Chris Robinson & The New Earth Mud:: 07.03.04 :: The Independent :: San Francisco, CA

I don't smile like this for just anyone.

Chris Robinson by Jake Krolick
My love affair with Chris Robinson has outlasted one marriage, several dozen friendships, 1,378 ballpoint pens and a hundred pairs of shoes. Even my first impression of Robinson came from a classic rock station that no longer exists (San Jose's KOME who's slogan was "Don't touch that! There's KOME on your dial"). Hearing "Stare It Cold" was like a pagan baptism. I pulled over and called the DJ to ask in a breathless tone, "Who did you just play?" I could hear him smile as he told me about this singer from Georgia who had the pipes of Paul Rodgers (Free, Bad Company) mingled with Wilson Pickett's collard green gospel.

From that day forward it's been my belief that Chris Robinson is the best rock 'n' roll vocalist alive. His is a sound that conveys things the way a great actor can, a born instinct to nuance syllables and massage phrasing so the same old song ain't the same old song. In the past two years since the Black Crowes pulled up stakes and went their separate ways, Chris has been chasing down his own sound, a vessel to hold his shake, rattle, and roll soul. While last year's incarnation of New Earth Mud was dazzling in their own kinda quiet way, this year's model finds the man surrounded by scruffy ruffians, guys who raise their fists to the heavens after a solo and know that David Crosby, Merle Haggard, Howlin' Wolf, and Jimi Hendrix exist on the same continuum, music of integrity and grit and not a little sass. What he unleashed in San Francisco is something always hinted at over the years but finally revealed in full bacchanalian glory with his new quintet.

Chris Robinson & NEM by Jake Krolick
With a bearded smile and uncombed hair, Robinson looks happy, happier than I've ever seen him. Maybe married life suits him, maybe being a new dad has sprung his spring or maybe he's just glad to be doing what he wants to for a change. New Earth Mud is the sound of the jukebox playing in Robinson's head. It's full of grand songs from the past 100 years and some of them are his. His newest work stacks up nicely with the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan covers that abound in the set lists. He's unafraid to have his music mingle with the greats because he understands that one reflects, at least in some ways, the company they keep. His pipes are sterling as ever but what's been added is the heft of his songwriting, which expands the rock onslaught of the Crowes to include multihued freakouts, honky tonk strolls, pastoral calm, and unabashed affection for life, love, and liberty. He's done sewed his self a flag to fly over his Hallucination Nation and by gum did we ever salute on the eve of Independence Day.

Indian music creeps in as big sticks of incense stuck in apples near the footlights were lit, the pungent musk of Nag Champa and foreign tongues creating a ritual space. Laugh all you want but in an increasingly meaningless age small touches, nods to spirit in the midst of commerce and consumption, really do mean something.

Chris Robinson & NEM by Jake Krolick
And out they come, denim-clad and hirsute as hell, Audley Freed (guitar), George Reiff (bass, vocals), Rob Barraco (keyboards, vocals) and Stevie D (drums) led by a guy with a rainbow sticker on his guitar. The kick drum gives us a slap, a wake-up call for the journey through valleys and hills just ahead in their "Hi-Speed Transportation LA City Limit Blues." These cats are so earthy you can smell them from a distance, moist with life, sex, and good danger. A small altar of percussion do-dads sits at Robinson's feet, twinkling accessories for tunes to come. In a matter of minutes it's clear we're witnessing a real goddamn rock band, weather beaten, entrusted with this music's future by way of its past. The bones of his sound were laid down last year with the Paul Stacey lineup of New Earth Mud but now there's a lil' ugly on things, some of the grit one associates with the Rolling Stones, The Faces, and Robinson's old band.

As they slide into a rollicking "Boney Maroney" one is reminded of John Lennon's rediscovery of the '50s American rock and how much life force he pumped into those so-called oldies. Robinson pours hot breath into Larry Williams' shoe shuffler, invigorated by Barraco's hophead jazz piano, an element that along with his full backing vocals adds whole new layers, an ivory presence missing from the earlier incarnation. However, there were moments throughout the night where Rob seemed distant. As the rest of the band would lock, he'd be on the edges. I kept getting the feeling, from the way he held himself or from a look in his eye, that this wasn't where he thought he'd be in July. One couldn't help wondering if he was nursing some hurt about not being invited along for The Dead's summer tour. All this is pure conjecture but I'm not the only one picking up on this vibe. The fact that Barraco is such a stellar workhorse means he's still on it like ink on paper, so the music itself rarely suffers; still it pained me to see him looking troubled or disconnected.

Chris Robinson by Jake Krolick
When the whole thing veers into a "Meditation Blues Jam" you realize that no one besides the five dudes on stage knows where this night is headed. Instructed by a recording to "relax your arm down to your elbow" the dancing simmers down and gives way to a really pretty "Girl On The Mountain," a sweet song of complex love about a "serious girl" whose "kiss tells you why," off Robinson's just released sophomore record This Magnificent Distance.

