By Max Stewart • Cover Photo by Alysse Gafkjen
In the early Nineties, the music world welcomed a refreshing thunderstorm of rock n’ roll that washed away all of the glitter and hair spray of the cheesy metal bands in the Eighties. Although there were a lot of grunge and alternative rock bands dominating the charts, the only band that put a shiny new coat of paint on some of the most pure rock ‘n’ roll sounds were the Black Crowes. The primary songwriter for the music of the Black Crowes was guitarist Rich Robinson, and it is clear that he continues to stay true to an authentic sound in his solo career as a singer-songwriter without making his tunes seem like gimmicky replicas. His guitar tone and songwriting acumen feel very genuine, with elements of many formative musicians that came out of the Sixties and Seventies a la the Rolling Stones, Cream, Bob Dylan, and Led Zeppelin (Jimmy Page actually performed some shows with the Black Crowes back in 1999).
Robinson grew up just outside Atlanta, GA, along with his brother and former Black Crowes singer, Chris Robinson. Maybe there was something in the sweet tea or the Georgia clay that organically found its way into his songs because you cannot help but hear the Deep South roots in tunes such as “Jealous Again”, “My Morning Song”, and “Wiser Time”, just to name a few (not to mention their second album and my personal favorite is titled The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion…). Most recently, Rich Robinson has released two very impressive solo efforts that include 2014’s The Ceaseless Sight and this year’s release, Flux. Robinson’s solo catalogue thus far includes four albums and a handful of other releases and EPs, but The Ceaseless Sight and Flux are the most polished and prove that Robinson is thriving in his role as a singer-songwriter. Rich Robinson’s solo material has many of the same elements of his Crowes catalogue, but also draws deeper from influences such as The Velvet Underground, Little Feat, Nick Drake and The Band.
On July 30th, Robinson brought a swinging, yet grounded, live set to Washington D.C., which perfectly complemented the intimate, rock ’n’ roll-inspired ambiance of The Hamilton venue. Robinson hit the ground running with a track off of 2004’s Paper, “Stand Up,” which begins with a slinky hi-hat drum part that is buttoned up by a gritty guitar chord sequence. “It’s time to walk away, all the things that made you who you are,” seemed fitting as Rich continues his journey onward and upward through solo terrain, in the wake of the Crowes’ official break-up announcement in 2015. “Yesterday I Saw You” was a mystifying and triumphant live moment especially for those that can appreciate the unifying power of THE GUITAR RIFF. The chorus wailed with the layered harmonies of the members of Robinson’s band, which include former Black Crowes bassist Sven Pipien, drummer Joe Magistro, keyboardist Matt Slocum, and guitarist Nico Bereciartua. “Shipwreck” was also centered around a hooky guitar riff in the verse before the tempo sped up for a rousing chorus which “spread its wings into the sky.” There were even some Celtic undertones during “Ides of Nowhere,” which peaked thanks to Robinson’s solo on his three-pickup axe. At this point in the gig, it was obvious that Robinson’s guitar jams have become a focal point of his live shows; this is very promising for those that catch him on tour since he is playing better than ever and certainly has cemented himself as a versatile lead guitarist during extended sections of songs.
“Life” asserted Rich’s vocal aptitude and songwriting talents with a Sgt. Pepper’s vibe, especially in the psychedelic latter half featuring a reverb-heavy solo. To keep the guitar theme going, it is worth noting that Robinson is the master of utilizing alternative tunings within his arrangements. This includes the Open G tuning, which Keith Richards pioneered and really shaped the Stones’ signature sound. Throughout the night, Robinson would switch guitars in between songs to take advantage of the varying tunings within his awe-inspiring collection of guitars (kudos to his guitar tech who was no doubt working up a sweat backstage). The song “Down the Road” shined live and represents one of Robinson’s strongest songwriting accomplishments to date, highlighting the admiration of the simple, relaxing moments on this planet: “This is living, a life worth living; No pressing motives, no calls to make.” We got some twangy country moments during “Falling Again,” which is equal parts John Prine and Flying Burrito Brothers. Overall, Robinson has a way of incorporating elements of folk, country, blues, psychedelic and progressive rock into a sound that if I had to package and put a ribbon on I would classify as ‘Soulful Southern-Psychedelic Blues Rock’ (try saying that 5 times fast…).
