Black Crowes frontman marches on with Chris Robinson Brotherhood.
In 2011, Chris Robinson Brotherhood played 118 shows before ever releasing an album, which meant concert-goers only knew one thing when they bought tickets: This was the new band of the Black Crowes frontman. And that's exactly how Robinson wanted to launch his new project. "We were in a van, loading our own gear. We played little clubs on Tuesday and Wednesday nights," he says. "That's how we introduced ourselves to people."
A year later, the band is in the midst of a run of shows stretching to December, and the plan is working. Word quickly spread around the jam band and blues scenes about Robinson's new group of psychedelic rockers, pushing it from small clubs to larger festival slots -- including this month's Telluride (Colo.) Blues & Brews Festival -- and a June spot on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno." Now, on Sept. 11, the act will release "The Magic Door" on Silver Arrow/Megaforce Records, its second album of 2012 after June's Big Moon Ritual.
So why Robinson's unorthodox reintroduction to the scene? Well, because he can. Two decades in a successful, constantly touring rock band earned him a degree of freedom. "You don't have to do things the way the system would allow you," he says. "Conventionalism tells you to make some demos, get some money, put out a record, play New York, Boston and Philly and see how you did. That's not interesting to me."
When the Black Crowes announced a hiatus in 2010, Robinson was already plotting his next move. By the time of the Crowes' farewell shows that December, he'd booked a gig as the Brotherhood before the new lineup was even complete. Robinson quickly assembled his group from friends and respected musicians, including keyboardist Adam MacDougall, bassist Mark Dutton, drummer George Sluppick and Ryan Adams' guitarist, Neal Casal.
"It took us literally 12 bars, and we saw the spark of what our sound could be," Robinson says.
The group's style matured on the road, but the influences are obvious: Pink Floyd, the Allman Brothers and frequent Robinson collaborators Phil Lesh and Bob Weir. When the band finally hit the studio in early 2012 for sessions that resulted in two albums, it embraced its onstage incubation-the songs sound live and unedited, averaging about eight minutes long.
In fact, rushing in any sense seems to be the last thing on Robinson's mind: He's rebuilding his following without expectations or deadlines. "We're in our own utopian paradise," he says. "I got into music to break out of systematic thinking: 'Rock bands go there, reggae there, pop there.' America was over when the cattle barons put up the fences, but our band found a good spot of open land."
And Megaforce is willing to let him cultivate that land his way, through touring and word-of-mouth, with "releases coming when they naturally come, not just when the clock says it's the right time," Megaforce VP Missi Callazzo says. Downloads of each show are available, nurturing a community around the band's performances, akin to acts like Phish and the Grateful Dead. Though the label was also home to the Crowes, "we treat [the two bands] as completely separate projects," Callazzo says.
Free from both label restrictions and his old group's shadow, Robinson's Brotherhood is hoping to grow naturally. "I've always been the one to keep pushing forward," he says. The band's evolving cosmic rock remains his vision "as long as the planet stays on its axis-but there's no counting on that."