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The music is real for Robbins

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Tim Robbins has gone from playing a musician on the big screen to playing one in real life.

Not that it was much of a stretch for the respected Oscar winner.

His parents, Mary and Gil Robbins, were folksingers in the burgeoning Greenwich Village scene in New York in the 1960s when his father was a member of the Cumberland Three, the Belafonte Singers and the Highwaymen while managing The Gaslight Café.

"Music is something I've always had in me and something I've wanted to do on a larger scale. It's something I've always done and I think it's being done in a way that is respectful of the traditions and heritage," Robbins says over the phone from Los Angeles.

He has been writing music most of his life and even played in some punk bands, but most people first got wind of his songwriting skills in the 1992 big-screen political satire Bob Roberts, which he wrote, directed and starred in as a right-wing conservative candidate who used folk songs like Drugs Stink and Complain to get his message across.

He has only performed those songs occasionally since the movie's release, most notably in punk-rock form as the band Gob Roberts opening for Pearl Jam on the Vote for Change tour in 2004.

"I just felt it was disingenuous to use celebrity to become a temporary rock SSRqn' roll star," he says. "Being a son of two musicians I had too much respect of the process to exploit myself or others to be something I wasn't.

"It was a lot of fun to sing those songs, but the reason I didn't release a soundtrack of the movie is I didn't want it to be taken out of context."

And he probably isn't going to be pulling out any of the songs when he and his new group the Rogues Gallery Band appear at the Winnipeg Folk Festival for two shows today: the first as part of the Times are Changing Back workshop and later on the mainstage.

Instead, the group will perform music from their new album, Tim Robbins and the Rogues Gallery Band, featuring nine original Robbins compositions that touch on roots, rock, folk and the blues.

The difference between the early 1990s and now is his new songs aren't tied to any project but his own desire to write and record music. And, as it so often goes with musicians, it was some heartbreak and bad times that set him on his current course.

"Essentially I had all these songs -- I've always kept writing songs and performing. I had a punk rock band, but it was nothing too big, then three years ago I had a run of bad luck, a film fell apart and I was in a bad area. I thought about what my dad used to say: 'You've got to get off your ass and do something,' and so I did," he says, without mentioning his high-profile 2009 split from longtime partner Susan Sarandon.

Producer Hal Willner heard the songs and suggested he record them with a band he was working with in London, and two weeks later Robbins and the Rogues Gallery Band were touring England together with Robbins handling guitar and vocal duties.

"It was really Hal's energy that made the album," Robbins says. "I never wanted to do a vanity project where I was being yanked around by some dude. With this, Hal felt the album was real."

When it comes to authenticity, Robbins has always stood out in Hollywood for both his acting skills and social activism. He started off in television before making the leap to the big screen, with early credits in Howard the Duck and Top Gun, before truly making a name for himself in the 1988 baseball movie Bull Durham, where he met Sarandon.

Since then he has appeared in films such as The Shawshank Redemption, The Hudsucker Proxy, High Fidelity and most recently, Green Lantern. He won an Academy Award for a supporting role in 2003's Mystic River and earned an Oscar nomination for directing Dead Man Walking in 1995.

He knows he will always be considered an actor first, but hopes people will listen to his music with an open mind.

"I think it's impossible to win over some people," he says. "Some people just don't want you to do anything other than what they have compartmentalized you in their head. Some people didn't want me to go farther than LaLoosh (his character in Bull Durham). Then I wanted to direct a play off Broadway after being a movie star. The idea that I want to write plays and be a director of movies for some people is like, 'Isn't it enough being an actor? Can't you just act, garden and shut the hell up?'"

The answer, apparently is no.

-- -- --

There has been a change in tonight's folk fest mainstage programming.

Mali group Tinariwen was denied entry into Canada and will not be appearing at the festival. Replacing the band in its 8:20 p.m. slot is Ontario world artist Mighty Popo. At press time, there was no word if Tinariwen's workshop appearances would be filled.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 9, 2011 G7

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