Monday, July 4, 2022

Highs and lows of the Black Crowes: Rich Robinson on sibling split and iconic debut album

Rich Robinson (left) and Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes will perform at Live Oak Bank Pavilion on Saturday. (Photo by Josh Cheuse) 

When Chris and Rich Robinson made the November 2019 announcement that the Black Crowes were reuniting, it represented a reconciliation between the siblings after the band was blown up in 2015. The plan was to launch a lengthy reunion tour in 2020 commemorating the 30th anniversary of the group’s 1990 debut album “Shake Your Money Maker.” 

Then Covid-19 struck and the touring industry, along with the rest of the world, ground to a halt. The 2020 tour was pushed back a year, and now the Black Crowes are doing more shows this summer, celebrating their iconic debut. 

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For guitarist Rich Robinson, this unexpected respite turned out to be a mixed blessing. It allowed him to gain perspective during isolation at home with his family in Nashville.

“For 31 years, I’ve never not toured, played music with other people, been in the studio or done something to that effect for over a year,” he said. “That’s been interesting and a little tough because it becomes a part of you as a person just to have that feeling and connection.” 

Of course, the upswing is the “unfettered” time he garnered with his children — “being able to see them every day and experience all the joys of home schooling while trying to figure out how to use Zoom,” he said. 

While it might seem simple for the brothers Robinson to pick up where they left off, reconnecting involved rebuilding a relationship that crumbled to the point where neither had been in touch with each other for several years. It was bad enough that Chris had never met his brother’s two youngest children, and Rich was as disconnected from nephew Ryder and niece Cheyenne. 

Both ventured on to other projects — the Chris Robinson Brotherhood (CRB) and As The Crowe Flies for Chris and The Magpie Salute for Rich. The latter was strenuous financially and creatively, Rich said.

“It was reaching a point where it was untenable,” he admitted. “I don’t feel like we were growing as fast as we would have liked. It was a much longer road for us, and I don’t know if everyone was ready to take the sacrifice and really give it five or 10 years to get to a certain level.”

Mending fences with his brother became the goal. Rich said he had a cadre of songs already written. It was his role in Black Crowes as well: writing songs with and for Chris.

“It had been seven years since I’d talked to him and I just kind of missed my writing partner,” he said. “We brought these two [perspectives] to the table when we wrote these songs together. I remember saying to a mutual friend, ‘I wrote these songs and I really miss Chris.’ It wasn’t a pitch or anything—just a passing comment. Our friend said that Chris said the same thing to him the other day. We were kind of on a similar page.”

With the pandemic-enforced downtime, the Robinsons were able to reconvene with George Drakoulias, who produced the band’s first couple albums. Drakoulias discovered the band and became a mentor during its formative years when the struggling musicians didn’t have a manager, lawyer or record deal.

The trio dove into the vaults and emerged with a 30th anniversary, multi-format “Shake Your Money Maker” reissue. It includes three unreleased studio tracks (including the first single “Charming Mess”), B-sides, demos and a 14-song, unreleased live recording of a 1990 two-night Atlanta homecoming stand after the album went platinum. While much of that time was a blur for Rich, he was pleasantly surprised at what was found on the cassette demos Drakoulias had saved and pulled out for this project.  

“I was 19 at the time, and I think we were so excited just to be able to make an album,” Rich recalled. “We never thought about the future or where it was going. We just knew we were making a record in a studio with gear. That was about as far as we were looking forward and once it was done, we never looked back at ‘Shake Your Money Maker.'”

The band turned out eight albums thereafter, between 1992 and 2010. They’re followup, “The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion,” charted number one in the U.S. in 1992, also securing gold and platinum sales status.

“From the first show on, we were throwing in new songs, covers and it was almost like we were so excited to get to the next record that we never took stock in what [‘Money Maker’] meant to us and what a great record it is,” Rich said. “I haven’t listened to that record in literally decades.”

The Crowes have returned to the road having released an EP, “1972,” with covers of songs released 50 years ago by the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, T. Rex, Rod Stewart, Little Feat and the Temptations. The band’s touring lineup is rounded out by guitarist Isaiah Mitchell, keyboardist Joel Robinow, Brandi Carlile drummer Brian Griffin, and background singers Mackenzie Adams and Leslie Grant. 

The one former band member returning to the fold is Sven Pipien, who was the bassist from 1997 until the band splintered in 2015. Founding member/drummer Steve Gorman, who penned 2019’s “Hard To Handle: The Life and Death of the Black Crowes: A Memoir,” was not asked back. He told “Variety” in a 2019 interview: “I don’t begrudge anybody that goes to see it, but it’s sad … it’s always gonna be sad.”  

For Rich, who said he hadn’t read Gorman’s book, getting a fresh start with his older sibling was key.

“Steve was one of the incredibly negative and manipulative forces in the band that (we) really didn’t want to deal with,” he said. “In order to get back, we really had to do this very specific purge where we focus on the two of us and let this be something that will be positive. We can be in charge of our own triggers, but if you have other people around that have an agenda, which a lot of the older people around did, it’s just going to crash and burn. We didn’t look at this as a one-time thing. We want to focus and do it right for ourselves as human beings. For ourselves as brothers. For ourselves as writing and creative partners as well as the other reasons.”

The Black Crowes will tour through Live Oak Pavilion on Saturday, June 18, 7:30 p.m. Tickets start at $32.50. Driven N Cryin will open.


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Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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