Words and Photos by Max Stewart
As the Chris Robinson Brotherhood rolled down south for a two-night stand at Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse, it was an opportunity for singer/guitarist Chris Robinson to return to his birthplace and the area where the seeds of his musical forest sprouted: the eccentric and charming neighborhood of Little Five Points. Although the band that blossomed from Atlanta’s music scene in the late 1980s was Robinson’s former group, The Black Crowes, there is clearly an endearing affection for his old neighborhood: “Who I am as an artist is still the person that was forged in East Atlanta when I moved out of my parents’ place,” Robinson confessed.
Chris Robinson has managed to create something completely separate and unique than that of the Black Crowes since forming the Chris Robinson Brotherhood in 2011. Six studio releases, three live albums, seemingly constant touring and a renewed spirit that is focused on an experiential live show: “We are not putting on a show-biz show. We are not up there to play a song that someone remembers from their senior year of high school.”
A Chris Robinson Brotherhood concert should not merely be attended, but experienced. They aren’t phoning in the ‘the hits’, calling it a night, and heading to the next town. Their sets vary wildly night to night, keeping the focus on the individuality of each night’s show so that fans enjoy a pure and inspired evening of music. Having seen the band many times, their second night in Atlanta maintained all of the vital elements that make the CRB musical potpourri work so well: soul, gospel, psychedelic rock, country, folk, blues, and all things in between. The band feels genuinely like a brotherhood, collectively striving to join in arms with the audience and adventure towards musical high ground. In Atlanta, there were many peaks on our September 15th journey, including the psychedelic “Behold The Seer,” downtempo “Narcissus Soaking Wet,” and, ironically, “High Is Not the Top.”
“Sweet your sour with a little honey, sometimes high is not the top,” Robinson sang as his signature vocals soared and act as the band’s compass. Guitarist Neal Casal’s lead arrangements on “Rosalee,” Waylon Jennings’ “Only Daddy That’ll Walk That Line,” and Junior Wells’ “Little by Little” proved why the band can successfully venture down so many sonic trails: Casal draws elements of guitarists Duane Allman, Jerry Garcia, and Chet Atkins in a way that is uniquely his own style. Keyboardist Adam MacDougall is armed with an artillery of comprehensive tones that always seem fit perfectly within the chemistry of the song (i.e. the spacey synth vibe of “Clear Blue Sky.”) The rhythm section steadily marches on as Bassist Jeff Hill and Drummer Tony Leone maintain the CRB’s soulful pulse, as was most evident in a cover of Delaney Bramlett’s “Hello L.A., Bye Bye Birmingham.”
Even though Robinson “packed everything [he] owned and put in a knapsack” as he moved to the West Coast a few decades back, leaving the South behind, it is hard to deny the country delta blues boogie in his vocals and in many Chris Robinson Brotherhood songs. I caught up with Robinson after the Variety Playhouse show where he spoke about his Atlanta roots, his favorite Atlanta musical memory, the legacy of the band, and the tent revival that is a CRB live show.
MS: What was it like for you to play the Variety Playhouse given that you grew up in the Atlanta area and cut your early musical teeth around Little Five Points?
CR: Well, I was born in Atlanta at Piedmont Hospital. My parents lived in East Cobb County. But you know I left Atlanta, fuck man, 28 years ago something like that. Almost thirty years ago. I think Atlanta… you know yesterday we had a day off and I was in Chattanooga, TN goofing off in the hotel. And on my speakers I listened to two songs from Love Tractor’s set from the 1983 Peachtree Arts Festival. And just being in Atlanta last week and seeing old friends, still people that play music, thinking about how much it has changed. But also thinking about how that juxtaposed against how a lot of who I am as an artist is still the person that was forged in East Atlanta when I moved out of my parents’ place.
It’s a situation where as a young man becoming an adult and not being compliant, it wasn’t not being thankful. And my parents, it was a joke, but my parents decision to move to East Cobb… I never wanted to live in the suburbs, whether I knew it or not, you know? And, as I got older I realized, ‘Oh, this isn’t my place. This isn’t my tribe.’
And my tribe where I found myself was in Little Five Points and East Atlanta through the art gallery parties, I was just old enough to go to those. The first Metroplex. 688 Club, of course, was my main motivation for getting in a band, pretty much. Getting to 688. Just the attitude of, ‘We’re doing this because we want to make something. There’s nothing happening, let’s do something. Let’s start a band! OK, now something’s happening.’ It could be anything, you know?
How many bands played in Atlanta and they were a band for one night only? [laughs] And there were only 3 people, and it was the best show of all time! And that kind of freedom and what it was, it was just about the expression. And of course later you formulate and find out what is you are going to look like, feel like, sound like and what your sound is going to be.
But my initial stuff was forged there in Little Five Points and the whole scene, whether it was people in bands or people that were painting or people that wanted to be poets or whatever it could be.
It is such a vibrant little pocket of the city.
Well, dude, Atlanta is almost 7 million people! So you start winding back the clock 35 years to the early and mid-eighties, and it is a much smaller thing. I’m sure the music scene is still small, too.
So, for you, maybe it didn’t feel like a homecoming show because you are so many years removed since your time there?
