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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Chris Robinson Taps the Dead and Creates a Brotherhood

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"I've never really made a lot of decisions based on conventional wisdom," says Black Crowes frontman Chris Robinson, speaking about his new cosmic folk outfit, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood.

The quintet began out of a short California tour and just kept going. Robinson collected a gaggle of old Los Angeles friends, including guitarist Neal Casal (Beachwood Sparks, Ryan Adams & the Cardinals), Crowes keyboardist Adam McDougall, bassist Mark Dutton (Burning Tree, Jizzy Pearl) and Memphis drummer George Sluppick (JJ Grey & Mofro, Ruthie Foster), who came on the recommendation of Crowes guitarist and fellow Memphis resident Luther Dickinson.

There was no intent, per se. They didn't record an album. They just went out on the road and started playing. Everything else sprung out of that. Then the first week of June—after many months of touring, buoyed only by Robinson's notoriety and word-of-mouth—they released their debut album, Big Moon Ritual.

"The material is going to change and grow the more you play it," Robinson says, explaining why they'd tour without releasing an album first, as is the custom. "If we put a song down now, then it is what it is forever. So let's see what it's going to be before we do that. Let's get into the present before we go into forever."

The result is a loose, California psychedelic folk sound obviously indebted to the Grateful Dead and, to a lesser extent, the cosmic country of Gram Parsons. Robinson frequently plays with former Dead members Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, which he admits is going to have an impact. After all, they're great players. But despite a seven-track, 60-minute album, Robinson rejects the "jam band" tag.

"To jam around in B Minor is one thing," he says. "To create songs that can take you someplace and to create a mood, to have a tangible feeling that is coming out of these people, is something completely different ... the other part is we have a certain funk or space that would be different from the Grateful Dead space. I think our music is taking us into more conceptual and experimental places as well."

Big Moon Ritual
was recorded with Thom Monahan in a series of sessions, generally live on the floor. They recorded 27 songs in but 96 takes total, many of them captured on the first or second try. Indeed, there was so much material they're releasing a second album, The Magic Door, on Sept. 11. The title comes from the Magic Theatre in Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf, referring in essence to the doors of perception. In the book, there's a warning: "Entrance not for everyone."

"'Not for everyone' really means for everyone who can just take a step through the door. If you have to stop and question it, then you will never go through the door, but if you can see it for what it is, you can walk right across the threshold," Robinson says. "[Both albums] are from the same sessions, but I was even surprised how different dynamically the records were."

As for releasing a second album just four months after the last, Robinson again notes his unconventional musical ambitions.

"We're the farm-to-table psychedelic rock band. But, honestly, it's another big part of the philosophy to stay out of a corporate scenario," he says. "The Black Crowes are an established commercial entity whether we live outside the typical confines of the music business or not ... [though] the businesses are run kind of the same. I make decisions to make my soul happy. Hopefully within that I have perspective enough to keep everybody's paycheck going. There's a lot of responsibility. It's not all hallucinating and astral travel, though we have plenty of that too."

Chris Robinson Brotherhood headlines the Turner Hall Ballroom on Thursday, June 14, at 7:30 p.m.
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