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Chris Robinson: Rock Star Revisionist 

Once a rock and roll cliché, the former Black Crowes frontman re-writes his character

Thursday, Dec 6 2012
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So far today, Chris Robinson has made pancakes for his 2-year-old daughter, done the dishes, and walked the handful of blocks from his house in Santa Monica to a diner, where he now stands waiting for a table. Upon casual inspection, Robinson could pass for any middle-aged, Westside farmers market father, except that he has the subtle, electric charisma of someone long famous. Not to mention 25 years of rock & roll tattooed on his arms, including a faded cross on his right hand and two inky black crows facing off, beak to beak, on his left wrist.

Robinson's strikingly tall and still rail-thin, and today his hair is pulled back in a messy ponytail. He is easy to talk to, and waxes rhapsodic about stuff like cosmic vibrations and the interconnectedness of things.

Now fronting a roots-rock outfit called the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, he'll be 46 this month and has the lines around his green eyes and gray hairs in his long beard to prove it. "I never was one of those people who was afraid to get older," he says. "When I turned 28, I realized, 'Hey, I'm still alive.' Most people who lived like me died at 27."

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A critically acclaimed, multiplatinum-selling musician by the age of 25, Robinson embodied narcotic-infused bacchanalia and other rock clichés as the frontman of '90s Southern guitar rock purveyors The Black Crowes. Robinson famously feuded with his younger brother, Rich, who co-founded the band with him in Atlanta, and the group saw lineup changes throughout its tenure. But their 1990 debut, Shake Your Moneymaker, sold 5 million copies and yielded a trinity of singles ­— "Jealous Again," "She Talks to Angels" and a cover of Otis Redding's "Hard to Handle" — which are still played on classic-rock radio alongside groups from earlier decades who directly influenced the Crowes in sound and style.

They stayed popular with ensuing albums The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion and Amorica, maintaining MTV relevance while simultaneously performing with elders including The Grateful Dead and Aerosmith (and looking like they just fell off the Woodstock truck). "People who did it in the '60s and '70s and who were still writing about music hated us," Robinson says. "They were, like, 'Who are you to wear bell-bottoms and talk about taking acid?' "

Yes, there were lots of drugs. The Crowes appeared on a 1992 cover of High Times, causing the Robinsons' mother to call her sons in tears, but they were more low-key about their fondness for various hallucinogenics and later, allegedly, for harder drugs. Robinson notes that a recent HBO documentary on The Rolling Stones rings true. "I was laughing because they show Keith in the '70s, and he looks exactly how you'd think. I thought, 'Oh. That's why I got stopped all the time.' I had that green pallor of someone involved in gratuitous bohemia."

On New Year's Eve 2000, Robinson engaged in another rock stereotype by marrying movie star Kate Hudson, then 21, who had just become well-known for playing groupie Penny Lane in Almost Famous. A Ute Indian shaman performed the ceremony in Aspen, Colo., but the couple divorced five years ago, and now shares custody of a son. Robinson's two-year marriage to Frank Zappa's niece Lala Sloatman ended in 1998, and for the past two years he's been married to yoga instructor and former model Allison Bridges, with whom he has the toddler.

The Black Crowes, meanwhile, dissolved in 2001 after releasing their sixth studio LP, Lions, but reunited with a new album in 2008 and toured in 2010 to commemorate their 20-year anniversary. They're currently on "indefinite hiatus."

Robinson has been able to emerge from the unsustainable wilderness of rock hedonism, easing into a mellowed middle age while maintaining and expanding his feisty, counterculture, rock & roll journeyman ethos.

He hasn't given up on outspoken star antics (Google "Black Crowes Security Meltdown 9/9/09"), except now he also speaks about revelatory ayahuasca journeys and learning from his mistakes.

The Chris Robinson Brotherhood formed in 2011, and the Los Angeles–based five-man band released twin debut LPs, Big Moon Ritual and The Magic Door, this year.

The sound isn't revolutionary, but it is classic Robinson: roots-rock guitar journeying with a solid dose of SoCal freak folk. (Close inspection of the album covers reveals they were recorded in "Unicorn, California," which, sorry flower children, is not an actual physical location.)

Few songs are shorter than seven minutes, Robinson's voice is still a force, and the works came out on his own Silver Arrow label.

"People ask me if putting out my own records is going well, and I tell them it doesn't matter," he says. "I have the freedom to make any kind of records I want without interference from some record company dude who has no interest in the transferal of the cognitive and emotional information we're trying to put across."

Yes, he really speaks this way. When asked what this cognitive and emotional information might be, the answer basically boils down to love.

Such positivity fades when he speaks on the corporate music golem that would tether, mutate, package and sell the intended good vibes. "To be onstage when you're 55 years old hugging each other because you beat out Bruno Mars for best song of the year," he says, "is hardly an accomplishment in your life."

Industry control, vapid commercial success and the pursuit of fame for fame's sake remain anathema.

"I laughed my ass off when Jack White released his solo record. Jack is a massive, modern-era rock star who is on a corporate record label and does everything through that system. Don't get that wrong. Jack is very talented and charismatic, but it's, like, 'An artist out of the box'? Not only is he in the box. He owns one of the sides."

While the desire for mainstream popularity might be easy to criticize for someone who has had it (and still receives the royalty checks), Robinson's pursuit of the genuine feels real, especially after his decades of squirming uncomfortably in the grips of the money-above-all, popular-music factory.

As such, the personal freedom he has created with the Brotherhood is another mark on the growth chart. "There are no trips, man, no ego or side deals. We have musician friends around the world who come to see us, and they're, like, 'I want to be in your band.'"

The band members set up their own equipment at gigs and recently decided to eschew hiring roadies so they could all get raises. Stressing the importance of going onstage every night and "proving it," Robinson says he's proud of local fans who buck the too-cool factor of L.A. concert culture and get down to their music. "There are still heads here, too, man."

These freaks and weirdos are his friends, his fans, his people; they are him. I mention a barefoot man with a parrot on his shoulder whom I spotted on the side of the road in Topanga Canyon earlier in the day. "Yeah," he responds, "I know that guy."

He may mean this literally or metaphorically; it's true either way.

The Chris Robinson Brotherhood play Dec. 7 at El Rey Theatre.

Reach the writer at bain.katie@gmail.com

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