by Alissa Ordabai
Staff Writer —
February 16, 2012 at The Islington O2 Academy, London, U.K.
There comes a time in every rock musician’s life to stand up and deliver on their own. And the way you respond to this challenge is telling in more ways than one. Your chops, your songwriting, and your charisma – or the lack of it – are suddenly under the microscope. If you are a guitarist, you will also unexpectedly find yourself up for scrutiny against the most competitive bunch in the world – other guitarists. Even if you have never wished, dreamed or aimed to be measured against the virtuosos, the visionaries, the icons, or simply those who eat, drink and sleep guitar.
So spare a thought for Rich Robinson who after years in a mammoth band began venturing out on his own about 8 years ago without his superstar big brother Chris or the instrumental support of such prodigiously talented axe-men as Marc Ford or Luther Dickinson.
Currently on the road with his second solo album Through a Crooked Sun, Robinson played the London date at the Islington O2 Academy, almost selling out the 700-capacity venue. Expectations were running high, with the uplifted vibe in the room already before Robinson hit the stage. What the crowd was presented with, however, was illuminating in more ways than anyone has initially expected.
To start with, it soon became clear that there are inner realities which Robinson could have conveyed with more transparency and more depth had he had a richer instrumental vocabulary. What those realities are for now remains somewhat of an enigma, with only glimpses revealed during the show, and the rest obscured by the clichéd blues, country, and blues-rock formulas – a received tradition Robinson chose to merge with decades ago when he was still a young man, and which to this day he doesn’t risk stepping away from.
One gem which showed that there is more to Robinson than standard-issue Americana, was the highlight of the new record “Standing on the Surface of the Sun”. The late Sixties psychedelic vibe – elegantly understated, but at the same time touchingly sincere – was where Robinson managed to match the inner and the outer with spot-on precision. The song was all about the intuitively, yet accurately balanced atmosphere of regret, hope a dash of knowing bitterness, channeled through eerie retro-style psychedelia with a hint of the blues. This is where it’s at with Robinson, and had he explored this direction further, the set would have been a far more poignant affair.
The crowd welcomed this standout in the best way an English crowd can do, perhaps doubly grateful for this treat which came almost straight after the cover of the Rolling Stones ballad “Winter” – the low point of the show where the magic of the original became smothered, but no alternative angle offered instead. A rather apathetic vocalist, and an unsophisticated guitarist, this time Robinson tackled a song too subtle for him, despite its seeming simplicity.
So apart from occasional contrasts in hue, several blunders, and several lucky finds, the proceedings on the night stayed level, with nuances and the most tasteful instrumental parts supplied by the elegant, non-obsessive keyboard parts floating Robinson’s uncomplicated guitar while never overshadowing him.
And speaking of the guitar parts, those were mostly standard-issue blues-rock affairs – always somewhere between real grit and genuine fluidity, perhaps lacking in edge or depth, but still good entertainment, with occasional savory slide-work thrown in, sounding at their best when working a simple, time-tested blues-rock groove. The sometimes muddled, undefined guitar sound in the live mix was partly to blame for the blurry impression from the show, but where Robinson meant to be direct and clear, he was – especially when demonstrating his slide prowess or driving an unaccompanied groove on some of the intros.
Not interested in protracted solos or in extrapolating extra meaning from what the songs already offer, Robinson fundamentally is a solid rhythm guitarist with a natural feel for riffs, grooves and ostinato repetitions – the bread and butter of the Southern rock tradition and an indispensable part of the sound and the feel of the Black Crowes. Whether he has enough to say to launch a full-scale solo career remains to be seen. There is probably more songwriting to be done and more time to be spent with the guitar before anything would emerge beyond the habitual conventions, well-trodden paths, and safe formulas.