"Houston, wow. I have the best and the worst stories on the road from Houston," says Chris Robinson, former front man, lyricist and lightning rod for the Black Crowes. The low point came during a stop for the 1992 "High as the Moon" tour, when a PA tumbled over, injuring several concertgoers and forcing the cancellation of the show. But early the next year the band played a free "make up and thank you" gig that jam-packed the Sam Houston Coliseum and is considered by many Crowes fans as one of the band's best shows ever.
"We had a crew from NFL Films there with 16 cameras filming, and the sound was recorded for broadcast," Robinson notes, adding that footage of the Houston show is seen in the video for "Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye."
"I hope the whole thing gets released someday; that would be a really cool thing," he says.
The Crowes announced a hiatus earlier this year, and Chris Robinson is the first to fly solo with New Earth Mud, which is the name of both his new band and its debut release. The bluesy, '70s-inspired hard rock of the Black Crowes has been abandoned in favor of gentler, melodic and much more introspective material. If The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion and By Your Side were soundtracks for Saturday-night beer-and-bong parties, New Earth Mud is music for a sunny Sunday afternoon sipping wine on the porch.
Calling the title a statement on the "timeless nature of things," Robinson feels that the end result is exactly what he set out to create. "The whole point of making music is not to be held down by a specific genre or sound," he explains. "The Crowes was a collaboration. It was like a rain forest with all these vines competing for sunlight, cellular competition on a musical level. This one is my project."
But if Robinson continues to speak metaphorically about his music, it comes with a whole new attitude. Gone is the testy, swaggering twentysomething who battled journalists, the record industry and, most famously, ZZ Top. Robinson's onstage denouncements of Top's corporate beer sponsorship got the Crowes booted off their slot as opening act on an early-'90s tour.
It's tempting to say that the change in Robinson's demeanor is the result of a newfound maturity and personal happiness -- after all, he recently married Almost Famous actress Kate Hudson. But according to Robinson, that's only part of the story. "That's way too simple an analogy, as if love is not a multidimensional thing," he laughs. "You don't have to be obvious to have a lot of drama and texture in music. Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Jerry Garcia did that. Even James Taylor has a lot of angst going on underneath" those gentle songs.
New Earth Mud's fine collection of tunes runs the gamut from slinky rock ("Safe in the Arms of Love," "Sunday Sound") and sexy love ballads ("Untangle My Mind") to Sly Stone-style funk ("Ride") and neo-psychedelia ("Better Than the Sun"). "Katie Dear" is a lush, lovely tribute to his wife that manages to avoid mawkishness.
English guitarist Paul Stacey takes the place of Chris's brother and Black Crowes co-founder Rich Robinson. In the grand tradition of battling band brothers, the two Robinsons had a famously tumultuous relationship, so it was perhaps fitting that it fell to Noel Gallagher -- a man who knows a thing or two about sibling rivalry -- to introduce Stacey to Chris.
Throughout their career, the Black Crowes were mercilessly pegged as retro-rockers who merely aped the sounds of the past. That was an unfair assertion, particularly after Amorica, but it stuck. Most critics overlooked Robinson's often challenging lyrics, a series of images that could mean a different thing each listen (an assertion that he calls "the ultimate compliment"). That continues in New Earth Mud,with its population of poets drinking black wine and widows with porcelain skin.
"Maybe the song is about me, or someone I know maybe it's about you," he laughs. "I like the idea of open-ended songs."
Robinson's frequent religious allusions -- a mainstay since the Crowes' 1990 debut, Shake Your Money Maker -- continue on the new album. Even so, Robinson says he's no evangelist. "I'm not really big into religion -- at least organized religion -- but I see it in metaphorical and symbolic terms that everyone can understand," he says. "Plus, I just like words like 'jubilee' and 'hallelujah,' and it comes from my love of gospel, country and blues. I'm not necessarily using them in a religious context."
Over the summer, Robinson and Stacey hit the road for a series of acoustic dates. How the numbers will evolve with a full electric band is something that even their author is excited about. "We've got a lot of room to change things up and improvise" Robinson says. His backing band will feature Paul Stacey on guitar, Paul's twin brother, Jeremy, on drums, George Laks on keyboards, and Austin's George Reiff on bass. Robinson plans on an "Evening with " format that might feature two one-and-a-half-hour sets that mix Mud material with Crowes favorites and covers.
Just don't expect the teetering-on-the-brink vibe of a vintage Crowes gig. "One of the things that always bummed me out was the violence," he says. It was not uncommon for Robinson to halt the group cold in mid-song to address some attention-starved concertgoer. After he was hit twice with flying objects during a 1999 gig at the venue formerly known as the Aerial, he asked the fans near the front of the stage to point out the perpetrator. The throng parted like the Red Sea. As the guy was escorted out screaming, Robinson reminded him, "Don't forget to buy a T-shirt on the way out, asshole!"
Not this time, Robinson hopes. "This show is much more relaxed and laid-back. I hope that people can just mellow out and dance and hang and feel part of a vibe. This is very communal, hands-on music."
After the tour, Robinson plans to do another solo record. The future of the Black Crowes is uncertain, but the door is still wide open. "When a band's not working, it's easy to say it's broken up, but it's something that I love and is important with my life," he says. "Eventually, if it seems like something that's vibrant, then the conversation will be had. But there are egos involved aw, it's just band shit."
Asked about how his relationship with his brother, with whom he formed the musical and emotional axis of the Crowes, has changed, Robinson is stoic. "It's weird. To be honest, I really haven't talked to him that much."
For now, Chris Robinson is happy to sink his toes into New Earth Mud and enjoy the kind of creative outlet he hasn't had since what was then called Mr. Crowe's Garden was playing tiny beer-soaked Atlanta clubs. Back then the band's brew of choice was Red Stripe, whose squat brown bottles were scattered about backstage during a press conference at the 1993 Houston show. But since the assembled reporters included a scribe from High Times, it's doubtful that the beer was the only product of Jamaica in the band's luggage. It's no wonder that Robinson often sounds like a one-man travel agency for the sunny island country.
"Do yourself a favor. Go to Jamaica, immediately," he laughs. "It's one of the greatest countries on the planet."
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