Crowes, called it quits for good. (Robinson’s adamant about the finality, and he’s pleased that it’s in the history books.)
Robinson’s tenure with the Black Crowes is well documented, particularly his anxiety with the limiting expectations placed on him and that band. The Crowes’ final tour in 2013 revealed even more clearly to Robinson how dysfunctional the band had become. With a real rock ‘n’ roll legacy enveloping the band across more than 20 years, he found himself trapped in the confines of the same old material and caught up in long-standing financial disputes among bandmates and the label. Not conducive to creative growth.
And so, to snap back to the present era, Robinson’s new band hit the studio and dropped Phosphorescent Harvest in 2014 (their third album) and, soon after, ran off to wooded northern California to prepare the music that would appear on their latest album, this year’s Anyway You Love, We Know How You Feel.
The CRB encamped in a quirky house about 12 miles from San Francisco. “It’s kind of remote, you know? There’s only two roads in and out.” Above them, Mount Tamalpais loomed. The cool Pacific air flowed inland, welcoming and refreshing, each morning.
Quiet and serene, the location lent itself to the open-air jamming that led to so much of the new material on the album.
With eight songs, most of them a hearty five minutes or longer, the album feels like a glimpse into open-ended jam sessions. Each musician shines here and there, dishing interesting solos (check the keys on “Oak Apple Day,” for instance), but more often than not this is ensemble-type stuff: The band, featuring a few newer members, clearly gels.
Lumped somewhat into the national jam band scene, the CRB certainly does tend toward the improvisational side of music. That’s how most of their studio stuff is born. “If we play three hours a night, our soundchecks are easily two-and-a-half hours, sometime three, too,” Robinson says. Soundchecks afford the band a great platform to road-test the early fragments of new tunes.
Like “Give Us Back Our Eleven Days,” drummer Tony Leone and keys man Adam MacDougall were playing the main riff, and Robinson recorded it on his phone. It drifted into the recesses for a while, but when the band hit the studio those memories returned to the musicians. “I just pulled out my phone, like, ‘Does anyone remember this?’” Robinson says.
It’s a free-flowing instrumental, clocking in at a shade under three minutes — a nice segue in an album otherwise filled with more expansive tracks. (There’s another instrumental, featuring Indian flute, coming on the next album in November, which will include five tracks that complement this material.)
“Making records is cool,” Robinson says. “The rest of the world can say they don’t mean anything, but that’s just like listening to politicians.” That’s what these guys are in it for; there’s no thought toward releasing a single. “That’s never a part of our dialogue.”
And that’s a big part of the allure of this band: They’re making it up as they go along — not unlike most rock ‘n’ roll bands, but, here, they don’t have the time or will to consider “hits” or “marketing strategies.” They simply do as they do.
“It’s really super unique,” Robinson says. “It’s kinda the thing that you’re never supposed to do — especially, you know what I mean, when you come from something successful like the Black Crowes that have memorable hit songs.”
Of course, it’s working pretty well. These upcoming shows aren’t the first two-night stand the band has done in Cleveland. The last few shows they’ve played here, it’s clear that they command a devoted fan base and that, all told, they’ve cultivated a scene around their dedication to the finer side of life as a musician.
“We live in an era where a songwriter is like a hilarious — you might as well be a poet,” Robinson says. “It’s that archaic or that anachronistic.” To Robinson, that’s freedom. He’s scanning his own life and career from a vantage point of devotion and love. Seeds have been planted. “Now we’re here tending the garden,” he says.
Seeds planted all over the place, mind you: Earlier this year, Robinson started hosting a radio show on Sirius XM’s Jam_ON station. On Gurus Galore, he spins deep cuts from his personal and obsessively curated collection.
It’s not for nothing that the word “obsessive” follows Robinson through the world of music journalism. He’s aware of that aspect of his creative character — something that led to his distaste for the staid direction of the Crowes — and he sees it as a virtue for a certain contingent of the American consumer base.
“It’s funny,” Robinson says, “in Vermont and shit, this craft beer — and I don’t even drink beer anymore — but this craft beer movement and stuff, I was interested in that because I like the idea of connoisseur culture. You know? I realized I’m not good at the tourist thing; I never was. I don’t do it as a traveler for the past 30 years and I don’t do it as an artist. I dig it if people are casual, and I understand there’s a surface involvement with anything.
“But just like you can buy a case of Bud Light and have a blast with your friends and listen to whatever — or, you know, like people here in California will wait in line to buy two bottles of Pliny The Elder that cost more than the other beers and you can only get two until another six weeks, and then they walk away and they’re the happiest people you’ve ever seen. I understand that. Your favorite Italian restaurant might be on a side street in Rome, while other people might go to Olive Garden. It’s totally fine, you know what I mean? I’m just saying there’s a difference in experience and a difference in what we’re trying to get out of it.”