Just once in a rare while you come across music that carries in it the careful work of long hours spent in solitude. Or better yet a couple of people stuck away in some quadrant of calm, ruminating on nothing but the songs. Maybe not even full songs in their miniature glory. Perhaps it’s a single chord that mutters to them over & over & over. Could be a word, a phrase, a happy skip in a bridge, the space between ideas, the gulf between verses that requires a listener’s leap, the associative hop of poetry moving slow & free. This kind of music puts dirt under a musician’s fingernails, etches a line or ten around their eyes, makes them less quick to snap to any judgment. They are pushing a plough against hard earth, laboring to make a green thing push towards light, acting on faith & instinct. They know the joy of this work when it comes to fruition and the ache of seeing land lay fallow despite one’s best efforts. Like the farmer who would do nothing else in the world even if given the chance, this kind of artist continues to work away because they have spent more sleepless nights and seen more sunrises than most of us will ever know. They are awake and alive when they create and that is what pushes them on.

“How do?”

These are the first words out of Chris Robinson as he and his partner in crime, Paul Stacey, take their seats at Bimbo's packed house. Both wear button down long sleeve shirts and jeans. Chris sports a tweedy jacket. With trimmed hair & a beard far less unruly than in earlier years, he looks downright tidy. Gone is the glam pimp of recent stage incarnations & myriad publicity shoots. He’d fit right in that grainy black & white photo on The Band’s 2nd album, smack dab between Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson. More than just the image, there is a sepia tone of that photograph to Chris’ solo music, a dipping back into creeks and still ponds of music past, the same creak of wooden floor boards where the players tapped their toes to melodies played on acoustic guitars.

Dozens of sticks of Nag Champa incense glow & smoke around the stage and even from 20 feet out the spell of the fragrant air envelops my table. It makes me heady and open to whatever comes. When the Bill Withers style snap of “Safe In The Arms of Love” rings out I close my eyes and inhale. I take into myself not just the smokey air but the notes themselves. The immediacy and intimacy of the music asks that we drop an inner wall or two. If it feels a little scary to be that open in a public space I can only imagine how Chris feels.

“Like water on the ground, we will find our way.”

Lines from the new material begin to leap up, demanding memorization, consideration, interaction. I know already that this music is becoming part of my life, that I will roll down sidewalks softly singing its words, hum its tunes as I drive, cradle it in candle-lit hours of the night. The lyric from “Sunday Sound” above exemplifies the deceptively simple flow of much of the new direction. I catch myself mouthing the words in the chorus and then the liquid hope of the phrase penetrates deeper into me. I marvel that anyone, let alone my favorite lyricist & singer, is making music that openly takes blows against the darkness.

A few songs later during “The Kids That Ain’t Got None” (a stunner written with “weird old Eddie Harsch”) it hits me like the proverbial ton o’ bricks how little Paul Stacey sounds like anyone else. He knows just the moments to lay out and just when to dive in. He and Chris are like two strings resonating together, ringing out a harmonics uniquely their own. Paul’s emphasis on tone rather than speed or showy technical wizardy sets him apart from most lead guitarists but it’s his extraordinary ear for the songs that really impresses me. I’ve never heard another player more in sync with this singer. Not his brother Rich, not Marc Ford, not Audley Freed. With the other guitarists he’s worked with there was always the sense of two people dueling to express their own ideas. That clash created some dynamic music but what Paul does is complete Chris sentences musically. They have the same idea at the same time and find ways to enhance what the other is already saying. On the chorus, Chris’ voice takes on a sad, deep vibe that Paul accentuates with low notes. Yeah, these guys speak each other’s unspoken language fluently.

As the crowd yells out song titles, Chris remarks, “It is impossible that you’re yelling out songs that don’t exist.” With the studio debut not landing until October it might seem a bit odd that so many in the audience know the songs already but it isn’t. This is the modern age of Internet message boards, cdr trading and a small army of tapers who record these happenings like amateur Alan Lomaxes, documenting an alternate history of song & performance to the one in the Library of Congress.

I applaud loudly and alone as Chris introduces “Last of the Old Time Train Robbers.” Even more obscure than much of the other new material it is one of those songs that grabbed me by the lapels when I first heard it on a Boston show from June. It has all the pop skill and depth of Aimee Mann, Elliott Smith or digging further back, Elton John & Bernie Taupin circa Honky Chateau. The opening line is a tale in and of itself:

“Think I’ll rob a train and move to South America.”

