In this day and age, lots of bands get their start through social media — posting self-made videos of songs on YouTube, and using other sites, such as Facebook and Myspace, to promote their songs and generate a following and parlay that awareness into record deals.
Chris Robinson, former frontman of the Black Crowes, had a more old-fashioned approach to starting his current band, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, in 2011. There was no big hype surrounding the group’s arrival — even though it brought together some notable players, including guitarist Neal Casal (a respected solo artist in his own right) and keyboardist Adam MacDougall (a latter-day member of the Black Crowes).
Instead, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood simply set out on a low-key tour of West Coast cities to see how the band would work live, have fun and see where things went from there.
It was about as different a beginning as possible from the way the Black Crowes arrived on the national scene. Their 1990 debut album, “Shake Your Money Maker,” became a multiplatinum hit, quickly propelling the band to major stardom.
By the time the Black Crowes officially finished their run in January 2015, the group had sold about 30 million albums, while weathering multiple lineup changes and temporary breakups along the way.
Becoming rock stars so quickly was a trip and a half, Robinson openly acknowledged in an early August phone interview. But with the excitement came a good deal of conflict — both within and from outside of the band.
“There’s a lot of money, a lot of egos, some fame, and then you have all these other (outside) elements coming in and trying to wedge their way in,” Robinson said. “How do you play the games, money games and ego games? And at the end of the day, it will eat you up. It will eat you up and turn you inside out. And it’s sad, but at least that was my experience.”
Robinson says none of the tension that characterized the Black Crowes exists in his current band.
A mix of personalities and musical talent may play a part in the harmony, but Robinson and his bandmates have also avoided record company politics by independently releasing albums and keeping the touring business as grass roots as possible. Robinson sounds credible when he says the CRB is all about the music, creating a sense of community with the band’s audience and enjoying the adventure of making music and touring far and wide.
“Given the opportunity, do we stay at the Ritz Carltons and the Four Seasons and fly a private plane? No. Is it fancy restaurants and s--- like the Black Crowes would (do)? No.” Robinson said. “If you’re not here for the love of it and for the adventure, then this is the wrong gig. But everyone is in the right place.”
And Robinson feels the members of CRB are only now beginning to hit their full stride. After releasing three albums in quick succession — “Big Moon Ritual” and “The Magic Door,” both in 2012 and “Phosphorescent Harvest” in spring 2014 — the group revamped its rhythm section, with drummer Tony Leone and bassist Jeff Hill joining Robinson, Casal (guitar/vocals) and MacDougall.
In the space of just one year, the group has come with three additional releases, the full-length album, “Any Way You Love, We Know How You Feel” in July 2016, the EP, “If You Lived Here, You Would Be Home By Now” last November and now the full-length, “Barefoot in the Head,” which arrived on July 21.
Some of this latest flurry of material, Robinson suggested, is a function of pent up creativity being unleashed, self-producing the albums and finding a conducive environment for songwriting and recording — a studio that overlooks the Pacific Ocean in Northern California, where the band members could live together and focus on being creative.
They haven’t sacrificed quality for quality, as all three releases have been solid, while also showing some musical evolution. Especially with “Barefoot in the Head,” the group has progressed in a bit more relaxed, folkier, more Grateful Dead-ish direction, while still supplying plenty of melodic hooks and songcraft to savor.
The new album doesn’t have any full-on rockers, but tracks like “Hark The Herald Hermit Speaks,” “Behold The Seer” and “If You Had a Heart to Break” generate a good measure of amiable energy. Instead, “Barefoot in the Head’ is more defined by warm, laid back songs like “She Shares My Blanket” (with its country-ish feel, smile-inducing melody), “Blonde Light of Morning” (with its rootsy, soulful, psychedelic blend) and “Blue Star Woman” (with its pleasantly swampy backwoods Southern vibe).
Robinson also credits the arrival of Leone and Hill with taking the CRB to a new level, both in the studio and live, where the band can really showcase its playing and improvisational skills.
“I think it’s a huge difference,” he said. “That’s not to take away from the people who contributed (before), but it’s like anything else. Jeff and Tony as a rhythm section, I guess they’ve probably done close to 140, 150 shows together (now) ... Now everyone, all that intuition, all of that sort of unspoken stuff (is happening).”
Alan Sculley is a freelance writer for Last Word Features.
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