Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Rich Robinson - Through A Crooked Sun

I caught the Phoenix , AZ show of Rich Robinson’s initial tour for his current solo album Through A Crooked Sun. I’ve been totally captivated by this record from the moment I heard it and I believe I’ve listened to it everyday since its release. On this record, Rich has come into his own as a songwriter and singer with an introspective set of songs tailored to his own singing voice and bringing together a nice set of less-than-mainstream 70s rock and folk influences (Manassas, Nick Drake, Woodstock-era Dylan, early Pink Floyd and early Fleetwood Mac, etc). He's quietly become a master-craftsman composer and its becoming more and more clear to me how much he's responsible for the Black Crowes' sound. I’d also been following the setlists on the tour, noting all the originals and great cover songs (Neil Young, Velvet Underground, obscure Rolling Stones, Clapton, Procol Harum, etc) that were in the rotation being changed up every night. To say I was pumped up for this show would be an understatement.

I was a bit concerned that the single guitar lineup of the touring band would not be able to satisfactorily re-create the sounds from the studio performances, with the pedal steel, slide guitar, and vibraphone guest spots and the double-tracked rhythm guitar parts from Rich himself. It wasn’t until the next day that I remembered this concern; not once during the show did I even think the sound was thin or missing something. I’d say that’s a testament to Rich’s ability as a guitarist and master-musician to come up with live arrangements for single electric guitar and keyboards (and the rest of the band’s playing sensitivity) that create a full rich sound, even recreating the quieter acoustic parts of the record with just a four-piece band. This band plays loud, there is no doubt, but even as heavy as they can get with all that volume, the music never lacked breathing room between the instruments.

On this last night of the tour, Rich seemed like he was in a pretty good mood, being fairly talkative and interactive with the audience, even if part of that interaction was deftly fending off talkers, song-requesters, and obnoxious groupie-type women. Rich, well-known for his subdued personality and smile-less facial expressions, even got in some uncharacteristic but dry humor. Someone shouted out that bassist Jack or Brian (?) whose birthday it was, was playing like a motherfucker and Rich ran with that one, saying “yeah he is” and dubbing Molitz “double-motherfucker” and making jokes about the delicate and easily offended sensibilities of drummer Joe Magistro. He talked about how attempts to name the band quickly fell to the basest level with “Interspecies Three-Way” being a contender pointing out that the figures of Gumby, Pokey, and a baseball player sitting atop one of Rich’s amps represented the failed candidate for the band name.

The set was great with Rich playing all but three songs from Crooked Sun. Surprisingly left out were Standing On The Surface Of The Sun and Hey Fear, but instead we got to hear the rarely played, gloriously beautiful All Along The Way. That came right after a slaying version of Gram Parsons' She, making for a very strong emotional double shot of soulful and introspective balladry. Other setlist treats included Dylan’s The Man In Me, a heavier electric arrangement of The Black Crowes’ What Is Home, a dirty dirty take on Cream’s Politician, and from Crooked Sun, Station Man, It’s Not Easy, Lost and Found, Falling Again, I Don’t Hear The Sound Of You and an extended ending jam on Bye Bye Baby (with Rich on a beat-up gold top Les Paul) that featured the band wandering purposefully through a jazzy Allman Brothers-like interlude of ensemble rock.

Touring behind such a fantastic album made it easy to love any originals that Rich chose to play on a given night and if you add to that his excellent taste in choosing covers (slightly-off mainstream ‘70s rock and folk music), you just can’t go wrong no matter what the setlist was, but I was left wanting to hear all the songs from the tour that I missed. I wish I could’ve gone to multiple shows, but it didn’t happen this time. Musically, the show was very satisfying, largely due to the years of collective experience of the musicians, who have somehow quickly, in just one short tour, gelled into a rock ensemble who make it look easy bringing to life all these great songs. Rich played mostly Gibson SGs or Fender Telecasters, but dipped into a Les Paul and a Stratocaster here and there, using his guitar quiver like a master painter uses his colors: each one had uniqueness in sound used by the artist to convey their vision. Keyboardist Steve Molitz from Particle used a vintage Fender Rhodes electric piano with a second keyboard on top with Leslie rotating speaker to get a range of classic keyboard sounds including a real nice Wurlitzer/Hammond organ tone. The rhythm section was solid, led by Magistro’s deft drumming. I’m not sure if the bassist was a dude named Brian or if it was Jack Daley playing, but the guy laid down a good foundation of groove with some nice melodic touches that made him seem every bit the equal of the other guys on the stage.

Rich announced his intention to tour the US some more in March (preceeded by some shows in the UK and Europe in January) and that stoked me, because I am really digging where Rich is at right now doing his own thing. I keep flashing back to David Gilmour's About Face album and tour in the early 80s because this Rich Robinson album and tour seems similar in that its a masterful second solo album from a guitarist from a famous band touring in far smaller venues than he typically does and by and large the whole enterprise is flying under the radar and is getting far less attention than the quality of the record and the live show deserve. I have always felt very fortunate to have been turned on to that Gilmour album and to have caught the tour live, because it was monstrously good. I feel the same way about Rich's Through A Crooked Sun and I highly encourage you to check it out.