Interview with Rich Robinson: Wrexham – 9th February 2012
Posted on: Thursday, Mar 8, 2012
I was privileged to be given the opportunity to interview Rich Robinson when he appeared with his band at the Central Station in Wrexham on their tour of Europe. I am indebted to Dave O’Grady for arranging the interview. Dave was supporting the band on the tour, performing a splendid set, mainly comprising his own excellent compositions.
Rich Robinson is no stranger to the UK, having toured here many times as the lead guitarist of The Black Crowes. My particular interest in meeting him was to learn to what extent he had been influenced by blues musicians, given that The Crowes first album was titled Shake Your Money Maker, which inevitably raises the spectre of Elmore James.
“Well, we grew up with the blues,” Rich explained. “The Stones and all those bands were incredibly influential on us. But we also listened to the real stuff: Mississippi Fred McDowell, Elmore James or Lightnin’ Hopkins or Furry Lewis – one of my favourites.”
I asked whether he had seen any of them perform live, to which he replied, “No. But we played with some of them. We played with John Lee Hooker. And, at festivals where we played, people like Jack Dupree were there. These sort of legendary people we got to play with. Just growing up in the South, which is where I am from, in Georgia, it was just part of the thing. It was just in our blood.”
However, one of his biggest influences was not one of the traditional blues legends but the English singer/guitarist Nick Drake. He revealed that he first came across Drake’s music in the early 1980s through a friend who worked in a record shop in Atlanta. He introduced him to Time Of No Reply, a compilation of Drake’s songs, which included the last four or five songs that had been recorded before he committed suicide. “The friend of mine gave it to me and I was hooked,” he added. “There’s this moving, almost haunting feeling that stays with you from the minute you hear it. I also like his tuning and his time signature – and the way he sang and the way his music moved is what always appealed to me.”
Keith Richards and Jimi Hendrix were given an honourable mention but three Irish musicians were afforded an even greater status. “When we were kids, Andy Irvine and Paul Brady played in Atlanta and my dad took my brother [The Black Crowes vocalist, Chris Robinson] to see them. And they brought back this record that those two did with Donal Lunny. And it was just amazing. Phenomenal musicians.”
A considerable range of other influences were also given credit: “There was a lot of bluegrass that we were exposed to as kids ‘cos my dad was a musician and he would bring this stuff around. But then anything from that to The Beatles, Prince, Joe Cocker and Mose Allison.”
But what about the blues influences? “As far as blues go, my preference is always country blues. Once it went kind of Chicago, other than Muddy Waters, I just stopped. It was still interesting with Muddy. It didn’t become formulaic.” He continued by waxing lyrically about a couple of his favourite bluesmen: “With Mississippi Fred McDowell and Furry Lewis it was like a symphony coming off that guitar – the rhythm and the timing and the pieces that they wrote with slide and acoustic guitar.”
Despite his disdain for much of the Chicago-based developments, he did express his admiration for a number of more modern blues artistes including the Allman Brothers and Derek Trucks: “You see Derek Trucks and where he takes the blues guitar. That really interests me. It’s not just the same thing – he’s sort of adding a lot of different layers.”
He also paid tribute to one of our British blues treasures whom he learned about when on tour with Page and Plant: “One of my favourites was Peter Green. Jimmy Page turned us on to a bunch of old demos – old sort of live recordings and stuff – and his feel and his emotive capability and what he was doing was phenomenal.”
Recognising his early influences and his appreciation of some of the more innovative performers within the blues spectrum, I wondered whether he could see himself ever playing a blues set on the blues circuit or at a blues festival. Sadly, he could not. Nevertheless, it is comforting to learn that such a well-respected member of the rock music fraternity retains a healthy regard for the influence of the blues heritage and a genuine affection for several of its leading exponents.
As a footnote to the interview, Rich Robinson and his band delighted their adoring fans at the Wrexham gig, strongly featuring numbers from their latest album, Through A Crooked Sun. There was even a tenuous link to the blues through the delivery of the Fleetwood Mac composition “Station Man”, which is included on the album.
(photograph by Jan Ross)