Rich Robinson Reveals His Life After the Black Crowes

June 15th, 2016

This is an excerpt from the all-new JULY/AUGUST 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on comedian/podcaster/writer/actor/musician Marc Maron, Matt Bruck’s rare and vintage British amps from the Fifties and Sixties, the life and times of comedian, author, and guitar aficionado Dave Hill, and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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LONESOME CROWE: After the Black Crowes officially broke up last year, Rich Robinson found new wings as a solo performer and painter.

By Joe Bosso | Photos by Justin Borucki

Rich Robinson is no stranger to opening nights. But on most of those occasions, roughly half of his 45 years, in fact, he’s stood onstage, under a sea of sweltering lights, guitar in hand, performing the music of the Black Crowes, the raunchy rock and roll band he cofounded with his older brother Chris. Lately, however, Robinson has faced an altogether different, quieter kind of first-night scrutiny as his work as a visual artist has gone on display at galleries throughout the United States.

“There are some similarities between painting and music, but there are really big differences, too,” Robinson says. The guitarist is seated on a couch in the early afternoon inside New York City’s Morrison Hotel Gallery, where later that evening two dozen of his paintings—mostly oil-on-board abstracts, grand bursts of color, tangled lines, and surreal textures—will meet the eyes of urban hipsters, curious rock fans, and various members of the art illuminati. “Painting is very personal and solitary,” he says. “It’s just you and the canvas, whereas most of the time with music, it tends to be group effort.

“But to me, whether it’s music or painting, they’re both forms of creation, and I get a lot of joy from both,” he elaborates. “I realize that, because I’m a musician, people might want to see my stuff. And it’s been interesting seeing all the reactions. After a while, I think the whole celebrity aspect goes away, and people just start appreciating the art for what it is. Which is great. You make these creations, and you don’t want to keep them in your basement.”

Robinson’s interest in art goes back to his teens, when he became enamored with the work of Italian Renaissance painter Giotto di Bondone, renowned for his vibrant, naturalistic religious images. “I thought those pieces were so beautiful,” he enthuses. “I loved the contrast of the colors and how vibrant the halos are. The golds and blues just moved me so much.”

But it wasn’t until the early Nineties that the guitarist gave any thought—and summoned up the nerve—to trying his own hand at painting. Robinson credits the Black Crowes’ original bassist, Johnny Colt, with inching him toward a canvas. At the conclusion of a two-year tour supporting the band’s smash debut album, Shake Your Money Maker, the Crowes went home for the Christmas holidays and exchanged gifts. Knowing that Colt had an appreciation for photography, Robinson bought him a medium-format camera. In turn, Colt gifted Robinson with an easel, canvases, and a collection of paints.

“That was so cool of him,” Robinson says. “I had everything to work with right there.” Even so, it would be another year until he picked up a brush. “I think I was a little intimidated,” he admits. “I had such an appreciation for art, but I just didn’t know if I had something to say. Finally, I just said, ‘Well, okay, I’ll just try.’”

Fearing that he would “disrespect the canvas,” Robinson’s first attempt at painting was on paper. Pleased and relieved at the results, he moved on to an actual canvas. Seeing images merge in a way that excited him, he tried another one, and then another. “The first paintings were a little more conceptual. I was trying to go for something,” he asserts. “The more I did it, the less structured I tried to be. I always like to be surprised by my own work. I found the whole process to be so peaceful, so I kept going.”

During tours, Robinson occupied himself on planes, the tour bus, and in hotel rooms by drawing with ink, charcoal, or pencil, but whenever he got off the road, he would return to his basement and his oil paints (he tried acrylic for a brief time, but he found the colors weren’t as rich and malleable as oil). “Painting became such a peaceful outlet for me,” he notes. “All the band stuff got so intense—the success and drugs, the bullshit and fights, and bullshit about bullshit. It felt so nice to retreat to a different world and enjoy something that was all mine. It was whatever I wanted it to be. The whole thing could just unfold.”

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He surveys the walls, taking in his work with a grand, panoramic sweep of his hand. “I just like looking at them,” he says, letting out a contented sigh. He gets up and walks over to a painting called Reds [shown above], a remarkable trompe l’oeil collision of layered images that at first glance suggests people, but in the blink of an eye one also sees burning candles. “That wasn’t the plan, but if it’s the effect you get, that’s great,” he says with a laugh. “It can be whatever you want it to be.”

Next, Robinson crosses the room and stops at a striking, almost 3-D piece called, appropriately, Layers. Unlike the other works on display, it’s painted on a canvas, and it also stands out for being broadly conceptual. “Boards and canvases hold the paint differently,” he theorizes. “A canvas allows you to add layers more easily because of the way the paint collects.” Gesturing to the lines of the main, vaguely peanut-like image, he says, “You can see the amount of paint that’s laid on here. It is a whole different vibe. I love the process of layering and then seeing where that takes me. You create contrasts of color but you do it on top of textures. It’s almost like music, I guess.”

The business of music will occupy most of Robinson’s 2016. In just a few weeks, he’ll hit the road as a guest guitarist with Bad Company, filling in for Mick Ralphs, who announced that he wasn’t up for the travel involved with touring. “I’m really excited to play with the band,” Robinson says. “I met Paul Rodgers at an awards show last year, and he said that he really liked the way I played guitar. At first Paul’s manager talked to me about opening for the band, and then it switched to me playing with them. That’ll be great. Paul’s one of the best singers ever, and I love [drummer] Simon Kirke. I can’t wait.”

After finishing with Bad Company, Robinson will then tour on his own, performing songs from his first four solo efforts (Paper, Llama Blues, Through a Crooked Sun, and Woodstock Sessions) that he’s reissuing in expanded, reimagined forms, along with a healthy dose of cuts from his newest album, Flux. “The agenda for the new album was to not have one, not unlike painting,” he points out. “When you make a record, there’s almost a path you start to go down where you say, ‘There’s some cool shit happening,’ and then you sink into this level where you’re unsure. Then something will shift and it’s almost like catching a wave. When that happens, it’s like it carries you, and you just go with it.”

For Flux, Robinson relied on number of custom electric guitars from Teye (an El Dorado and La Mora), James Trussart (a SteelTop), Echopark (“They made me this really cool non-reverse Firebird-style guitar they call a Ghetto Bird”), and Scala, along with an original 1969 Ampeg Dan Armstrong Lucite model outfitted with a Tom Holmes pickup. For acoustics, he used a 1953 Martin D-28, a Sixties Guild 12-string, and a prototype that the Zemaitis company commissioned Lowden Guitars to build. Robinson estimates that he currently owns about 30 guitars, but that’s less than half the number of instruments he owned before Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in 2012. The monster storm wiped out almost all of his guitars that were stored in a warehouse in Weehawken, New Jersey, along with master tapes and gear belonging to the Black Crowes….

This is an excerpt from the all-new JULY/AUGUST 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on comedian/podcaster/writer/actor/musician Marc Maron, Matt Bruck’s rare and vintage British amps from the Fifties and Sixties, the life and times of comedian, author, and guitar aficionado Dave Hill, and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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