Before Chris Robinson Botherhood there was The Black Crows; before that there was New Earth Mud; before that, there was The Black Crowes; and before that, Mr. Crowe’s Garden…….
Each time The Black Crowes take a break, Chris Robinson gets busy. He’s had music pulsing through his veins since a kid so what else could you expect. He oozes blues and soul, like it is a part of him, undecipherable from any other part of his being. When The Black Crowes took a break in 2002, he formed a band called New Earth Mud which would tour for about 2 years until their break in late 2004. In 2005, The Black Crowes got back together, toured a bit, created a few more masterpieces for the masses, and then broke again in the fall of 2010. That’s when fans started hearing about Chris Robinson Brotherhood, which, in less than two years has quickly become a popular jamband name.
We don’t have to tell you who leads the band, but the other incredible members are Neal Casal on guitar and vocals, Adam MacDougall on keyboard and other wizardry, Mark “Muddy” Dutton on bass, vocals and big-fluffy-hat (“is that your hat or are you just happy to see me?”), and George Sluppik on drums.
I hear a bit of laughter in the crowd, someone who hadn’t seen them in over a year joked, “Wow, who are these guys again?” It was quite funny but also maybe a little truth to that. In less than two years, they have developed together as a band right along with their growing fan base. There was something more cohesive, more polished about them, yet they were also more open and exploratory – I suppose it comes from feeling the musicians next to you, their spirit and soul, what notes they might try or when the guitar will peak, or when the keyboard will dance around the song, or when the bass will come in to lay it down….. I saw them last year a few times. First at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur, under the redwood trees, and the second time just up the road in Felton, at Don Quixote’s Dance Hall – both times I was enthralled, entranced, left in some cosmic atmosphere I felt warm and comfortable in.
Reading an article in Rolling Stone magazine may offer a hint into what has influenced their growth. Chris recalled a show in 2011 at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco when CRB first got together and Bob Weir and Phil Lesh showed up to join in on the fun. Chris says, “When it really coalesces into something unique is when you go, ‘Oh, wow, we are in this space and we’re communicating on a cool dimensional level … Hopefully Jerry’s smiling’ [laughs]. Not only are they some of my musical inspirations, but as time has moved on they are also my friends, and I really appreciate that.” The time that he has spent on stage with Phil and Bob, whether they join his band, he plays with Phil Lesh and Friends or when together with the Weir, Robinson, Greene trio – it has certainly left an impression on his playing and has maybe in turn affected some of the way his band may hear, feel and play together themselves.
The Catalyst Club is in downtown Santa Cruz. It’s a great little spot – they have live music almost every night of the week, either in the atrium or the club, or sometimes both. Nice staff, good energy to the place, decent sound. The show was to start at 9, but seemed a little behind, which was OK as most of the crowd was on Santa Cruz time, so, uh, sort of a tad late. No hurry, right? Starting out the set with a slow swing in “Bright Lights, BigCity”, the old Jimmy Reed blues song, laying down the blues, “I tried to tell the woman but she doesn’t believe a word I said.” Neal’s guitar riffs combined with Adam’s electrified keyboards warm up and fill out the room. This is a good rockin song to open up the night and get Santa Cruz’s freaks ready for their cosmic ride to outer space.
Chiming in to say hello with, “So nice to see you Saturday night beings,” Chris gets a warm cheer from the crowd and a “Welcome back to Santa Cruz!” which of course reveals a smile from him, in kind. He also chatted about being in the redwoods again, remembering last year in Big Sur and Felton, maybe giving a hint he liked the CentralCoast and would be back. Genuinely in good spirits, he thanked the crowd after every song, and blew a kiss to someone in the upper level of the club at the end of the night.
“Crash on the Levee” would pick it up a bit more, the groovin’ way the song starts and continues throughout, you can’t help but to get up if you were sittin’ down, sway back and forth if you were standin’ still, or maybe make your way through the crowd a little closer to the stage to see what the fuss is all about. Neal and Adam working the magic of the guitar and keyboard again, Muddy holding down the rhythm with the steady beat from George, and Chris wrapping it all together with the funk he can get from the guitar really make this song loads of fun.
They took it down just a notch for “Wheel Don’t Roll” and “Star on Stone”, and then picked it right back up again for “Tulsa Yesterday”, which is one of my favs from this band. It’s the quicker beat, more danceable, rocks you back and forth or bops you up and down. Sort of the way Chris does – it’s a lean into the mic with knees bent, bouncing a bit, helping that vibrato he can give you, like his voice is cascading over your head, over your shoulders, down your arms and to your knees, making you rock right along with him.
