Jammin’ in the name of the country cosmos
Chris Robinson, of Black Crowes and Chris Robinson Brotherhood fame, brings his special “cosmic California country” band, the Green Leaf Rustlers, to SOhO tonight.
Green Leaf Rustlers
When: 9 p.m., today
Where: SOhO, 1221 State St. (upstairs)
Cost: $30 in advance, $35 at the door
Information: 962-7776, www.sohosb.com
A brief history of Chris Robinson’s relationship to Santa Barbara in the past decade may be in order here.
The lanky, hirsute rocker, best-known as one of the leaders the brotherly-run post-classic rock band the Black Crowes — now presumably retired — showed up at the Arlington Theatre on the Crowes’ farewell tour back in 2010. Soon thereafter, Mr. Robinson became a regular visitor to Santa Barbara’s beloved nightclub/eatery SOhO during a “residency” which saw the birthing of his band the Chris Robinson Brotherhood.
CRB, as it came to be known in crony acronym form, has since become a sturdy enterprise of its own in the indie-jam band scene. Locally, it has made the Lobero Theatre an almost annual stopping place on its tour itinerary — usually around the Christmas holidays.
Fast forward to tonight at SOhO, and to the country-fied side project known as the Green Leaf Rustlers, which finds Mr. Robinson returning to the SOhO scene of his musical rebirth. Here, Mr. Robinson is the leader of a band made for fans of Bay Area music, post-Grateful Dead culture and jam band fodder in general.
Calling on a songbook of country and country-rock classics, Green Leaf Rustlers — one of those casual get-together projects which seems to be gaining traction of late — is a heathy collection of NorCal musicians from notable bands of now and then. The members include drummer John Molo (Phil Lesh, Bruce Hornsby), Pete Sears (Jefferson Starship, avid Nelson Band), pedal steel guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Barry Sless (Nelson Band), and Greg Loiacono, from The Mother Hips, which has also played SOhO on occasion, and represents the next generation of neo-“Summer of Love” Bay Area bands.
For a solid taste of what the Green Leaf Rustlers has to offer, proceed to a full-length YouTube clip of their live set last year at Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, with generous stretching-out and a cameo shot by their pal, the Dead’s sagely rocker Bob Weir. Mr. Weir wraps his signature voice around the Merle Haggard classic “Mama Tried,” made newly famous by the Dead version, and Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and George Jones’ “The Race is On.” The Dead connection continues later, with Mr. Robinson taking on the old Dead tune “Bertha,” and an apt encore of Gram Parson’s iconic song “Wheels.”
In an interview a few years ago, Mr. Robinson laughed and alluded to the Brotherhood and its eclectic tendencies as being “hippie baroque” in terms of a genre. He also half-jokingly referred to the band as a “farm-to-table psychedelic band. It’s ‘small batch.’ “
The Green Leaf Rustlers have latched onto the phrase “cosmic California country,” as a tag, tapping into the strong country cultural DNA in a state which has hosted the Bakersfield sound of Chet Atkins, Merle Haggard, proto-country-rocker Gram Parsons, and a bold country element in the folds of the Dead’s music and its progeny.
One commonality between the CRB and the Rustlers is a sense of democratic operations between the musicians, even if Mr. Robinson is the ostensible leader singer and “front man.” He’s very much plugged into the interactive and “jam-friendly” aspects of the bands he’s currently involved in.
Mr. Robinson suggests that, “maybe usually, Sagittarian lead singers, in terms of their reputations in rock band, need more ego boost. I don’t know. I just needed to be involved. I need to make things. I didn’t get into this to be famous. I got into this to write songs and make music. All that other stuff happens if you’re lucky and you strike a chord. It’s a beautiful, unique situation.”
He comes to this stage of his fiftysomething stage of his musical life as someone who knew great heights of exposure and fame in the Black Crowes, but professes to be happier in his present, more grassroots situation.
“At least in music,” he says, “it’s hard, unless you’re big and you really love it, to find things. I look at it like the most authentic thing you can have. That was the point, too: it’s kind of like Herman Hesse (writes in) ‘Steppenwolf’ — ‘entrance not for everybody.’ I like that idea.
“(Pop culture) will always be this giant corporate tourist music scene, nostalgia-driven and whatever. But while that is going on, there is all this other amazing shit and cool scenes and people who are on a more heady, soulful connection with what they want in their lives. It’s the same reason I’m obsessive music fans and go see concerts.
“I really would rather take the time to nurture that side of things and see where our future lies. Everything else just becomes nothing but background music or something to sell, and that’s not right.”
Looking back to his formative days as a musician, he explains that he “started to write songs because I needed the traction. I was a weirdo kid, living in the suburbs in Georgia, reading e.e. cummings and listening to Muddy Waters. Everybody else was listening to Loverboy and watching John Hughes movies or whatever. That’s cool, too — not the Loverboy part.
“What that means is that the idea of creating and making something was a way to keep going and not let the darkness wash in, or the apathy of the suburbs. That was hard to take.
I think that’s where my hardcore, stubborn passion about how I feel things could be comes from.”
So did his rebellious creative urges spring out of a desire to transcend suburban complacency?
“I think either you fall into this bohemian construct and artistic sort of world view or you don’t. Or you can pretend and play at it, but that’s pretentious, when you use art as something superficial like an outfit or something fashionable. Little did I know, gratuitous Bohemianism would become such a huge part of my life, as a 14-year-old.”