Classic Rock Corner

Chris Robinson Finds Different Family in New Brotherhood

Last year, Chris Robinson and his family moved to Marin County in Northern California, into a house situated on the side of Mt. Tamalpais overlooking Stinson Beach. The singer/guitarist was so taken with the beauty of the natural surroundings that he called up his Brotherhood — guitarist Neal Casal, keyboardist Adam MacDougall and drummer Tony Leone — to lay down their next record.

The resulting effort, Anyway You Love, We Know How You Feel (Silver Arrow), is the best of the four studio efforts put out so far by the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. It’s a perfect blend of the psychedelic but rootsy rock sound developed on their 2012 releases Big Moon Ritual and The Magic Door, and 2014's Phosphorescent Harvest. They’ve also released an EP and an ongoing series of live discs under the banner of Betty’s Blends.

And the band’s namesake couldn’t be happier with the results.

“In the inherent sort of vibes of it, the records should be a progression," Robinson says. "We definitely made the first two out of necessity and didn’t have time to have a studio identity yet. Then the last one was when that final Black Crowes thing was going to happen. And then we just went on the road for so long!

“It’s our duty to be aware of our surroundings," he continues. "On a musical level, and on a vibrational reality, those things are going to affect us. The more you let that become a part of who you are, the more you’ll feel it in your music. I mean, every day we live here with hawks and coyotes and foxes and trees happening all around us!”

And while he says that’s nothing against the equipment and personnel at Sunset Sound in Hollywood, where the band made their three previous records (a place also used by both the Doors and Prince), in the end a studio is “still just a dark room,” he says.

While songs on previous Brotherhood records came to the studio mostly fully formed by him and Casal, Robinson says this time they arrived as sketches and were then fleshed out by the quartet (the band has added new bassist Jeff Hill since the recording was wrapped up).

Lead single and album opener “Narcissus Soaking Wet” is a strong psych journey, while “Ain’t It Hard But Fair” and “Leave My Guitar Alone” are more rock-based. “Oak Apple Day” channels the Band, and things go gentler on “Some Gardens Green” and closer “California Hymn.”

That last track — like so many lyrics Robinson has written for the Brotherhood and, previously, the Black Crowes and New Earth Mud — is riddled with religious words and imagery.

In fact, longtime fans are used to holy words showing up in his songs, including angel, devil, church, jubilee, congregation, sermons, holy, believer, spirit and salvation. Robinson chalks it up to his early influences growing up in the South (mainly Georgia), but is quick to point out that they result from his love of language and not the Lord.

“I am completely anti-religion," he says. "But I’d like to think I have a great access to my spiritual beliefs and connect with the universe. Love will triumph over darkness and things like that.

“There is a level of co-opting some of those words and put them in a rock and roll sense," he continues. "And I like those words themselves, and how they relate to blues and gospel music. George Clinton and Funkadelic took their ghetto church LSD outer space funk music out there, but still maintained a ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ connection.”

Speaking of the Black Crowes, while longtime fans have gotten used to the breakups, makeups, hiatuses, lineup changes and sometimes fisticuffs among the band (often between Chris and guitarist brother Rich), the road seems to have finally ended for these birds.

After they last performed together in 2013, Rich Robinson publicly announced in January 2015 that the group had permanently broken. He alluded to the idea that Chris wanted him and group co-founder/drummer Steve Gorman to give up their shares in the band’s business organization and turn the rights to the band name over to Chris.

Chris shot back immediately, saying things were way more complicated than his brother was making them sound. And as recently as April of this year, he told Rolling Stone that the situation was “gross” and had been “dysfunctional.” And when asked if he ever saw the Black Crowes playing together again, he offered a succinct “No, never.”

But it’s not as if Chris Robinson is waiting by the phone for stuff to do. By his estimate, the Brotherhood has played around 600 gigs since their 2011 formation, and the next few months are jammed with theater and festival gigs.

He has also followed in the footsteps of Bob Dylan and Tom Petty by recently launching his own radio show, Gurus Galore, on SiriusXM’s Jam On channel. His goal is to expose lesser-known psychedelic rock acts to his audience, with much of the playlist coming from his own extensive record collection.

And if he could make just one act more appreciated and their music known with his efforts? It would be the multinational progressive/jazz/classical collective Gong. The band was co-founded by vocalist/guitarist Daevid Allen, who died last year at the age of 77.

“Daevid Allen was the pothead pixie king!” Robinson laughs. “I think he represents the great correlation between the best of the psychedelic experience and his own mythology based on Tantric stuff. And he was extremely talented. If you like P-Funk, you’ll like Gong! If you like Zappa, you’ll like Gong!”

Of his many performances in Houston since the Black Crowes gig in 1990, two particularly stand out in his memory.
The first was a 1992 gig at the AstroArena, which was cut short because of some falling speakers. The band made their makeup show the next year, held at the Sam Houston Coliseum, free to attend. It was broadcast on radio, and has been treasured by fans under various bootleg pressings with names like “High in Houston.”

The gig was part of the band’s “High as the Moon” tour supporting 1992 LP The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. This writer attended that show, for which Def American labelmates the Jayhawks opened. Backstage at the pre-show press conference – the press portion consisting of just myself and a guy who said he was from High Times and only asked questions about marijuana – was memorable in part because it was the first time I had seen Red Stripe beer.

“That was a great era for Crowes…all milk and honey. That show was awesome at a joyous time,” Robinson says of the Sam Houston concert. “But I like to think that the best Houston gig for me is yet to come!”

As for the set list on their current tour, it consists of mostly Brotherhood material with an occasional Black Crowes or New Earth Mud song, plus plenty of the classic-rock covers that are now a staple at Brotherhood shows. Artists include Delaney and Bonnie, Joe Cocker, the Band, Ry Cooder, Rolling Stones, Gram Parsons, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

“We know a lot of covers. And we love Bob Dylan!” Robinson laughs. “We could do a whole evening of Dylan covers, but then we’d get slammed on social media!”

The Chris Robinson Brotherhood performs Sunday, June 12 at Warehouse Live, 813 St. Emanuel. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero