It’s been more than four years since the Black Crowes split following an epic show at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco. In that time, Crowes guitarist Rich Robinson has kept their music alive in his spinoff group the Magpie Salute, but his brother Chris has focused on the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, a jam band that plays almost nothing from the Crowes catalog. He hasn’t even sung many of their songs in any capacity since the group folded, but that’s going to change on April 17th when his new band As the Crow Flies kicks off a 17-show tour in Port Chester, New York.
The group – which features Black Crowes alumni Adam MacDougall (keyboard), Andy Hess (bass) and Audley Freed (guitar), along with Marcus King (guitar) and Tony Leone (drums) – will play a set consisting almost entirely of Black Crowes songs. They have absolutely no plans beyond the final show in Portland, Oregon, when Robinson plays on returning his full attention to the Chris Robinson Brotherhood.
We spoke with Chris Robinson about the formation of As the Crow Flies, what fans can expect from the shows, the status of his relationship with Rich Robinson and his thoughts on a possible Black Crowes reunion.
Tell me the backstory of this new band.
For a long time I’ve been saying, no matter what it looks like, that I’m super proud and privileged to have been in the Black Crowes and write that music and perform that music. As an American rock & roll thing, those songs are in people’s lives. So it’s always been there that those songs are there. I may be crazy, but I’m not that dumb, as David Crosby says. The reality is time and a few small circumstances [led to this]. I looked at our calendar because the CRB [Chris Robinson Brotherhood] is my focus and my life and our dedication and our spiritual practice. But this is the first year where I was going to have three months off with the CRB.
It’s been five years since I sang “She Talks to Angels” and five years since I really sang “Thorn in My Pride.” As time goes by I’m like, “Wow, here’s a little period of time.” As things happen to me, they reveal themselves. I also did some acoustic shows on the West Coast, just me myself, the first time I really attempted that. I opened up my songbook and started playing “Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye,” and “Oh Josephine,” “Hotel Illness,” “Jealous Again” and “High Head Blues.” And it really felt good. It was nice. They fit in well with the canon of songs I’ve done in my career.
And then, another fortuitous thing was that I was in Nashville over the summer and had lunch with my good friend Audley Freed. It was a CRB show and Audley was going to come sit in with us. I said to him, “What if we got together and jammed?” Audley was like, “It would be fun. I haven’t played those songs in a really long time and I would love to play that music again.” So that was the seed and I was like, “If Audley, one of the most accomplished guitar players in the world and one of my good friends, who I love and respect, if he’s excited about it …”
Then it turned into fantasy football. Lucky for me, the Black Crowes had a lot of musicians and I’ve maintained a lot of friendships. So Andy Hess, who played bass for the Black Crowes in the late 1990s, he could play bass. Then there’s Adam MacDougall who plays with me in the CRB, was with me in the Black Crowes for a number of years. I’m obsessed with playing music with Adam. Tony Leone is my drummer for the last three years of playing on planet Earth, and as a singer, I’m not going anywhere without my favorite drummer, so he’s in the band. Then the question is, “Who can play this other guitar?” We talked about a lot of people, but what’s really exciting is having Marcus [King] come on. Me and Audley are in our fifties and most of the guys are coming up behind us and here’s this kid that’s a generation or two removed who is inspired and influenced by the same music that inspired and influenced us, which is part of the magic of being a musician. Then it was like, “Cool. Here we are. We have a band.” Everyone is fired up.
The other thing about this is it’s only these shows. We’re not going in the studio. We’re not unleashing another leg at the end of this. It is just a little celebration of those songs with this group of people.
Is the set list going to be just Black Crowes songs?
We’ve discussed a few covers, but pretty much I want to just concentrate on the main Black Crowes albums, the songs that people will know. I’m not flogging away in the Black Crowes anymore, so there’s a celebratory element to it. If I haven’t sang “She Talks to Angels” for five years, I’m going to have fun singing it every night for a few weeks. I have this thing called the CRB that is my wild imagination, my adventure and everything is there. Like I said, we have three weeks off. The other guys in the CRB are busy, so it just was a perfect time.
So come May 14th, the band is done?
Yeah. It’s there, I guess, so if we have a great time, we could do it again in a couple of years. But CRB are completely booked. After May, we go back out and do our thing. We’re making a new record this year, so we’re in the process of putting all the tunes together. So like I said, the time was right, the people are people I love and want to play with, so we struck while the iron was hot.
Will the set list change much between shows?
I think there are some pieces I’m going to want to play, longer pieces like “Wiser Time” and “Thorn in My Pride.” I’d like to, since this is a different band and a different time, I’d like to do these songs, but have some places to let these people shine. I want Audley and Marcus to get down and get Adam in that mix. There’s a lot of music. I’m definitely not playing guitar in this band. I’m going out as the lead singer, which will be cool too. It’s been five years since I’ve up there just singing and putting my energies towards just that. That’s something that’ll be fun to get back into.
You obviously missed singing these songs.
The songs that you write, to me, that’s the real jewel of the thing. That’s the thing that’s going to be here way after you’re gone. If the songs resonate, then it says something about them. I think that’s how I got into this world. This is what I dreamed about. If you can weave your dream into the reality of your life … And these songs are the magic engines that run that dream. That’s important to me.
At CRB shows you’d play the Black Crowes songs “Tornado” and “I Ain’t Hiding,” but not many others.
“Tornado” was the very first song I ever wrote on the guitar. That was kinda tossed aside by the Black Crowes. When we started the band we needed some tunes. Some of the other ones would be later Black Crowes songs like on [2009’s] Before the Frost […Until the Freeze]. I kinda felt like those weren’t as deeply associated with the Black Crowes, where what I want to do with As the Crow Flies is beyond Black Crowes–centric. I’ve made my commitment. I’m sorry there’s not going to be any Black Crowes anymore. That’s the way it works. Like I said, the CRB is the place for me to write new songs and have new friends in this new scene. This is just like, “Hey, we can celebrate this. This music is still alive and well.”
How does the ownership of the Black Crowes name work? Can one of you tour under that name without the other?
You know what? I don’t know. I wouldn’t do that. I’m just kind of a weird person who likes to keep it in some sort of bizarre order, so I wouldn’t have to … The Black Crowes are all those people and this is something different.
Do you still speak to your brother?
How long has it been?
If we’re speaking philosophically, it’s been many decades.
How about literally?
In the physical plane? It’s been about five years, probably.
Do you miss him?
I don’t know, man. I’m busy, man. I’ve got stuff to do. All of us have our lives and I wish him all the best and I only want him to be happy, healthy and safe with his family and the people that he loves. Other than that, no. Like I said, I’m so happy and so busy and this world we live in looks so horrible and so ugly and so fear-driven that I’m so blessed to live in the republic of California and play rock & roll music and live love and have art. On one side, yeah, it’s kind of a bummer. But on the other side, the only thing we can control is our perception of things.
How do you feel about the Magpie Salute, his own group that goes out and does Black Crowes songs?
We’ve covered all that stuff. Your magazine is well documented in my opinions last year about that. But it’s 2018 and here we are. Whoever plays guitar in whatever band you love, go see it. It’ll make you feel better. Know what I’m saying?
To ask the obvious question, is there any chance of a future reunion? Are the odds zero?
I mean, the only reason I could see that – I mean, the CRB is my life – it would only be for money. This other world that we invented, and it only gets a little bigger every time we go out and make a noise, I’m writing songs, I’m doing everything I wanted to do when I got into this business. I had to go through some shit and break down some shit to get in here, maybe some people don’t understand that, but the reality is that I love the Black Crowes. The best of that was great. The music was great, the concerts, the energy. But that was then. Now all my focus is in my consciousness and my subconsciousness doing all this other stuff. It’s completely different vibes in a completely different time. I hope that it resonates in a positive, soulful way.
Surely you’re aware of all the Black Crowes fans still hoping it’ll happen?
Do you feel sympathy for the fans torn between your band and Rich’s band and just wanting to see you guys play together again?
I’m so weird, man. I don’t really think like that. People want Roger Waters and David Gilmour. Want me to compare it to them?
Sure. As a Pink Floyd fan, aren’t you hoping that those guys patch it up and find a way to work together?
Like I said, I’ve been lucky enough to play rock & roll for 30 years now. People are weird. One thing about me that should never surprise anyone is that I got into this because I’m a little weird. I say things other people don’t say. I live the way that I live. I’m an artist. I didn’t get into this to be compliant to some system that dictates that I’m supposed to only know … or that status is important. To me, the only thing that’s important is the work you’re doing. I imagine that guys like Roger Waters and David Gilmour, no matter how legendary and iconic they are, they are the same thing underneath. You have the same set of guiding principles and things that you find to be right or wrong. I’m probably being more altruistic, in a way.
It’s the same with Led Zeppelin. They don’t want to do it, so that’s all there is to it.
By the way, I’ve been lucky enough to be in a group with Jimmy Page. I love Jimmy. That goes in the history books of my life as an amazing experience, but also I’ve known Robert Plant longer. I’ve known him since 1990. When I saw him on tour a couple of years ago I was like, “Here’s a guy that’s amazingly successful, but he’s doing his own thing.” I told him, “Out of all the people from our generation at your stature, you’re one of the only true mavericks.” He was like, “You know, fuck it. I’m gonna play what I’m going to play. I don’t have to hang my hat on something that was for other people’s reasons.” That’s not negative or selfish or bad or arrogant. The guy just loves fucking music. When you love music, you gotta play it.
But everywhere he goes, people are wondering, “Do you think he’ll ever do Zeppelin again?” It’s hard to escape that.
That’s why he doesn’t do any interviews. He’s said what he’s got to say. If people can’t listen, that’s not his fucking problem. Like I said, the reality is that it’s there for you to be a part of or not. If you’re missing you because you’re stuck in one thing then, wow, you could have added something to your life instead of being stuck.
To get back to As the Crow Flies, do you think you’ll break out songs the Black Crowes didn’t play very often?
Nah. I want to play the songs that everyone wants to hear. Know what I mean? I’ve thought about a few covers and it might be fun since Andy and Audley played with Jimmy [Page], to maybe throw a couple of Led Zeppelin songs in there.
Is there any chance if this goes really well it’ll become a secondary band for you and you’d even record new songs with them?
You never know. These are great musicians, but Marcus has his career. Audley is playing all the time. Me, Tony and Adam are fully booked up. Andy has a pretty full dance card. As I said, we just want to get together and have a fucking boogie. If that is the seed that is sown, so be it. But we’re in the middle of getting tunes together for the next CRB session. Everyone is busy. Like I said, when the world is full of chaos and doom and fear, people like us want to get down and do our work. Our work is positive work. It’s not going to fucking change the world or anything, but it can get you through the night.
As the Crow Flies tour dates:
April 17 – Port Chester, NY @ Capitol Theatre
April 18 – Philadelphia, PA @ Electric Factory
April 21 – Live Oak, FL @ Wanee Music Festival
April 22 – Birmingham, AL @ Iron City Birmingham
April 24 – Chicago, IL @ Thalia Hall
April 25 – Lexington, KY @ Machester Music Hall
April 26 – Chattanooga, TN @ The Signal
April 28 – New Orleans, LA @ The Joy Theater
April 29 – Nashville, TN @ Ryman Auditorium
May 1 – St. Louis, MO @ The Pageant
May 2 – Kansas City, MO @ The Truman
May 6 – Denver, CO @ Ogden Theatre
May 8 – Las Vegas, NV @ Brooklyn Bowl
May 9 – Los Angeles, CA @ The Wiltern
May 11 – Oakland, CA @ Fox Theater
May 12 – Lake Tahoe, NV @ Montbleu Resort & Casino
May 13 – Portland, OR @ Crystal Ballroom