The latest, spaciest album by the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, who play the Theatre of Living Arts on Sunday, is titled Phosphorescent Harvest, and the band is truly committed to all things psychedelic. Robinson does not take free-flowing, high-flying, freak-folk music of the cosmos lightly.
You can hear sounds of Quicksilver Messenger Service, Soft Machine, Pearls Before Swine, and Grateful Dead in the music; you can almost smell Topanga Canyon. Told this, Robinson, onetime frontman of the Black Crowes, laughs with a hearty cackle.
"That's a gas," he yells. "I'm unashamedly into all of that. . . . To me, it's only psychedelic if you're interested in psych-ehhhh-del-ics." For him, he says, the personal choices come into play with psychedelia: The last truly open space, unfettered by commercial advertisement and corporate sponsorship - twin enemies of the soul - is personal consciousness.
"Thankfully, no land barons have claimed ownership or put up barriers to that expansion," he says. "We want you to feel free to be the shepherd of your own consciousness and wander the hillside."
You can't fake the feeling of psychedelia, can't just buy a floppy hat or a fuzz pedal and make it flow, Robinson says. "The fashion element is there if you must have it, but it's not psychedelic music unless your inner lotus is a thriving, blossoming thing. There's supposed to be something otherworldly and magical woven into the burlap."
Robinson says he didn't get into music in the name of a "bizarre assimilation into the corporate landscape."
The self-styled "weirdo dyslexic kid from down South" was a man whose father called him a talentless loser. So he went and started one of the 1990's most successful roots-rocking ensembles, the Black Crowes, with his brother Rich. While touring behind platinum-selling albums such as 1990's Shake Your Money Maker and 1994's Amorica, he became famous and controversial for not allowing sponsorship to dictate where the Crowes flew.
This didn't sit well between the brothers, or with the other Crowes or anyone who wanted to do business with them. "As the Crowes' frontman/mouthpiece, I figured pretty quickly what I was to those people," he says vaguely pointing to businessmen and bandmates alike. "I didn't find that very interesting. It's one-dimensional. But I love the Crowes' fan base, and I love that music, and I will never take that for granted."
But the hassles of the Black Crowes wasn't what Robinson was looking for. He began recording solo and Brotherhood albums, and in 2013 he declared that his Crowes "tour of duty" had ended. Confusing, then, that in January, Rich Robinson claimed Black Crowes were officially over because brother Chris wanted too much of the band's shared money. "It's sad that's how people want to deal," says Chris Robinson now. "My heart, soul, and creative future is with the Brotherhood."
The band includes onetime Ryan Adams bandmate Neal Casal, ex-Crowes keyboardist Adam MacDougall, drummer Tony Leone (a jazz vet who has jammed with Illinois Jacquet and Jon Hendricks), and other ramblers. It has evolved from its first recordings and tours of 2011, including one of 50 shows in nine weeks, all in California.
"We're definitely a California band," says Robinson, pointing toward Phosphorescent Harvest songs such as "Shore Power" and "About a Stranger," which express the songwriter's love affair with the Golden State, and with the mythology of the outsider.
As Robinson speaks of the Brotherhood collaboration - "we want to go deeper, to make this scoop of psychedelic music more eloquent" - there's a calm good feeling, plus a passion for the music that includes both playing and the band's business model. "It's like the Dead's," says Robinson. "Like our music, [the business model is] organic, romantic, and coalesces into a cauldron of ideas that we can push, focus and open dialogue." Without allegiance to sponsorships and labels, the Brotherhood books its own shows and puts out its own recordings. In May, the band will release their epic, live Betty's Blends Vol. 2, recorded at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco by legendary Grateful Dead archivist Betty Cantor. For the recording, the band set up shop, played for four hours straight, and never repeated a song.
"We are self-indulgent," Robinson says, "but in an era where everybody is watering themselves down just to be famous, why be vain or anxiety-ridden? We're here to counteract all that, juxtapose it with something more soulful and expressive."
Robinson nods to, of course, Herman Hesse, and his novel Steppenwolf, which has a sign over a showplace saying, "Magic Theatre - For Madmen Only - Price of Admission - Your Mind."
"That's where we want to take you," Robinson says, "over that threshold."
Chris Robinson Brotherhood
8 p.m. Sunday at Theatre of Living Arts, 334 South St.