Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Josh Miller
Chris Robinson Brotherhood :: 05.02.11 :: The Independent :: San Francisco, CA
Chris Robinson Brotherhood :: 05.05.11 :: New Parish :: Oakland, CA
Chris Robinson is a creature of music. Each night last week as he took the stage – barefoot, pleasantly rumpled and hirsute as hell – you could see the light in him flicker to brightness as he strapped on his guitar and turned to strike up his new band, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, a name redolent of 60s be-ins, free love and loose rockin’ – all of which fits to varying degrees. Instead of using The Black Crowes hiatus to homestead a bit, Robinson has been woodshedding a rootsy, wily group of skilled players around California, mining deep album cut covers and carving out a fascinating, quite different set of fresh compositions.
|Chris Robinson - 05.02.11 - by Josh Miller|
It doesn’t take but a song or two with the Brotherhood to know this ain’t the Crowes. It’s not just the club-size venues they’re hitting or the almost total absence of Crowes material but the whole vibe that’s markedly different; where the Crowes strut and stomp, the Brotherhood shuffles and strolls, hewing close to the ah-shucks bounce of The Band and Rolling Thunder-era Bob Dylan. Clad in t-shirts and jeans, this bearded bunch eases into the music, muscle apparent in the elongated jams that extend most pieces but also weaving with playful intent and openness to strangeness, chance and newness. Not everything works yet but in just the two weeks from the band’s previous Bay Area visit, the shows in SF and Oakland last week exhibited more cohesion and a growing sense of shared identity - that ephemeral but tangible thing that makes something a band and not just folks playing songs at the same time.
Things were a bit tighter and more focused at The Independent, where The New Parish meandered a bit, albeit lovingly and with the best of intentions. One takes the ride the Brotherhood is offering, especially since much of what’s being played is new material. It forces the listener to simply be present as the Brotherhood’s rock gestalt gestates on stages. It’s a brave choice but one that asks that the audience accept that this isn’t pure entertainment.
|Chris Robinson Brotherhood - 04.20.11 - by Josh Miller|
There’s serious chemistry between Robinson (lead vocals, guitar), Neal Casal (guitar, vocals), fellow Black Crowe Adam McDougall (keys, vocals), former MOFRO skinman George Sluppick (drums) and Mark "Muddy" Dutton (bass), and it’s a blast to see what they come out with at each brotherly session. You could see the surprise – both in a pleasurable way and occasionally not so much – on their faces as they trotted around the tunes in both cities last week. After 20 years in the game, Robinson is still hell-bent on innovating, unearthing different aspects of himself as a songwriter and performer, and he thrives when surrounded by guys like this who understand on a cellular level that safe and simple isn’t the way to roll with Chris. This isn’t to imply that the Brotherhood shows aren’t a ball, frequently tapping into rock’s earliest energies and flooding the room with boogie juice, but this group is clearly questing after something. My gut says they haven’t found it yet, but they’re after it and the chase is bloody exciting to witness.
A few key things to note:
|Neal Casal - 05.02.11 - by Josh Miller|
-Neal Casal is just lethal in this band. Rarely has anyone given him this much free rein as a guitarist, and he’s sparking off increasingly interesting stuff in Robinson’s guitar work, too. Sinewy, bright and forceful and delicate by turns, Casal’s playing rides in the meat of the music much of the time, not drawing undo attention to itself but grabbing the crowd by the lapels when he solos. He’s a very different axe foil than Robinson has ever worked with before and definitely the most satisfying of his solo ventures.
-Older Robinson solo material such as “Like A Tumbleweed In Eden,” “40 Days” and “Sunday Sound” are infused with crackling new life in the Brotherhood, the songs split open to reveal codas and intros we’ve never heard before, reminding us that Chris has written a lot of quality stuff outside of the Crowes.
-Adam MacDougall, crowned with a dapper, utterly fitting top hat, plays with a more pronounced presence in the Brotherhood than in the Crowes. Here, his role is as much texture and tasty sonics as it is rippling piano solos (but he’s got a few of those up his sleeve, too). There’s a nifty electricity and far reaching approach to his work in the Brotherhood that spills rich colors over the music, rainbows then lined by the robust guitar frontline and gutbucket swinging rhythm team. Close your eyes and you can practically swim in it, and often the guy pouring the most liquid into the flow is MacDougall.
-New material standouts include the skipping, exploratory “Star Or Stone,” captivating, Sir Douglas Quintet-esque midtempo groover “Tulsa Yesterday” and “Vibration & Light Suite,” which taps into the Grateful Dead’s compartmentalized, long-form songcraft for what’s shaping up to be this band’s “Terrapin.” It is but one of many gentle nods to the Dead and their ways, right down to a loosey-goosey feel at times, a thick pocket perfect for a wine ‘n’ weed haze, something the many twirlers in Oakland picked up on in a big way. Covers of “Viola Lee Blues,” “They Love Each Other” and “New Minglewood Blues” reinforce this impression, but it’s both pleasing to the ear/spirit and not a real surprise given Robinson’s connection to Phil Lesh & Friends and the Bay Area Dead scene. What’s good is they aren’t doing a rehash; their versions are definitely their own, and I particularly dug the messy, slightly off-kilter version of “Viola Lee” with Howlin Rain’s Ethan Miller they whacked us with in Oakland on April 20.
|Adam MacDougall - 04.20.11 - by Josh Miller|
This established, vintage jam stuff comes alive in their hands, and I think it helps that the rest of the band isn’t as familiar with the tunes as their bandleader. This helps bypass any rote playing drawn from memory and nostalgia. It’s an attitude they’re applying to other cover material, including a simmering rendition of Dave Mason’s “Shouldn’t Have Took More Than You Gave” and an eerily fine fitting take on Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” which they debuted last week. There’s a few oddball choices like the Everly Brothers’ “Bird Dog” and Elvis’ “Blue Suede Shoes,” but I do appreciate the direct shout-out to rock’s progenitors.
What my three nights with the Brotherhood – who are putting on two set shows that total close to three hours with encores – have shown me is Chris Robinson has a serious knack for picking his musical foils. His latest project builds with patient intensity while seeking to kick up a lil’ dust in a really friendly way, an approach that works best when surrounded by likeminded attendees. This is surely going somewhere, and there’s talk of a studio album this summer. The path towards that somewhere is a lot of fun and excitingly different than the Crowes, a sound with the underlying energies of great California rock, past and present, a rolling stone for the people offered with an outstretched hand and a glinting eye on the oceanic horizon.
San Francisco Setlist
Set One: Little Lizzie Mae, New Minglewood Blues, Appaloosa, Bird Dog, Star Or Stone, Tomorrow Blues, Rosalee, Last Place That Love Lives
Set Two: 40 Days, I Ain’t Hiding, Vibration & Light Suite, Viola Lee Blues, Star Crossed Lonely Sailor, If Your Wheel Don’t Roll, Sunday Sound, Ride
Encore: Shouldn't Took More Than You Gave, Mississippi, You're On My Mind
Set One: Someday Past The Sunset, Poor Elijah - Tribute To Johnson (Medley), Star or Stone, Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues (1st time played), Little Lizzie Mae, Girl I Love You, Tomorrow Blues, Vibration & Light Suite
Set Two: Tulsa Yesterday, Tumbleweed in Eden, If Your Wheel Don't Roll, Sorrows of a Blue-Eyed Liar, Tough Mama, Beware, Sunday Sound, Rosalee
Encore: Older Guys, Mississippi, You're On My Mind
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