Rich Robinson Invites Fans to Woodstock for Recording Sessions
While it seems harder and harder to experience intimate and personal moments with your favorite artists, it's always encouraging when they intentionally take a step toward becoming more accessible. On May 31, Black Crowes founding member and guitarist Rich Robinson did just that when he invited 100 fans to Woodstock, N.Y. to experience the recording of an album for 'Woodstock Sessions' at Applehead Recording.
Returning to the same studio where he recorded his second solo album, 'Through a Crooked Sun,' as well as his latest endeavor, 'The Ceaseless Sight,' Robinson offered fans the experience of a lifetime by allowing them to join him in studio as he made the 'Sessions' album.
"Basically, we try to find interesting ways to keep making records that honor the relationship between the artist and the fan," Applehead co-owner Michael Birnbaum tells us in an exclusive chat. "For me, more and more, this ideology is about breaking down the lines between the artist, the fan and the production. It’s one organism. There are components to each that need to feed each other. It’s an awesome way to bring folks together and join in that process in record making."
Starting the day with an acoustic session, Robinson and his band played through some solo tunes, covers and even instrumental tracks in front of a live audience sitting inside the studio. In between songs, fans had the opportunity to ask questions and get honest responses from the guitarist. Adding to the vulnerability of the set-up, if Robinson and company messed up the intro of a song, they'd stop, chuckle and start over again. Robinson told the audience, "When we record records, that's how it is. We f--k up and we do it again."
Between a Faces and Humble Pie cover, Robinson answered a question about his writing style. "I have to fit what I do, lyrically and melodically, into this foundation," he says. "All my favorite songs have been interesting music with interesting lyrics. That's how I've always tried to write." That conversation continued after the performance of 'All Along the Way' as a fan inquired about Robinson and his desire to sing. "I didn't grow up singing. [My brother] Chris, when we were kids, always told me to song the high parts," he explains. "It's not something I ever wanted to do. I always appreciated great singers but it wasn't that I ever wanted to sing." And with that, Robinson kicked off a Fruit Bats cover.
Wrapping up his acoustic session with 'One Road Hill' from his latest album, Robinson and his band wanted to make sure they got the song started just right, and because of that desire they played through the intro three times. Apparently this process took him back to 2001 when the Black Crowes recorded 'Lions.' He explained that the mess up about 30 seconds into the opening track, 'Midnight from the Inside Out,' is absolutely authentic. They decided to leave it on the record to add an extra layer to the listening experience.
"When you sit in front of an audience, there’s no way to take that out of the equation. The record becomes a different thing. You can hit the exact same notes as you do in a studio setting, but it’s going to be different with 100 people sitting in front of you," Applehead partner and engineer Kevin Salem told us. "I tell you what, you may have listened to Rich Robinson for the past 20 years, but people learn stuff in these sessions that they haven’t learned in the last 20 years. That's priceless."
Following the acoustic set, fans were invited outside for a barbecue that not only included great food from Upstate New York, but also some one-on-one time with Robinson and his bandmates. If there was any worry about walls dividing Robinson and his fans they were quickly squashed as everyone hung out as if they were longtime friends.
During the barbecue, Ultimate Classic Rock caught up with Joe Magistro, a guy who has not only collaborated with Robinson on his three solo albums, but who has also toured with the Black Crowes as well as recorded at Applehead for the last couple of decades. "I always told him we should get to Applehead because it’s a good vibe and Rich likes to get out of the city," Magistro tells us. "There were llamas here, they’re all dead now, but there were llamas here and we’d jam. We came up here and it clicked right away. The initial plan was to do three or four songs and we ended up doing his [second album] 'Through a Crooked Sun.'"
When it comes to recording in front of a live studio audience, Magistro feels right at home. "In a way, it's kind of an old hat for me," he says. "Some of the things we just did in the [acoustic] set, we had never played. I'm used to that when working with Rich. Plus, I've recorded in that room for anywhere between one and 200 days, so I'm used to it."
Magistro continues, "And with Rich, you see a lot of familiar faces from the Crowes shows, too. These are hardcore fans and I know these people. I know them by name. The Crowes did their sessions at Levon's [Helm], too, so in a way this kind of fits like a glove. It's the normal."
Following the barbecue, fans again packed inside Applehead's studio for another session with Robinson and his band. This time, however, the band was fully plugged in and electrified. Playing a string of new tracks from 'The Ceaseless Sight,' Robinson also threw in a few surprises for the audience including covers of Neil Young's soulful 'Albuquerque' and 'Laila Pt. 2' from the krautrock band, Agitation Free. Two seemingly different songs were given a direct connection as Robinson put his own personal spin on the tunes.
"He’s incredible. Without being a trained musician, he has this innate feel for music. You can’t replicate it," Applehead co-owner Chris Bittner says of Robinson and his musical ability. "One of the things I think is great about this experience, a lot of people think that bands go into the studios and it’s all about trickery and computer and auto-tune. It’s really great that we have this where we can show fans that you can make a record with a bunch of guys in a room playing together."
For fans who weren't able to make the May 31 date at Applehead, Robinson held another 'Sessions' the next day, following a similar schedule. Birnbaum, Salem and Bittner will listen to all of the audio they captured during the weekend and begin the process of putting it together as the 'Woodstock Sessions' album. Since those in attendance were an integral part of the performance, everyone will be listed as participants in the liner notes, adding to the excitement of the unique experience. The trip to Applehead felt like a homecoming, not necessarily because of the geographical location, but because it brought Robinson and his fans together, creating one hell of an organism.
Photos courtesy of Joe Russo Photography.