Well… It does because I get to see friends. But you have to remember also, you know, part of where that comes from was the success that I experienced with the Black Crowes, that wasn’t a part of what was supposed to happen. So, I could say later in life that I felt more support from my hometown than I did when that shit happened. Cause we kind of felt like people thought, ‘This is too weird.’ But of course, you know, there is some semblance of the town that I was born in [laughs].
So what to you hasn’t changed or still feels like your old stomping grounds? I know [the record store] Wax n’ Facts in Little Five Points was an old hang.
Yeah, I saw Danny [Beard] and Sean [Bourne] at Wax n’ Facts. And that’s the same. The Varsity looks the same. You know Little Five Points is almost the same as it was, just more stuff. Piedmont Park is the same, pretty much. But I mean it really changes that town. You know Atlanta doesn’t keep anything, it changes everything.
Any major musical memory from your formative years in Atlanta, a concert that maybe changed you as a musician?
Well, I think all of them. My first time I snuck into the 688 Club, I got to see The Replacements on the Let It Be tour and I stood on the front row while Mike Mills and Pete Buck were right there on the side watching. And I was hooked from second one, you know?
There is a lot of countrified twang in the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. Do you feel some of your Southern roots pulling at you in the music that you write and sing?
Well, all rock n’ roll is roots music, and it all comes from the South. I think that’s why people like the Rolling Stones, that’s their take on Southern music, too. Roots music is all of it. It’s blues, funk, R&B, soul, country, bluegrass, folk, and rock ‘n’ roll. Just with the real cosmic seeds of rock n’ roll.
So yeah, you take that everywhere with you. And I guess one element of being Southern is that you grow up where it is bottled by the source, you know? I think even as we hurl ourselves into an uncertain future, some of those soulful connections are never lost, regionally.
It just sort of becomes part of you, I guess.
Yeah, unless you don’t care about music. There are just as many people who don’t. But to me, it’s funny you listen to Big Star and they sound like a Southern band the way Love Tractor sounds like a Southern band. Or like R.E.M. does. You know some stuff is on the surface?
And like anything else, there’s multi-dimensions to my Southern upbringing. You know my Southern upbringing was way more related to R.E.M., Love Tractor and the Nightporters than say the Allman Brothers and that kind of that thing. Even though, I love the Allman Brothers, and would later that would become more important to me. But I come from that other place of Southern music as a young person.
It is funny how ‘Southern Rock’ is quantified by folks in the press. And you’ve got bands like you mentioned that would never fit into that category by the standard media definition.
I think intelligent people definitely would. I think the average person only sees what they want to see. That is the problem with what is happening a lot of times, you get a real flat view. And music and the experience around it, making it, enjoying it and being around it is multi-dimensional. How could something so flat be associated? That seems to be the way it always works.
Sometimes people do not see that all music is from the same place and when it’s good, it’s alive. The music is alive.
Seems like genre specification has slowly fizzled away. It used to be very regimented, but so much of it bleeds into one these days.
You know why they did that? It was to keep track of when they had record stores and who buys what, so they can sign whoever. It’s all marketing.
I know you are a huge music fan and vinyl collector. Chris Robinson Brotherhood are road warriors and consistently release studio material. Is it fair to say that you live and breathe your musical passion? Is there anything else that makes you tick?
Music is relationships to literature, to art, to esoteric knowledge, to history, to the occult [laughs]. You know? To many, many things. And when the end of October rolls around, I am an obsessive NBA fan. So music is just the conduit to my interest in everything. It just seems like there is always a connection to be made, in a nonlinear way. Where all this stuff coalesces and makes sense to people that are deranged… [laughs].
What do you hope the legacy of Chris Robinson Brotherhood will be for a 20-year-old kid who is digging through the records at Wax n’ Facts in 2057? What do you hope the record store clerk tells the kid when he pulls it out of the bin and asks about your band?
Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think in terms of living on. We are so busy trying to get into our scene tonight. I guess, realistically, the music should speak to for itself. Kids today, if they want something they have to go find it. And I would think my writing or music hopefully just appeals to that kid that is a little outside the box, or a little bit weird. For that kid who is 20 and doesn’t want to go to an electronic music thing. Who sees life and maybe feels he wants some human interaction and he wants to dance, and he wants some poetry with that dance. He wants to have an experience as an individual but also have it relate to a group of people that he feels safe being himself around.
Whatever we do, we just want it to be authentic. We create records and make scenes, and we want everything to be something that we would be happy to be a part of. A band we would be proud to be a fan of and wear their shirt and follow them around.
I have seen the CRB live many times in Washington, D.C. and at LOCKN’, and you always seem to have a heightened connection with the audience, exchanging smiles and feeding off the energy of the crowd without forcing it.
Do you feel that connection when people are taken to ‘that place’ when you are on stage?
Of course, of course. We are not putting on a show-biz show. We are not up there to play a song that someone remembers from their senior year of high school. We don’t have nostalgia on our side. Sometimes nostalgia can be against you, you know?
I think what we have is whipping up a vibration, or it is kind of like a tent revival. Like on the side of the road in the old South. We set up chairs and everyone gets a hand fan and we get to town, you know? We want to tell some stories and kind of let our music speak. We have always been a very inviting band.
We don’t really look out to the crowd and go, ‘Come on!’, because we feel like if you want to be there, you are already there and we don’t have to tell people what to do [laughs]. They should follow their feelings and instincts and have a good time, that’s what it’s all about!