All of the Black Crowes fans in attendance were pleased when he threw in some Crowes’ tunes ,which included Amorica’s “Non-Fiction” immediately followed by Three Snakes and One Charm’s “Evil Eye.” Albeit strange at first, Robinson’s vocal take on the songs (which were originally sung by his brother Chris) was perfectly executed; specifically “Non-Fiction”, which honestly sounded better with just the younger brother Rich singing. The cover train continued as Robinson tipped his cap to rock royalty in an endearing rendition of “Jigsaw Puzzle” off of the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet, a song he claimed to be one of his favorites in their extensive catalogue.
The show, at its core, was a very human and intimate live experience that felt like we were hanging out with Robinson and his bandmates for the evening, watching them work their magic. There was even dialogue between audience members throughout the show with fans shouting things like, “You sound great, Rich!” and “Great to have you here!” with Robinson each time reacting in a very humble and appreciative manner. Robinson isn’t afraid to joke around with the crowd either; at one point a fun-loving fan yelled “Woohoo!” after a song, which drew Robinson’s attention: “Sounds like I got one ‘Woohoo!’ out there, all I need now is a ‘Harumph!’” A few songs later, a couple of attendees acquiesced by howling “Harumph!” in unison. “It’s about time!” Robinson quipped. This is what a concert should be all about, folks. No lasers, auto-tuning, backup dancers, or dancing midgets around a modest version of Stonehenge, just some real music and an artist-audience connection.
“Trial and Faith” was a bare-bones track that could have easily been off of Exile on Main St., which segued nicely into the almost new wave “Everything’s Alright.” This is the most differentiated moment within Robinson’s new batch of songs: a far-out melody carries the verse vocals before the song sets off, thanks to an anthemic, upbeat chorus that emphatically declares, “I can feel it’s alright, everything’s alright”. “Which Way Your Wind Blows” has a down-tempo strut which makes ya wanna shake your moneymaker as the jam sequence winds along. Robinson then thanked the crowd for supporting live music and not “sitting at home watching Netflix,” showering those in attendance with appreciation for supporting the sacredness of musicians pouring their hearts out on stage. That being said, he also wasn’t afraid to playfully call out a woman that was checking her Facebook during the show, which was hilarious.
It was during the bluesy whirlwind and main set closer, “Fire Around,” that it was clear that the rhythm section had no trouble staying in the pocket even during ambient parts of the songs. After the encore, Robinson honored another legendary band with a powerful performance of Faces’ “Glad and Sorry”. The encore closed with “Sway,” in which the live unit again paid tribute to Mick and the boys by covering a track off of their album Sticky Fingers. Robinson was slaying the slide guitar parts of this number in a way that sounded very similar to the almighty Skydog.
Heartfelt and human, Robinson’s rocking live show presented songs about the trials and tribulations of life, while maintaining an optimistic outlook. Sure, the Black Crowes are done, but all signs point to Robinson keeping his head up and focusing wholeheartedly on his solo career, which has already blossomed into something special. Maybe we both had a taste of the same sweet tea down south, but as a native Atlantan myself I have always gravitated towards the dynamic of Robinson’s songs. In D.C., his live performance was distinctly authentic and refreshing, which allowed people to connect to the music in a unique way. And lemme tell ya, if you are a fan of real rock ‘n’ roll, there ain’t nothing like hearing him layer in some soulful melodies over the perfect tone on his hollow body, Gibson ES-335.
Do yourself a favor and go see Rich Robinson and his band on tour: http://richrobinson.net/events
Yesterday I Saw You
Ides of Nowhere
Down the Road
Non-Fiction (Black Crowes cover)
Evil Eye (Black Crowes cover)
Jigsaw Puzzle (Rolling Stones cover)
Trial and Faith
For To Give
Which Way Your Wind Blows
Glad and Sorry (Faces cover)
Sway (Rolling Stones cover)
As a side note, this month Robinson will be performing a live in-studio performance at the Applehead Studios, which will also include Marc Ford (former lead guitarist of the Black Crowes during their apex) and Sven Pipien, amongst others.