Say Goodnight to the Bad Guys
20 Years of American Rock n’ Roll with Rich Robinson of The Black Crowes

Words by Martin HaloAustin, TX

Austin, TX — The rising sun is reflecting off Lady Bird Lake in downtown Austin, TX and directly into Rich Robinson’s luxury hotel room. It is a morning scene that has played out countless times before. The final guest arrangements had been made for the arrival of Gordi Johnson and ex-Faces henchman Ian McLagen later that evening. The Stubbs gig will be their last Austin billing before the Say Goodnight to the Bad Guys Tour, ending with a December run at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium, will mark a second indefinite hiatus.

“You see the familiar faces from the people who come to all the shows”, says Rich Robinson as he begins to explore his 20-year stint in The Black Crowes. “Some of these familiar faces have become our friends. For us to see their reaction and joy from what we do, that is what it is about for us. That is the ultimate gift.”

It was just after 11 am as Robinson stares out of his window. The once chaotic myths of brotherly in-fighting and creative tensions that once plagued the brothers Robinson during years of public excess, divorce and debauchery have now been left to the winds of time.

Far removed from the tabloid headlines that followed the band after their multi-platinum debut, Shake Your Money Maker [1990], the now 41-year old troubadour has no hesitation in hanging onto the roots of his musical influence.

“I remember when we were kids and we first heard Exile on Main Street“, says Robinson. “There was just something about it that caught my imagination. The first song to hit me was ‘Tumblin’ Dice’. You can hear the room, you can hear the music and you can hear the celebration. There was just something about the sound and the feeling of the whole thing that brought me to a good place — and that is what I think good records have the ability to do.”

Exile On Main Street, the Rolling Stones epic [1972] release, was the blueprint for American rock n’ roll bands looking to breed the grit of blues and country with the production excellence of an English musical resurgence. It was the traditions laid by the American bedrock, Skip James, Muddy Waters, Jimmie Rodgers and Gram Parsons, which guided the belief system of the Robinson brothers through the revolving doors of generational trend.

To mark their 20th Anniversary the band released Croweology, a 2-disc collection of acoustic material with producer Paul Stacey, back on August 3.

“Chris, Steve and I wrote down about 25 songs each. Our lists were basically the same. All of the tours echo the records musically and every record is different”, says Robinson. “By Your Side was a rock n’ roll tour but Three Snakes was far more organic and slightly more of a melancholy album. But for Croweology we talked about how we were going to bring this acoustic element to the forefront.”

“The whole record was based on our Town Hall performances a few years ago in New York City with the whole band acoustic”, Robinson continues. “We really liked the presentation. We still wanted to play electric, and felt a two-set format would be a cool thing to do.” The Black Crowes decided to mix the Croweology material into epic 3-hour shows which features sets of acoustic and electric material. Recorded over a few weeks at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles, CA, the band tracked three songs a day in a flood of live recording.

“There was a lot of excitement while we were recording because we felt that these songs had new life in them”, Robinson offers. “It fueled us. When we play live the energy of the crowd is something we feed off of. Well, the same kind of thing goes on when we are in the studio, except we are feeding off each other. I have had to play ‘Jealous Again’ 1,000 times but on this record it sounded exciting again — same thing with ‘My Morning Song’. We showed up to Sunset Sound, took care of business and then left.”

“One thing that I love about Chris (Robinson) and his lyrics is he still writes in metaphors. He still tries to draw comparisons, and I guess you wouldn’t call it old-fashioned, but rather the old grand way of writing.”

– Rich Robinson

The resurgence in songwriting for the Robinson brothers, which produced Warpaint [2008] and Before the Frost [2009] stemmed from a reunion in 2005 where a 4-year hiatus had leveled the band’s creative resolve. On March 22, 2005 the stage was set at Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City for the return of the Black Crowes. Rich Robinson describes the feelings in the moments before stepping out into the spotlight.

“Everyone was very excited. The funny thing about touring is no matter how long you have been away, the minute you get back you have the feeling as though you have never left. There was this aura of excitement with everyone. We all wanted to see what it was going to be like. We were there and ready to do it and there was a genuine buzz with everyone in the audience”, says Robinson. “It was really something.”

The Hammerstein run of All Join Hands was marked by the return of guitarist Marc Ford. “Everyone missed Steve obviously, but to have Sven [Pipien] and to have Marc in the band, and Ed. It was such an amazing group of musicians”, says Robinson in regards to the 05/06 run. “Unfortunately, shit happens. Nobody likes it but it does. Now we have Luther [Dickinson] and Adam [MacDougall] and I feel like we really reached our pinnacle again. We feel like a band and everyone is present.”

The Black Crowes will be starting their 5-night Halloween run in New York City on October 31. The Bad Guys Tour lends the chance for the guitarist to reflect on a rock n’ roll career rooted in myth rather than a corporate front office. Their legend has spawned the rise of Devendra Banhart, Vetiver, Jonathan Wilson, and Comets on Fire acid-thrasher Ethan Miller.

But no legend of psychedelically soaked costume parties, drug abuse, and fist fights could elevate the band’s profile to the level of touring with Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page.

“We just really thought about the Led Zeppelin songs that we love. We all just talked about it. Jimmy was pretty much game for anything. He asked us what songs we wanted to do. We wrote them down”, says Robinson with a little laugh. “How about these”, he said to Page. “He was cool with it. We really just approached it as fans. We approached it as this is what we could bring to the table. We asked him what he thought and he was cool with everything.”

“We took the Zeppelin records and I would play a part, or Jimmy would play a part. I think Jimmy found it cool because we could kind of present it in the way that the records were originally presented. Back in the day he would have to cover all of those parts.”

The Excess All Areas Tour of 2000 was the great pilgrimage of the old school rock n’ roll ideology. The digital revolution was about to take over, and the business practices of the record conglomerates were about to break into freefall.

“I think music has become assimilated by these groups of individuals who run the world. I think that people in the 90s saw such a ‘profit potential’ in music. You can get a business degree in college and then go work for Sony or Columbia or whoever – I don’t think they have a connection to music like people used to. I think in the early days people were drawn to this music because of their love of music. Now these people just want to hang out with celebrities and be cool by making the same amount of money they could make at IBM”, says Robinson.

“So in that sense I think the foundation is false. I think that all of it plays into the overall-scheme of the music industry though. When it attracts people who want to be there to help foster the artistic vision, you get better music. Joni Mitchell once said, ‘the music industry died when all of these companies went public’. They have board meetings with profit goals and they drive themselves into the ground”, Robinson says.

“They are still holding onto the wrong belief, which to me is the most frustrating thing, now more than ever. It is all about singles instead of understanding what the creative vision is all about. Everything has become literal — movies, music and books — rather than metaphorical. One thing that I love about Chris and his lyrics is he still writes in metaphors. He still tries to draw comparisons, and I guess you wouldn’t call it old-fashioned, but rather the old grand way of writing. If you listen to the Beatles, the Stones or even Bob Dylan just think about their imagery. It is what people really love. Now you have Lady GaGa singing about paparazzi, literally. Who gives a fuck? Obviously a lot more people care about her than me, but I think people are missing out.”

According to Robinson, much like the hiatus of 2001, the band will explore solo work in 2011. “Everyone is going to do solo work after this tour is over. Steve does sessions in Nashville and has side bands he plays with. Chris has been talking about making a solo record again maybe touring. That is probably what I will do too.”

The last great American rock n rollers are saying goodnight, get out and catch them while you still can. | Austin, TX