Marin's Rowan Brothers have lived a rock-star fantasy

MARIN COUNTY INDEPENDENT JOURNAL, 10/29/2004

Friday, October 29, 2004 - IMAGINE MARIN COUNTY on a Fourth of July in 1971. The Rowan Brothers, Chris and Lorin, are playing with the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia on an outdoor stage near the Mill Valley Market.

In the crowd is Clive Davis, then a big shot with Columbia Records on his way to becoming a music business legend. He is so impressed with these two young heartthrobs that he signs them to their first major-label recording contract.

This is a Marin rock star fantasy that came true, and when reality set in, it became part of our local musical lore.

"I'll never forget it," Lorin said. "That's what old Mill Valley was like. There was that little window of time in the late '60s and early '70s when San Francisco music was happening."

The pop/rock the Rowans made three decades ago, as well as the more mature music they're creating today, comes together on their new album, "Now & Then," a 34-song double CD on BOS Music (www.bosmusic.com) that serves as a retrospective as well as an update of their career.

The early stuff was recorded when the boy-band-cute Rowans, who had moved to Marin from Boston and were living the hippie life in Stinson Beach, were being hyped as the next big thing in pop music.

Garcia described their sound as "sparkly, brand new, shiny," predicting, "They could be like the Beatles. They're that good."

Inspired by George Harrison's "All Things Must Pass," the Rowans wrote pastoral, feel-good songs with spiritual undertones about guardian angels, climbing mountains and running free, which they played on acoustic guitars and sang in impossibly high harmonies.

"Instead of writing teeny-bop songs, we said, 'Let's write songs that are uplifting,'" Lorin remembered. "After Boston, Marin County seemed idyllic. It was inspirational."

In the recording studio, they drew from their talented circle of friends, among them Garcia and drummer Bill Kreutzmann of the Grateful Dead, mandolinist David Grisman and the superstar session drummers Hal Blaine and Jim Keltner.

Their debut album, "The Rowan Brothers" (produced by Grisman), was released on Columbia just as Clive Davis was fired, leaving them without their mentor. The album faltered commercially and a follow-up never materialized.

In the wake of that setback, Lorin and Chris teamed with their older brother, Peter, for three albums of country/rock on David Geffen's Asylum label. In the end, the Rowans came close, but never became the American Beatles. As their record label says in its promotional material for "Now & Then," they "traveled from obscurity to the cusp of fame and then back home again." Lorin put it more plainly. "We came back down to earth," he said.

In the 1980s, he would go on to form the popular Marin rock/reggae band the Edge, named after Stinson Beach, "the edge" of the continent. These days, he lives with his wife in Mill Valley and remains an active figure on the local music scene as a performer and songwriter. In 2001, a song of his became the title track of Ricky Skaggs' Grammy-winning album, "Soldier of the Cross."

After the Rowans went their separate ways, Chris married and moved to Sonoma County, where he raised a family and started a successful house painting business, making music on the side, sometimes on his own, sometimes with his brothers.

Peter, who lives in Sausalito, has long been one of America's most respected roots musicians with a distinguished history that includes stints with Bill Monroe, Seatrain, Old & in the Way and the Free Mexican Air Force. In 2002, he joined his brothers on the swing-flavored album "Crazy People."

Lorin and Chris host their CD release show for "Now & Then" on Saturday, Nov. 6, at Sweetwater in Mill Valley with their band plus guests David Nelson from the New Riders of the Purple Sage and former Pablo Cruise frontman Dave Jenkins. The night before, they open at the Independent nightclub (formerly the Justice League at 628 Divisadero St.) in San Francisco for the progressive bluegrass group Railroad Earth.

"We've really come full circle, starting out together and coming back together," Chris said. "We're singing and playing as a duo better than ever." The new music on "Now & Then" boasts a guest appearance by Dead bassist Phil Lesh and features 17 tracks beginning and ending with "Circle of Friends," a nostalgic song about shared dreams, trust and loyalty that looks back on the Rowans' past and says something about the history of rock music in Marin at the same time. It's a wistful song with tight harmonies, acoustic guitars and mandolin. On it, the brothers sing: "Memories last forever/ Don't need more than that/ Those days are behind us and they'll never come back/The circle of friends is a ring of trust/It can never break/It can never rust/It's made of the dreams we shared back when/All we had was a circle of friends."

Paul Liberatore can be reached at liberatore@marinij.com

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