Taken from Joel Selvin's San Francisco Chronicle Article November 3, 2004

 

San Francisco Chronicle


Once the 'next big thing,' the Rowan Brothers, 30 years later, cut 2nd album, step back into the spotlight

Joel Selvin, Chronicle Senior Pop Music Critic

Wednesday, November 3, 2004

 

The Rowan BrothersNear the top of Mount Tamalpais, Rowan Brothers Lorin (in...

                        

 

Within weeks of landing in Marin County, Chris and Lorin Rowan found themselves living by the ocean in Stinson Beach, being nurtured by Jerry Garcia and courted by record industry titans. They rehearsed their songs under the blue skies of Mount Tam, where Jefferson Airplane vocalist Marty Balin happened on them while he was hiking.

"I heard you," he told them. "You sound like angels."

They lived through an "Almost Famous" scenario -- signed to a major label deal by Columbia Records President Clive Davis, who outbid Asylum Records boss David Geffen; their faces plastered on a Sunset Boulevard billboard; profiled by Ben Fong-Torres in Rolling Stone ("The Rowans Get the Big Bucks") -- before the bubble burst. Now, more than 30 years later, the pair have finally released a second album, "Now and Then," that combines more than 10 years of recent recordings with a second disc of demos and outtakes from their first flush of success in the early '70s (a CD release party takes place Saturday at Mill Valley's Sweetwater).

"The music sounds better than ever to me," Lorin said. "We don't have the history of the big hits. But we've gone on like that wasn't the point anyway."

"If the artistic dream can meet with commercial success, it's great," said his older brother, Chris. "But if it doesn't, it's a nice journey anyway."

"And we haven't been through rehab," Lorin said.

Throughout their long, winding road from those heady days at Stinson Beach, the brothers have stayed close to the music and each other, as well as their older brother, Peter Rowan, a well-known name in the folk and bluegrass world.

Chris, 55, has been married 18 years and raised a daughter who is now a freshman in college. He lives in Novato, where he works as a high-end house painter but has continued to write and play music, occasionally performing in public with his brothers or other groups ("I'd rather think I have my music to fall back on").

Lorin, 52, shares a Mill Valley townhouse with his wife of 20 years and works steadily as a musician. "I've got about five bands going at any one time, " said Lorin, who has probably played at Mill Valley's Sweetwater at least once a month for the past 25 years. His '80s reggae-flavored rock band, the Edge, used to work the Corte Madera dive Uncle Charlie's alongside the nascent Huey Lewis and the News.

"Rick James was a fan," he said. "He used to tell us, 'You guys are going to be bigger than Huey.' "

Limo days are long gone

Instead, Lewis and company went on to score a series of Top 10 hits, and the Edge lost a lawsuit that landed the band, after it broke up, back in Uncle Charlie's for 40 additional shows. Lewis made a guest appearance at the final show. "These guys have paid their dues," he announced.

A photo of the two young Rowans taken in their parents' Wayland, Mass., backyard hangs in Lorin's home studio, a small second-floor guest bedroom overlooking the little off-street parking area in front of his creekside home. In the shot, Lorin rubs an upside-down dog's belly and Chris cradles a small foil-covered pipe. The sepia print comes from an age of innocence and dreams, when everything seemed possible, mere weeks before their mother flew to Los Angeles and a limousine took her to sign the record deal for her underage sons.

Their brother, who played for several years with bluegrass great Bill Monroe starting when he was 22 years old, belonged to a Boston psychedelic rock band called Earth Opera with a mandolinist named David Grisman, who took his bandmate's two younger brothers under his wing, signed them to a production deal and moved with them to Marin County in 1971, where he knew another old-timey bluegrass musician who had joined an electric rock band, Garcia.

An offhand endorsement made by Garcia in a Rolling Stone interview led to Geffen and Davis battling over the boys with Davis emerging victor by doubling Geffen's offer. The first album -- produced by Grisman under the psychedelic pseudonym David Diadem -- was rolled out with great fanfare and the prominent reprinting of the Garcia quote "They could be like the Beatles, they're that good."