The “Vibration & Light Suite” was a powerful 16 minute wonder, moving from those bluesy rhythms between Neal and Chris, to a space oddity of heavy soaring jams before easing back into the blues. Adam’s spacey cosmic electronic keyboard might be a throwback to the sound of the late 70’s or early 80’s. Can’t quite put my finger on it but it is definitely uniquely MacDougall, for sure. There are times when his keyboard work can almost sound like a third guitar – almost unrecognizable as a keyboard but you know it is. The song lets go at the end… wait, I mean the band lets go, and softly winds down into a quiet cosmos and then, oddly enough, sort of effortlessly moves into a fully rockin’, “Blue Suede Shoes” to close out the first set – now tell me, how can you sit still for that? They really had fun with this song, smiling and having a good time dancin’ on stage along with the crazy Santa Cruz crowd.
Second set opener was “Saturday Night in Santa Cruz”, which is actually a cover of a song called “Saturday Night in Oak Grove, Louisiana” by Tony Joe White. When CRB does this, they’ll change the name of the town depending on where they might be on that particular Saturday night. This I learned by asking a CRB fan near me that night – you know the type, they go to all the shows, know the history of each band member and their instruments, know the birth of every song and how it has or has not changed over time, etc. Being a Deadhead, we can sort of relate. So, I went and listened to the original song and Mr. Tony Joe White has a voice as smooth as heavy cream and he sure can lay down the blues. Oh, and did you know that Mr. White also made “Polk Salad Annie” famous? Hum, that might be a good cover for CRB……….
The entire second set was powerfully plaid and eagerly absorbed by the sparkling crowd. The stand outs had to be “Seventh Son”, “Never Been to Spain”, “Sunday Sound”, “West L.A. Fadeaway” and “Rosalee” – “is the air getting’ thinner, or are we getting’ high?” OK, so that is quite a number to mention. I will just say, the “Seventh Son” was gritty and heavy yet with kind of strut to it, let’s just say it sort of had a gritty swagger. Well, and everyone loves “Never Been to Spain”, by the good ‘ole Three Dog Night! “In Oklahoma, not Arizona, what does it matter!” Oh and I just love “Sunday Sound” and I’m gonna hope they play it each and every time I go see them. Just don’t know what it is about this song…. Guess the song just has that “Sunday sound, both loud and clear, make the Sunday sound that love’s here.”
I must say, “Sunday Sound” fell off into a heavy space, before the bass and funky keys take over the jam, and it really starts to pick back up again. From a heavy space to a stretchy gooey funky jam that left Chris and Neal sort of just dancing on stage, enjoying it just as much as the audience was. I think this was the song that made me look up and think, huh, I wonder if sometimes they wish they could just throw down the guitar and start dancin’, ya know? It’s probably hard not to during these outrageous moments, seriously.
The “West L.A. Fadeaway”, left the crowd a little speechless. I caught some, well myself, maybe looking around to see if I could catch someone else’s eye and shoot a knowing look – “well, there you go. That was it. THE song of the set.” I suppose the only thing I can add here is, someone next to me said, “I think Neal is channeling Jerry right now.” Oh yeah…..
Oh, and the “Rosalee” – gosh, I just love this song too. It’s another one of those songs were you almost get two in one – a warm psychedelic jam surrounded by a funky soulful rockin, take me to the church kind of feelings. And, one of those songs that gets the bounce to Chris’s knees, he’s dancin’ on stage and feeling the song with the audience; and the bounce gives that extra vibrato to his voice, as he holds onto a note until it ends. Perfect set closer. I think I could hear this one each and every time I go see them too. Yup, maybe that’s all I need. Those two songs… “Sunday Sound” and “Rosalee”… and this red thermos… (OK, anyone? Steve Martin?)
I must go back up the set a bit and mention the poetic, “100 Days of Rain” – soulful and beautifully plaid, the guitar work of both Neal and Chris were a bit magical. I love the words to that song because the lyrics are so tender, even without music behind them. “Fair and tender lady come take my mind and wander. Lay with me, until the stars refuse to shine. Be my dream through sweet silver slumber, beyond this morning past the gray walls of time.”
They gave up a double encore, starting out with a kind of country rhythm and blues, southern style, rolling rockin song in “Goodbye Wheeling”, West Virginia that is…. The evening ended with “Older Guys” which is a song by The Flying Burrito Brothers from the 70’s. Leave it up to CRB to pull out the rare oddities and make you wonder where you’ve heard it before, but it’s been rearranged in the CRB kind of way.
I don’t think I was the only one who realized the growth or difference to the way they connect on stage and with the audience. Even after the show was over, Neal and Muddy were out in the crowd, saying hello and enjoying friends and hugs. Lingering long after, there was quite a bit of discussion amongst the CRB fans – going over favorite moments and new discoveries. Their music and playing has expanded to psychedelic and cosmic spaces that can reveal a whole new atmosphere you didn’t know existed. Maybe they don’t either, until they discover it on stage.
Chris Robinson Brotherhood, December 8, 2012, The Catalyst Club, Santa Cruz:
Set 1: Bright Light, Big City, Jump The Turnstile, Crash On The Levee, Wheel Don’t Roll, Star Or Stone, Tulsa Yesterday, Vibration & Light Suite> Blue Suede Shoes
Set two: Saturday Night In Santa Cruz, Tomorrow Blues, