Music » Interview

Back From Black

Former Crowe Chris Robinson soars into new musical territory.


When you ask Chris Robinson, one of the last bastions of genuine classic rock, about a tour memory from Kansas City, you expect something raucous, some thrilling episode of after-hours debauchery normally unavailable to those of us who just live here. This is the man who led the Black Crowes, after all -- the band Jimmy Page handpicked to back him for a tour featuring Led Zeppelin covers.

It's probably a sign of his current station in life that his fondest Kansas City memory turns out to be a Royals game -- probably a day game at that.

"I had the best time out there," he says by telephone from Detroit. "The Yankees were in town, and I can't remember who was playing left field, but by the eighth inning, people were throwing their drinks on him," he says, chuckling. "I didn't think that was representative of the typical mild-mannered Kansas City crowd." (Oh, for the glory days of real general admission.)

With the Black Crowes, Robinson's persona was that of a thin, spry wild man, a '70s throwback somewhere between the laid-back-but-coiled-tight cool of Russell Hammond, the fictional guitarist Billy Crudup played in Almost Famous, and Oddball, Donald Sutherland's spiritual and strangely dangerous tank commander in Kelly's Heroes. The band's creative tension, particularly between singer Chris and his brother, guitarist Rich, was so well publicized that the Crowes (also known for their sense of humor) eventually hit the road with Oasis and its notorious sibling brawlers Noel and Liam Gallagher on the self-effacingly titled "Tour of Brotherly Love."

These days, though, the Black Crowes are over, at least for the present, and Robinson is in a calmer, quieter place. A few years ago he became Goldie Hawn's son-in-law and reassured Russell Hammond types around the world by marrying Kate Hudson. Settled into marriage and holed up in Hawn's Malibu home, he began working on the songs that became New Earth Mud, his first solo album. It's full of contented love songs, from the direct "Safe in the Arms of Love" and "Could You Really Love Me," to the oblique "Untangle My Mind." Robinson also dives into mystical realms with "Mother of Stone" and "Mint Tea," taking the New Earth Mud Band into places the Black Crowes would never have ventured.

Asked what a Black Crowes fan could expect from the upcoming show, Robinson gently resists answering. "We live in an era where people have seen everything, and they feel a little apathetic or jaded," he says. "People have a hard time letting loose ... when something's new, they don't know what to expect. The consumer-driven nature of the business has taken away some of the adventure, some of the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed kind of openness. I think that that sense of adventure with a gig is something that's being lost."

Pressed, Robinson says, "It's a very spontaneous, improvisational-type situation that [the band is] in. We have our set pieces from the album, but the group I have together, Paul [the guitarist and producer of New Earth Mud] and Jeremy Stacey, the two twins, they're initially jazz guys who love rock music and roots music, and my keyboardist [George Laks] is a jazz freak. We don't really know what's going to happen until we get there."

As a veteran of a band whose performances were friendly to Southern rockers, Stones fans, Widespread Panickers, Otis Redding aficionados and everyone in between, Robinson favors keeping shows open -- wide open.

"We play everything, from the album's songs to improvisational outer-space jams to funk to Merle Haggard," he explains. "It's part, hopefully, of the great American songbook, and all the types of music on the album, from the singer-songwriter folk-rock vein to really heavy psychedelic music. It's definitely for adventurous ears, for people who want to kick back and have three hours of music and who aren't afraid to experiment with the band."

Robinson is just beginning an assurance that he loves working the full-fledged, Sly Stone-style funk of "Ride" from the new album when, in the background, another cell phone rings. Eavesdropping, it's possible to hear Robinson say "Home of the Jazz?" After a brief pause, he says, "Let me call you back. I'm doing an interview," and the way he says it generates a fair-sized interviewer freakout, something along the lines of "Aw, hell, no, this shouldn't happen -- dude's talking to me instead of famous movie star Kate Hudson!"

"My wife is on the set of a movie, and she's doing a crossword puzzle," he says, returning to the phone. Robinson laughs at the apologetic stammering on the other end of the line, then says, reassuringly, "She's not a famous movie star to me -- she's my wife."

Most songwriters' spouses live in anonymity, surfacing lyrically only during the last few songs of a set, especially when an artist is on the "going home" leg of a tour. When Robinson sings "Katie Dear" (Oh Katie Dear don't worry/It'll work out fine), his audience definitely has a face to place with the name. But there's more to the story. "The title is also a bit of a 'hands down' to the Louvin Brothers track," he says, "a Romeo and Juliet type of love-murder ballad from the Appalachian Mountains. Everything is not what it seems on the surface."

Still, it's as rough to spend so much time away from his muse as it would seem. "It's part of being in love," he admits. "Before I met her, I used to go off on tours for fourteen months at a time and never would think twice about it. It's definitely a different thing...."

Robinson drifts off, ready to get off this phone and hit redial on the other. As serendipitously symmetrical as it would be for her crossword clue to be a ten-letter reference to the home of 18th and Vine, Charlie Parker, Count Basie and so on, it's not going to happen. Robinson's a sports fan, after all, and he's almost certainly just going to put the phone to his ear, smile and, when she answers, sweetly and soulfully whisper, "Utah."

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