Interview: Chris Robinson Revisits the Black Crowes Songbook with As the Crow Flies

Dean Budnick on April 16, 2018

Stuart Levine

The Black Crowes have not performed since December 2013. Given singer Chris Robinson’s lack of direct communication with his brother Rich, it is unlikely that the group will reunite anytime soon. However, starting in mid-April, Chris will revisit the Crowes catalog for a series of shows with a new collective he’s dubbed As The Crow Flies. For these gigs, he’ll be joined by his former Black Crowes bandmates Audley Freed (guitar) and Andy Hess (bass), current Chris Robinson Brotherhood members Adam MacDougall (keys) and Tony Leone (drums), and newcomer Marcus King (guitar).

As for the group’s repertoire, Robinson explains, “I’ve asked everyone to learn 30 songs but, knowing me, I’ll get in there and want to play 30 different ones. This isn’t going to be the rarities tour. I started The Black Crowes, and I know what people want to hear. Still, I like things to just happen. I want to be in the moment, so I’m leaving a lot of it open until we get in there. Then, we’ll find our way.”

While he’s looking forward to these dates, he remains devoted to the CRB, noting, “the sheen hasn’t been rubbed off this thing that fell from the sky to our feet.” Following the As The Crow Flies run, CRB will continue to gig and will also enter the studio later this year. When asked about plans for that record, he offers, “I’m sitting on six or seven songs, with maybe another two or three floating around in the ether. By the time summer rolls around, we’ll be sitting on an album’s worth. I’d be surprised if we have as many acoustic things as last time [2017’s Barefoot in the Head]. They seem to be a little more groove-oriented and rock-oriented, at least today. By June 1, they might sound like Cajun music.”

It’s been five years since you’ve performed most of these Crowes songs. Was there a particular moment or catalyst that led you to say, “I’m gonna give this another go?”

The pragmatic factor would just be time. The CRB is off this spring and into summer. We have plans to record some new music, but that’s not until later in the year. So, there was that time on the calendar where there was nothing going on.

The other part of it is that I did some acoustic solo shows this summer. I had never really ventured into those dark waters myself but, when I did it, I started playing some Black Crowes songs and it was really fun and gratifying. And that was kind of a spark as well.

Then, when I was in Nashville with the CRB, I had lunch with my good friend Audley Freed and I was talking about the fact that I hadn’t really sung those songs in a while, which kind of turned into: “Well, it would be fun…”

The great impetus for it all is: We have the time and I’m feeling good about that music, so let’s have fun. And then it turned into: “Who can we get in the band to go play that material?” So then it turned into “fantasy band,” like fantasy football. But I’ve always been that way. It’s a flicker of an idea and then, the next thing you know, the ball is rolling and here we are. I do think it’s born of something truly musical. And that’s the case with a lot of the music that I’m proud of, that I’ve performed. I wrote those lyrics, sang those songs and made those records and, you know, we worked hard in The Black Crowes. It would be fun to sing those songs for a little bit. The CRB is my main focus here—the new music and the songs. We keep working and it gets a little bigger every time, and we have a lot of ambition. So, this is just a spring fling, if you will.

Stuart Levine

When you revisited those songs in a solo acoustic setting, did any of them reveal themselves to you anew?

Of course, because now it’s a new relationship. Even though most of those songs were co-written with my brother, where I was the lyricist and the person who wrote the melody and did the arrangements, now I can play with them in a new way—it’s not as strict. And being in the CRB and playing guitar as much as I have changes things and opens up stuff. It gives a different perspective to a song like “Oh, Josephine” or even “Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye,” an older Black Crowes song.

But, what I also found interesting is: While the bands are very different and the times are different, in imagery and in certain melodic choices, there’s still a common thread. So, that was a cool thing to see as well. It was cool to see how something like “Shadow Cosmos,” a CRB song from the last couple of records, played next to “Hotel Illness,” when I was playing them acoustic.

That helped open the floodgates of like, “Wow, man, this is cool music and it’s been long enough. It’s been five years, and if I get together with the right people then it’ll really be fun and dynamic.” Audley is one of the greatest guitar players in the world and to have Marcus come onboard is adding the next generation of musicians who are influenced by a lot of the same things and the same feelings. Then it’s like, “Let me jump on that train.”

To what extent had you been in touch with Audley over the years?

Audley was in a version of the New Earth Mud with me after The Black Crowes. He often sat in with The Black Crowes at Nashville shows and he’s sat in with the CRB a few times in Nashville. Audley and I love to play music with each other and our friendship has lasted many years.

I feel like Audley doesn’t always get his due. Maybe that’s my Northeast bias because he doesn’t play around here as often as he does in the South?