Audley Freed by Jake Krolick
After a particularly lyrical guitar solo, Audley Freed raised his arm to the heavens, inciting the crowd in primitive rock glee. It was a spontaneous act but as seemingly small a gesture as it may seem it illustrates the major difference between the band of brothers touring this year versus 2003's model. George Reiff is the only holdover from that unit and even he is revealed as a more interesting and limber musician in this new light. There was something a touch reserved, maybe even a tad English in the colloquial sense, about the first New Earth Mud. Now they are a tight mess that embraces weirdness along with melody, shuffling lotharios seducing souls and feet. Freed, in large part, is the catalyst for this harder, deeper, trippier noise they make. For anyone who's only exposure to Freed was his stint in the Black Crowes his playing here will be eye opening, a guitarist of muscle and passion fully revealed.

"The next song is a couple's skate only," snickers Robinson, ever the non-sequitur smartass. The David-Whiffen-by-way-of-Tom-Rush corker, "Lost My Driving Wheel" follows. Chris, down to a t-shirt, has one sleeve rolled up to reveal a girlie tattooed on his right arm, a benevolent spirit on his shoulder. His gift for interpretation has always been strong and this night's picks show an unerring instinct for material that blends well with his originals. Besides the tunes already mentioned they root around in Merle Haggard's "Sing Me Back Home," the Grateful Dead's "Candyman," and "Close Up The Honky Tonks" from Buck Owens, who provides a nice model for what I think Robinson is aiming for these days: longevity paired with consistent quality and a pervasive sense of joy in what one does. Anyone who's made the drive out to Bakersfield and spent a Friday or Saturday with Buck at his Crystal Palace will instantly understand what I'm stabbing at. If nothing else, the choice of covers inspires hoots and hollers for honest-to-god country music, which is heartening in its own way.

Chris Robinson & Audley Freed by Jake Krolick
As they roar--yes roar is the right word--into "40 Days" the apocalyptic opener from the new album, it feels as good as the first time you slid into second base with that adorable cutie from AP English as a teen, all the promise of your imagination met in strange, unpredicted ways. It's like that with Robinson for some of us. We remember the first times for things, the wistful last times, the long nights where being in his company made us happy. At 36 I feel vaguely silly that I still get butterflies in my gut listening to him. But like Lester said, I'm not cool, and all the people in the front ranks singing every word to a tune from a record that's less than two weeks old says I'm not the only one who feels this intense enthusiasm for what he does. I wonder, even as I throw my own voice in at the chorus, if Chris ever feels uncomfortable being the focus of so much heartfelt attention. That's the bargain though, the compact between listener and player that produces a peculiar intimacy amongst what amount to strangers. I hope it doesn't creep him out but now and again one does detect a twinge.

Chris Robinson by Jake Krolick
On this one I hear a George Reiff that wasn't around last year, a bouncing ever-presence who brings parts of Geezer Butler (Black Sabbath), Tina Weymouth (Talking Heads), and Dee Dee Ramone to his bass playing. As the only member from last year, Reiff provides much of the palpable drive that's emerged recently. Tune into Reiff and you'll understand how this is much more a "body band" than a "head band" (though surely they are a band for heads... so to speak). His physicality came through clearest on the main set closing "Ride" where the entire band whip up a thoroughly unwholesome atmosphere, Sly and the Family Stone if someone slipped Bobby Womack some liquid sunshine before his solos on There's a Riot Goin' On. Emerging from a new jam called "We See The Deep" this all-the-way live groove monster has the sweaty jump of canoodling to Funkadelic albums. Stevie D's tasteful Tony Thomspon-esque (Chic, Power Station) solo highlights what a bedrock he is. He is the reason I can't stop dancing despite being drenched from long gray hair down to holey leather shoes. And when I lose the beat for a moment, spacey Hammond organ catches me, Rob expanding in oil spill ripples, metallic color gleaming off the surface of something deeper.

Chris Robinson by Jake Krolick
It is not the first time this night that the music will move me. With "Ride" the movement is literal whereas earlier it was an emotional tug during a trio of songs beginning with "Like A Tumble Weed in Eden" followed by "Safe in the Arms Of Love" and "Sunday Sound." While I've never raised a hand towards heaven in any church setting, there's always a moment during a Chris Robinson performance where I'm hit in the spirit. Without realizing it, I found my arm outstretched towards a dream in the wide-open sky, suddenly and scarily aware of things hoped for but rarely spoken of. "Eden" is the first new song I bonded with on This Magnificent Distance. Listening at home before this show, my wife asked me mockingly, "What the hell does this song mean?" She was teasing me but anyone who falls in love with records and songs, cradling them like friends, will understand how a few minutes, arranged just right, can bring up a lot in us.

"Eden" is paradise lost-and-found, the roaming of lost tribes who've not yet given up on the idea of finding home one day. Following it with the bright hopefuls from his first solo album, songs with all the green field grace of John Barleycorn-era Traffic, proved a powerful progression, the kind of sequence that leaves you wrung out in the best of ways, built up even as we are broken down.

It's the reason we brave freeways and spend our working dollars, sacrificing time and hearing in search of such experiences. We are seeking something truthful, something real and substantive and maybe even a bit lovely. Chris Robinson & The New Earth Mud delivered all that and a good time besides. Like the new batch of songs, it's an experience that defies easy explication, but in some small way I hope people approach this latest chapter in his evolution with as much feeling and care as Chris has clearly put into it.

Dennis Cook
JamBase | Oakland
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[Published on: 7/21/04]

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