For most people, December means crowded department stores, office parties you are mandated to attend, and surviving the potential carnage of spending the holidays with your loved ones. For Chris Robinson, the former lead singer of The Black Crowes and current frontman of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, it means some shows in San Francisco where he’s made a tradition of playing with various incarnations of his band each December. While The Black Crowes were beloved for their classic rock roots, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood takes a decidedly blues-by-way-of-psychedelia approach to their music, a sound right at home in the Bay Area, This year’s proceedings will take place at the Fillmore, a venue Robinson likens to a well-loved instrument.
“It’s like an old guitar,” he says. “It’s been blasted out now for a few different cycles.” Robinson, who this year moved across the bridge to Marin County, feels a special vibe from the Bay Area crowds that pack his shows. “There’s this electric bond people have,” he explains, citing the concert culture started by luminaries like Bill Graham and The Family Dog. In fact, even though the Chris Robinson Brotherhood was formed in Southern California, San Francisco is the band's biggest market, and Robinson believes the band has played more shows there than anywhere else.
[jump] “Our scene gets a little bigger every time,” he says, “but it’s still small enough that it seems like everyone still knows everyone.”
Marin, now Robinson’s scene, is full of many familiar faces for the Georgia-born rocker. Grateful Dead alumni like Phil Lesh and Bob Weir both live there, musicians Robinson has been playing with since 1997. His choice to move to Marin was inspired in part by the proximity it offered to so many artists he’s worked with and the chance to sit in on sessions with Lesh at his San Rafael club, Terrapin Crossroads. Furthermore, when the Brotherhood’s current tour ends next month, the band plans to record their next studio effort at a location in Stinson Beach.
Robinson says that the geographic places in which he records his music play a huge role in affecting the finished product. Referencing the Bay Area as particularly fertile ground, he confesses that he’s always wanted to record an album in the region, and that, for him, the process is rooted in changing one’s perspective.
The music that will encompass the Chris Robinson Brotherhood’s next release is still very much a work in progress, a process Robinson compares to a NASCAR road team. “If our band and our music is a race car, we’re the pit crew, constantly twisting knobs and calibrating engines and fuel gauges,” he says. He views the process of making records and spending time in the studio as a privilege, with the focus squarely on the music being created and not the financial gain to himself or the label. That said, he isn’t unaware of the issues being raised by the advent of streaming services like Spotify and Pandora, companies he now lives but a bridge away from.
“I don’t know why music is so cheap,” he laments. “I don’t know why what I do is so worthless.” Robinson imagines the alternative: A throng of musicians storming the corporate offices of a streaming company and taking their things. “I imagine that would be highly illegal,” he says, “but thousands of people can stream hundreds and hundreds of hours of your music and you get paid nothing.” He’s taken the step of removing his work from most of the popular streaming platforms, but he questions whether the action has helped or hindered. Robinson also worries that the randomness of discovering music through a streaming service may somehow belie a lack of importance, a situation that takes away from the work itself.
“I’m not going to launch lawsuits and get uptight,” he concludes, “but bands that are popular and bands that have long careers and bands that have music on the radio should be able to see something for that. It just seems fair. I think there’s still that underlying mentality of, ‘You don’t really work for a living,’ like an old '60s TV show about a rock and roll band.”
Still, the problematic nature of streaming isn’t something that Robinson has much time for. He’s focused on the end of his tour, the work on his new album (which is soon to begin), and exploring the nature and delicious eats that now encompass his backyard. Picco in Larkspur is a favorite dinner spot, while Phoenix Lake has become a go-to location for dog walks and hikes. Robinson speaks fondly about jaunts out to Tomales Bay for oysters and a recent visit to a Sonoma pumpkin patch. The Bay Area long ago welcomed his music, and now it’s welcoming his family, too.
“I’ve just never felt better coming home from tour,” he says. “The air feels good. You can actually breathe. Everyone is super nice, and they have really nice grits at the Hummingbird Café in Fairfax, so we feel at home.”
The Chris Robinson Brotherhood plays the Fillmore on December 11 & 12. Tickets are available at chrisrobinsonbrotherhood.com.