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"Art is Not A Service Industry": Rich Robinson and The Black Crowes Endure

Bands with stellar reputations as live acts often go through lengthy processes of understanding how to balance the live sparks elicited on a nightly basis with the discipline of songwriting and musicianship needed for a recorded piece of work. The Black Crowes never had that problem. Despite the inner-band turmoil that has marked portions of their career, the members recognized what was needed to function successfully in both areas, producing strong recorded efforts while becoming a performing monster of greasy jams, scorching solos and good ol’ blues-based rock ‘n’ roll.

Of course, the band moved forward stylistically as nods to folk, country and psychedelia never derailed the group’s essence. Only the members could do that, which led to a hiatus in 2002. Three years later the group seemed determined not only to make up for lost time but to find a peaceful coexistence that elevated the music to a higher level of importance than the sum of its parts. It resulted in Warpaint, and the more assured 2009 release Before the Frost… (and its download only companion piece …Until the Freeze).

Brothers Rich and Chris Robinson along with original drummer Steve Gorman, bassist Sven Pipien, guitarist Luther Dickinson and keyboardist Adam MacDougall, they recorded their eighth studio effort at Levon Helm’s barn-turned-studio in Woodstock. Better known as the place of Helms’ Midnight Ramble concerts, the venue hosted a select live audience for these recordings in which the live feeling of a performance infuses the preciseness necessary for a studio recording. It’s heard in the loose swing on the opening track “Good Morning Captain,” singes with a combination of familiar Crowes riffing and swamp rock on “Been A Long Time (Waiting On Love)” and even surprises with the disco-fueled rhythm of “I Ain’t Hiding.”

I catch Rich Robinson shortly before a soundcheck in Austin. Though often viewed as the quiet Robinson, he was an affable interview subject who cares passionately not only about his band but the general state of culture and art’s place in it.

JPG: “Before the Frost…” tell me the idea behind doing an album in such a manner.

RR: We’ve always tried to make different albums, trying to keep it interesting and trying to push ourselves a bit. Chris actually had the idea. We had some time off, I think it was summer of ’08. He went up to Woodstock and he just went up to a [Midnight] Ramble and thought how cool it was. And, basically, the whole set up was already there. We were already talking about where we wanted to record, if we wanted to go to L.A. or if we wanted to do this or do that. Trying to just figure it out and he goes, ‘What if we just do up in Woodstock? We’ll do it here.’ And everyone really liked the idea. So, everyone agreed and it was cool. The problem was when we got up there, how do we do it? Because you do have to juggle having it be a recording and also playing in front of people and having it be a show. How do you do that? So, it found its way. We had to come up with a sound that everyone could deal with — one amp, the same drum set up… because normally when you go into a studio, you change out amps, you change up mikes, you’ll have different drum set ups, different things that you can do with the keyboards. So, we had to come up with a common thing that we could just stick with. And it took a while but we found it, and it turned out to be a really cool, interesting way to record.

JPG: I’d like to talk more about your approach to these sessions. As you mentioned, there’s the technical aspect of having a set up that you weren’t changing on a constant basis. Also, you’re in front of people, so there’s the performing mindset, but you need to be a little more disciplined because you’re recording something.

RR: Yeah, there has to be. You do have to consider the feel of a song. Everyone can play/get through a song and it sounds great, but there’s a difference between that great take and the average take. And so we said when the people came in, ‘Look, we could go over things. We’re going to be changing things. There might be something that might not work as far as the structure of the song goes…’ We did have some technical difficulties. A channel would go out and then we’d have to work on it a little bit later, just weird things like that. Tuning. So we were pretty up front about it. But you go in and you just do your best and that’s why we chose to do five shows and just record it. Some songs we felt like we got and so we didn’t really have to play ‘em again. Other songs, we played a bunch of times to try to make sure that we had the right take, really.

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