“We’ll play ‘Remedy,’ ‘No Speak No Slave,’ ‘Cursed Diamond,’ ‘Sometimes Salvation,’ ‘Good Friday,’ ‘Soul Singing’,” Rich says. “The whole gamut.”
Rich Robinson has graced the cover of Guitar Player four times and been featured several times more, placing him in an elite club. Yet despite a remarkable career in which he’s sold more than 35 million records, written some of the most stalwart songs of his generation, and measured up to the herculean task of playing Led Zeppelin and Crowe's music with Jimmy Page (as captured on 2000’s Live at the Greek), Robinson still flies under the radar when it comes to guitar god discussions. Maybe it’s because he’s more of a riff maestro than a flashy lead player. He can certainly soar, especially on the slide, but as the Black Crowes’ rhythmic heart, he’s left the lion’s share of the lead work to others. A number of righteous string slingers have passed through the group’s revolving door, including Marc Ford, Audley Freed (Cry of Love), and Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars), whose electric and acoustic expertise fleshed out the sound of the last few studio albums the group released between 2008 and 2010.
The second-guitar musical chair was first held by Jeff Cease, whose only studio album with the band was Money Maker. The new chair holder is Isaiah Mitchell, known for playing mind-altering instrumentals in Earthless as well as roots rock with Howlin’ Rain. Since the last Black Crowes tour, in 2013, with Jackie Greene on guitar, Chris has mostly kept busy with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood while Rich made solo records and a few fine albums with fellow former Crowes guitarist Ford as the Magpie Salute. Tuning up for the big Money Maker tour, the Robinsons revamped their Brothers of a Feather acoustic show and did a short run of intimate venues last spring. Guitar Player caught up with them at the Chapel in San Francisco just before they put forth one of the best duos shows this Bay Area resident has seen here in ages. That turned out to be the last capacity indoor live show we’d witness for over a year and counting.
We connected with Rich on the phone for a quick update, and he delivered much news, including plans for a signature Martin based on his father’s 1953 D-28, and the return of beloved bassist Sven Pippien to an otherwise entirely new Crowes lineup that includes L.A. session drummer Brian Griffin and keyboardist Joel Robinow from the Once and Future Band. In addition, he reveals that he and Chris have been busy writing new material in the same fashion they have since moving to opposite coasts years ago.
“I’ve sent him about 35 song ideas to work with during the past year,” Rich says. “He sings over them and sends them back. It was amazing to work closely with [original producer] George Drakoulias on the box set of Shake Your Money Maker, so we decided to get him involved again, and it will be interesting to see where the new songs go. The band will gather in about a month to start rehearsals for the tour.”
Is the essence of your Black Crowes dynamic the way the vocal and guitar parts come from two completely different rhythmic angles, creating a unique push and pull no one could come up with strumming and singing simultaneously?
RICH ROBINSON Yes. That makes it what it is, absolutely. It’s funny when people who’ve tried to cover our songs ask, “What’s the deal? Did he mean to sing it that way?” Yes, of course. There are melodies and counter melodies, rhythms, and counter-rhythms that all contribute to our thing.
CHRIS ROBINSON Great songwriting partnerships happen when two disparate entities come together. When I write with Rich, I don’t know what the song is going to be. I may have a long poem of lyrics or one word on a piece of paper. Take “Horsehead,” for example. That’s a tough riff. Considering the chemical choices I was making at the time, of course, I would come up with lyrics like “Horsehead got you bug-eyed.” But both of those things have to happen at the same time. The emotional connection with Rich’s writing totally dictates not just the imagery but also the delivery. I’ve always done most of the arranging. Take “Jealous Again,” for example. Rich would come up with parts, saying, “This is the verse and this is the chorus.” And I would say, “No, that’s the verse and this is the chorus.”
How about your own guitar playing, Chris?
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