It’s an old tradition in rock music to identify with outlaw culture. Think back to photos of the Eagles, CSNY and the Grateful Dead where they’d sport cowboy hats & leather dusters, pig iron on their hip and a rebel song on their lips. Chris gets this but inserts a kind of melancholy that undercuts the criminal glee. In many ways this song and many of the other new ones could serve as an alternate soundtrack to Terrence Malick’s film "Days of Heaven." There is a gorgeous solemnity to some pieces that actually makes me shiver. The chorus on “Train Robbers” feels like a goodbye to the Black Crowes to me:

“There’s one thing I’ve learned from this life of crime, when it’s all over split the money and go your own way. If you get caught don’t say nothing. Just stay in line ‘till your chance comes to make your next get-away.”

I would have been utterly taken out of myself by the song except for a lone table of endlessly grating yahoos near the back of the room. Their drunken boobery began even before the show’s start with two of the liquored up gals picking a fight with another woman they bump into. The frown and audible sigh of the meat freezer sized bouncer said it all for me. It eludes me why anyone would spend $20 or more dollars to talk over a concert. This tables’ feeble handclaps, jackass braying during the quietest moments and incessant shouting of “Chris!!!!!” wore on everyone. It is a testament to Chris new found maturity that he didn’t take them apart with the scalpel of his tongue. Instead he just looked a bit tired when they piped up. Despite nearly everyone in their immediate area and the staff asking them to chill out they soldiered on. For some their good time outweighs that of the rest of the audience and even the performer.

Focusing back on the stage after one of their loudest outbursts, I see Chris and Paul fiddling with their guitars. Chris says, “We’re not tuning for us, this is all for you.” His razor wit could have made him another Dennis Miller but I’m thankful the muses directed him towards other waters.

Then the sad, slow slide of the Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations” rings out from Paul’s side of the stage. Gently picking my jaw up off the table, I grin like a fool and whisper, “How utterly freakin’ perfect.” It is exactly the kind of song a train robber would sing and I feel like I’m being told a story tonight. I find it fitting that Paul & Chris have taken this one on, much as the Stones themselves ‘borrowed’ the tune from Robert Johnson and made it their own. Their reading is a straight take from Beggar’s Banquet. Figure if it isn’t broken why fix it. What does differ is the soul in Chris’ voice. It illuminates what a superb interpreter of other’s material he is, on par with the early Asylum albums of Linda Ronstadt, who herself knew how to make another’s words her own.

They shift gears into the psychedelic folk of “Kissing Magik Horses” into “Mint Tea.” These songs continue to evolve and as I hear them build over time I feel like they are on the road not taken from Fred Neil’s “Cynicrustpetefredjohn Raga.” Usually the concept of acoustic psychedelia brings up the fey wispiness of the Incredible String Band or perhaps the slightly better floatiness of the Strawbs with Sandy Denny. What these two guys do is closer to dream interpretation, a soundtrack for the abstract unconscious. For those that would pigeonhole Chris’ solo efforts these tunes toss a mighty curve. “We’ll close our eyes and we’ll see ghosts. We’ll shout hooray and touch our cups in toast,” he sings on “Mint Tea,” a self-described daydream from Malibu, California.

After the Stones song I wasn’t expecting too many more surprises in the cover category but a show stopping take on The Carpenter’s “Close To You” comes late in the game. Done irony free, Chris sings with a passion and invention that will surprise anyone who disparages this song or the man for singing it. The Hot Club of France flavored solo from Paul cements the deal for me and I think about starting a petition right after the show to get this song recorded for a b-side.

By the time of the encores the crowd, save for the one obnoxious table, is in the palm of their hand. Chris offers up a “Bay Area favorite” with the Garcia/Hunter ballad “Comes A Time.” The clapping starts right away and it makes a frustrated voice in the crowd yell out, “Hey stop that!” Jerry Garcia called this song the perfect moment to emerge from silence. I imagine how he must have felt when audiences hooted through his performances of it. I feel bad for him and for Chris. Distracted, Chris blows the first chorus but shakes it off. Tuning everyone out the two men dive into the splendor of the tune. During a lovely, delicate finger picked solo, Chris misses a cue while dreamily watching Paul play. I live for so-called mistakes like this. This is what seeing live music is all about, the flaws that are nothing of the sort, the unique bits that make each individual gig shine in memory.

For their final number Paul gets a drone going on one of the effects pedals and exchanges a grin with Chris. They launch into “She’s On Her Way.” Over a low buzz they work out this joyous road song for bare feet.

“Songs of laughter, songs of light coming your way.”

The blues stomp coda they’ve added to performances brings the house down. With genuine humility we are thanked for coming out. A rich baritone breaks from the din of the crowd and says thank you back to him. Chris smiles & waves while Paul takes an almost imperceptible bow. As I nearly skip out of Bimbo’s I quietly hope they come our way again much sooner than later. There are too few things in this life that bring light to balance out the rising blackness. When one does come along I’m inclined to hold on with both hands.

Dennis Cook
JamBase | San Francisco
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[Published on: 8/27/02]

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