Chris Robinson: Transit of the Binary Star
It’s Friday the 13th. A thick orange firesmoke cloud hangs over the Rocky Mountains like a dust starship. The high plains are as hot as the devil’s breath on the back of his hand. A long white bus rolls into Denver.
Aboard are the members of a rising young psychedelic band out of California, the CRB. Their totems are the gnome-like space traveler Captain Nebula, and a supernatural guiding owl named Possible Dust Clouds.
Deep in the heart of the bus, the outfit’s bearded commander sits beside a stack of vinyl LPs acquired in some suburban wayside. He’s flipping through back issues of Heavy Metal, the sci-fi/fantasy comic magazine from the late 1970s. He finds an image he likes—a naked girl, with big hair, entwined in a graphic zephyr, against a field of blue. He carefully pulls the page out and posts it high on the fake wood wall beside an old black-and-white shot of Howlin’ Wolf with a guitar and a bottle of booze, and a color photograph of Elvis Presley.
Across the way, the blind hard-bop saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk stands black-bereted in shadow, slung with his arsenal of giant horns. Conway Twitty hangs above the stereo, one eyebrow raised, as if he’s keeping everybody in line. It’s that kind of bus.
The captain is a voracious consumer of culture. A singer, guitarist and songwriter, he’s flipping through records, shuffling through the magazines, rattling off a mystifying roll of musicians and novelists. He’s preparing for a gig and conducting an interview, and all of the time, he’s listening to Dolphins Into The Future, the weird, organic electronica burbling out of the speakers, which seems to speed up or slow down with his discussion. It is as if he is wired to the bus, a holographic construct of the mega-computer at its heart.
Now, as the long, white tube motors out of Denver’s skyscraper zone and toward the slightly more desolate Five Points, the singer is talking about The Ice Trilogy, a post-Cold War sci-fi fantasy by Russian novelist Vladimir Sorokin. According to The London Review of Books :
The Ice Trilogy is devoted to the fortunes of an apocalyptic Brotherhood whose members believe they are bodily incarnations of a primordial light. But they are only made aware of their true identity by being ‘awakened,’ in a process that involves being bashed in the chest with a hammer made of ice—and not ordinary ice but ice from the Tunguska meteorite that supposedly landed in eastern Siberia in 1908…The Brotherhood’s goal is for all its members to return to their incorporeal state, which will also coincidentally destroy the world—a cosmic error they are destined to correct. But they can only do this once they have located and ‘awakened’ 23,000 brothers and sisters, and united them for a final, cataclysmic ritual.
Tonight, at 11 p.m. mountain time, a massive solar flare is expected to cross the earth. Tonight, the members of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood take the stage.
When The Black Crowes reunited after a handful of years off and eventually recorded 2008’s Warpaint, the band included keyboardist Adam MacDougall and North Mississippi Allstars guitar whiz Luther Dickinson. The Crowes’ new sound was rootsy and sepia-toned; their imagery veering to railroads and goldmines and mules. This was American folk rock—an amped-up western blues and gospel, with licks of psychedelia. Spacemen and mushrooms popped up on the record cover—among a stampeding posse of banditos and desperados, cowboys and Indians, wizards and skeletons.
In 2009, the band recorded the double-live/studio hybrid Before The Frost/Until The Freeze —with an audience—at Levon Helm’s barn in Woodstock, N.Y. The psychedelic fantasy watercolorist Arik Roper painted the covers. In 2010, they re-recorded Crowes classics (and one Gram Parsons tune, “She”) as acoustic numbers for another double record, Croweology, released in celebration of their 20th anniversary. When they toured, they billed the show as “Say Goodbye to the Bad Guys,” and then they hung up their spurs.
And even as that last tour was still rolling—with the Crowes at the top of their game, cementing their place as The Last Great American Rock Band—Chris Robinson was booking a two-month tour up and down and up and down the Golden State for the new band he was cooking up with MacDougall—the name, lineup and carefully considered iconography of which were all still works in progress.
Now, the brown-bearded singer (and songwriter, and now rhythm guitarist) is chilling on one of the brown leather built-in couches that run down either side of the tour bus. He’s wearing a tie-dyed polo shirt, faded nearly to white. Next to him, bassist Mark “Muddy” Dutton mans the ship’s computer, his hair a mass of brown coils, his face a scraggled beard.
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