"I guess Clive was behind that," Chris said. "We didn't know any better. It sounded cool to us. But you look back on it and that's the kiss of death."

The album sold a modest 30,000 copies, but their management decided against touring while they all waited for the record to explode ("They wanted to hit the bull's-eye," Lorin said). After the album failed to take off, the Rowans split up their commune, fired their managers and signed with an established Hollywood firm that also handled Loggins and Messina. The pair was advised to go to England and record a second album with Donovan producer Mickie Most. They made some demos for the second album with Hollywood session players (which are sampled on the "Then" part of "Now and Then"). But Davis was fired from Columbia before the second album could be started, and the duo was dropped from the label.

Hooking up with older brother Peter, who moved to Marin after he left Seatrain, the rock group produced by George Martin, the Beatles producer, and joined Garcia's bluegrass band, Old and in the Way, the three brothers redubbed the act the Rowans and made three albums for Geffen's Asylum label. A 1976 single, Chris's song "If I Only Could," crawled up to No. 74 on the charts, but that was the best they could do before they went their separate ways.

'For the art of it'

While Lorin busied himself on the local club scene, Chris went looking for work, at one point elated to bring home $48 for a day's work as a casual laborer in Stinson Beach. His group, the Passions, played an Exotic Erotic Ball but "didn't get a chance to work that much." He named his next band the Moments after listening to the rehearsal tape and remarking, "Well, it has moments."

Over the years, the two brothers continued to make music together privately, a song or two a year. "For the art of it," Chris said. They practiced the kind of blood harmony singing they admired in the Louvin Brothers and the Everly Brothers and committed the work to tape. The cassettes piled up.

All three brothers regrouped eight years ago, working the acoustic folk and bluegrass underground, playing occasional shows and some festival dates. Country star Ricky Skaggs, who never forgot seeing the brothers at a Virginia folk festival when he was a teen, used Lorin's "Soldier of the Cross," rerecorded as "Soldier's Cross" on the new Rowans CD, as the title track of his Grammy-winning gospel album in 2000.

A British label that contacted the Rowans through Lorin's Web site not only released some recent tapes of all three brothers singing Boswell Sisters- styled swing tunes last year on an album called "Crazy People" but also licensed the first Rowan Brothers album for reissue from Columbia Records. An American label specializing in reissues, meanwhile, picked up the British rerelease of the first album, and then also put out the old Asylum albums.

Maryland independent label BOS Music decided to package recent Chris and Lorin recordings with a second CD of tapes from Lorin's archive, a storehouse of performances that includes the Rowans singing with Garcia playing pedal steel guitar and a couple of songs from the duo's performance at the closing of Fillmore West, opening for the Dead with members of the band backing them.

'The reward is in the music'

They invited Grisman to join them recording the folky, acoustic "Circle of Friends" that opens the "Now" disc. Phil Lesh of the Dead played on a couple of tracks. The Rowans started taking dates. "We're doing the whole thing," Lorin said, "driving to L.A. to play for 40 or 50 people. And we're blowing 'em away. The reward is in the music itself."

These two men could have long ago easily disappeared into the workaday world, but they always kept music as part of their lives. With a dream between brothers nurtured so long, so far out of the limelight and the big-time music business, they can't help but see promise in their modest recent triumphs.

"It's like Halley's Comet," Chris said. "It comes around every 70 years. I feel like our little comet is coming around again."


Then and Now: The CD release party for the Rowan Brothers will be at 9:30 p.m. Saturday at the Sweetwater, 153 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets: $15. Call (415) 388-2820 or www.sweetwatersaloon.com. Chris and Lorin Rowan also appear at 9 p.m.Friday with Railroad Earth at the Independent, 628 Divisadero St., San Francisco. Tickets: $15. Call (415) 771-1421 or www.ticketweb.com.

 

E-mail Joel Selvin at jselvin@sfchronicle.com.