I hear you. I think if he was more in the jamband scene and people saw him play every night on tour, then he might. But Audley has done so much and every guitar player knows who he is. So that’ll be especially exciting for people who were fans of the band when Audley was in it. That will be exciting because we haven’t played that material together since the end of the ‘90s.

His time in the band over­ lapped with Andy Hess who came on with Lions. Had you also been speaking with him?

Oh, yeah, I’ve stayed friends with Andy. Andy and I have jammed together on some stuff out in Brooklyn, and when there were the very first whisperings of the CRB, I almost thought, “Maybe we’ll have a West Coast band and then an East Coast band,” and I called Andy. Our network of friends and musicians is really open—I’ve always been that way with everyone. He was the first person for this project that I would call to play things.

You’ve previously toured with everyone in As The Crow Flies except for Marcus King. What led you to him?

I’m always interested in up-and-coming musicians, and I was lucky enough to get turned on to Marcus a couple of years ago. I saw him at Mountain Jam and was just super impressed and, subsequently, I have been keeping up with his music. I’ve seen him in concert and he’s a Southern kid; it just seemed like this would be the most exciting option, something new and a little different. And, for me personally, the prospect of Audley and Marcus playing together is really exciting.

In looking back to your time with the Crowes, if I asked you to close your eyes and think of your favorite musical era, is there one that jumps out?

1992, no doubt about it. We had a No. 1 album in America; we were one of the biggest bands. Southern Harmony was easily our strongest record. We didn’t go into arenas when everyone else did. We did multiple nights in theaters and that was the rarified air—that was the moment that everything came together. Everyone was in a cool mood and it was all happening.

There was a different energy. Especially in the early-‘90s, there was a whiff of chaos in the air. We were bringing some vibes that weren’t just sweet. There was a heaviness that came with the blues basis. There was something else about it. Ultimately and hopefully, the angst and anxiety of youth, our beliefs in rock-and-roll, and our beliefs in our connection with that energy as a youth, was a palatable and tangible thing.

But, it’s also funny that the whole time I was in The Black Crowes, I’d be listening to the New Riders, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Byrds—tons of other music—when I was at home. The folk-rock, the country-rock, the jazz, and the space and the electronics sort of whisperings, weren’t really allowed in The Black Crowes. Later on, my compositions would be more story-oriented and folky, and less riff-based— with a different sense of melody and a different sense of dynamics—but all of it probably should play its part.

Before I heard a single Crowes original, your performance of “Hard to Handle” really captured my attention, although I was more familiar with Pigpgen’s version than the Otis Redding original. Back then, were you aware of the Grateful Dead’s take on that tune?

I didn’t really know who Pigpen was or that the Grateful Dead did “Hard to Handle.” Otis loomed so much larger as an influence at that point in time. It would be a little later until I found my way into the weird, woolly world of the GD.

When you perform that song now with CRB, do you find that your interpretation shades a little more in that direction?

With The Black Crowes, it was a big hit record early, so we felt like you had to play it all the time but it would manifest into different things.

We don’t really play it that much anymore but, after 30 years of doing it, I think those are my colors now. I’ve done thousands of gigs and hundreds of sessions, and written hundreds of songs. I think the music comes out of it all—from John Coltrane to Bob Dylan. But I would also say, if you look deep, there’s Philip K. Dick and Robert Altman, and even Dr. J in there, somehow. So, with the CRB, we may have taken some hybrids and clones, but we have our own farm now.

On the rare occasions when we do it with the CRB, we have our own weird take on the song part, and then we definitely stole our jam from a version that’s on Fallout From the Phil Zone. Don’t tell Phil! [Laughs.] Actually, we played it with Phil and he didn’t even remember it, so we told him where it came from, which was awesome.

Jumping back to ’92, I remember a show at the Orpheum in Boston when you made a point of telling the audience that you’d had a conversation with the venue staff and that everyone was free to spark up a joint. And, sure enough, that’s what happened. The ushers actively walked away from people who were smoking, which I’d never seen before at the Orpheum. What do you remember about taking that stand during the era?

Well, that was the “High as the Moon” tour. We had a giant backdrop that said, “Free us, no Narcs” with a giant pot leaf. I mean there weren’t TV shows about pot dealers on TV then. We were on fucking lists! We put our money where our mouth was—at least, I did. I mean, I was the only head in the band like that, except for Eddie, our old keyboard player.

It’s funny; we’re in Colorado right now and we live in the Bay Area, and we’re really happy about the progression and stuff. But, I don’t think the average person, or younger person, who walks in to buy some recreational marijuana realizes that a lot of us really took a lot of chances to help get here. [Laughs.] Granted, it was a good cause and it still is. Free the legal plants—all of them!

This article originally appears in the April/May issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here