Chris Robinson: Transit of the Binary Star
The second set opens with Bobby Mitchell’s “Try Rock N Roll,” from 1956. Robinson doesn’t sound like he’s faking it. And it’s a rock set. When they get to Three Dog Night’s “Never Been to Spain,” with the band deep in the pocket and all singing the verses in rollicking harmony, Robinson is in full throat.
“Vibration and Light Suite,” which appears on The Magic Door as a full psychedelic cycle, bends the Dead’s “Eyes of the World” groove back toward Marvin Gaye. “Ride,” from Robinson’s solo debut New Earth Mud, is a gospel-funk cataclysm.
People get ready to die
People get ready to ride
Robinson spits the lyrics like a machine gun.
The audience hoots and whistles, like a thousand hearts hammered.
“Rosalee,” from Big Moon Ritual, is a bounding, hooky dance tune. But two-thirds through, it melts down completely into space noise.
It’s all downhill
To the beach from here
This, Robinson explains backstage, is the entheogenic ritual at the beach. This is the California.
Phil Lesh is speaking by phone from his house by the beach, in Marin County, California. “The thing that Chris brings,” he says, “besides that wonderful voice, and all of the songs that he’s written, is he brings that encyclopedic knowledge of American music. He can reach way back and pull out some stuff that I’d never heard before, or he can help me remember songs,” like Fred Neil’s lost psych classic “The Dolphins,” “He’s an ideal participant in the Ramble kind of concept of what I’m trying to do.”
Robinson has been affiliated with the Dead since The Black Crowes joined the Furthur tour in 1997. The men have grown close. Robinson, Lesh says, is a kindred spirit—“a thinking singer.” His voracious reading, his interest in so many disparate subjects, remind Lesh of Garcia. And when Lesh opened his new club, Terrapin Crossroads, he invited Robinson to participate in the first few handfuls of shows—including the rambles Lesh styled after those at Levon Helm’s barn.
Robinson regards Lesh as family—as a brother, an uncle, a mentor. Likewise, Weir. Robinson toured this year with Weir and Greene, in a three-man acoustic guitar pull—a song circle, done with very little fanfare. The CRB also play a few Dead tunes live. It’s one of the things Robinson had meant for this band to do.
Lesh says that the Brotherhood, if it is in some way a response to Grateful Dead, is the best kind of response—that Robinson has studied the structures that lie beneath the music, that he has a deep understanding of how it works. It’s not mindless jamming.
“Jerry, Phil, Bob and all those guys listened to a lot of music, and they read a lot of books,” Robinson says. “I think, in terms of these archetypal sorts of pieces, maybe that’s what Phil means. Because I have an understanding of Memphis jug-band music. I can see where that is a piece of the Grateful Dead at different times in their inspiration over the years, and I can get into [composers] Terry Riley and [Karlheinz] Stockhausen and I see where Seastones fits into Phil’s thing just as much as ‘Unbroken Chain.’ Some of that is just, like, these genetic building blocks of rock music. Phil likes Fats Domino just as much as he likes Stockhausen. That’s where we’re coming from, as well.”
Robinson seems to have used the Dead’s ethos—the knowing fusion of musical traditions, the improvisation and the culture—as a model for how to start a new band from helpings of electrofunk, doo-wop, Southern soul, cowboy music and dripping psychedelia.
If the first record felt like the band’s live shows—and if there’s a Dead-like sonic imprint—then The Magic Door, which is a bit more produced, feels like the work of a band whose sound has successfully outgrown the appropriated patterns into something distinct: a flying cosmic jukebox fueled by old vinyl and arcane knowledge. A cowboy choir that can take it to the sock hop or the sub-ether.
This, Robinson says, is the deepest collaboration that he’s ever worked in. He is relishing the freedom outside his career in The Black Crowes, outside of show business—the freedom to start a new band as if he were a kid again.
The digital tripnotica in the background winds down to a low tone, as if it is punctuation in the cyberpsychic computer that runs in synch with Robinson’s program. He tells a joke, and the music seems to laugh along with him.
“I read in an Arthur magazine interview years ago that Ethan [Miller, of Comets on Fire and Howlin Rain] said that he liked psychedelic music,” Robinson says. “That he knew that handmade, acid, communal experience that everyone was sharing made it real. And that’s what interests me, as well. I mean, here we are—it’s just us. We load our own gear, we unload our own gear, we pack up, we only get hotel rooms on days off, we live on this bus, we play fuckin’ over three hours a night, and we get up and we go to the next one. And we’re on our second year. There are no guitar techs; there’s no lighting director. It’s just us still and we’re more interested in it and more in love with what we’re doing than we were when we realized last year, like, ‘Wow. This is good, you know? This is fun, too.’”
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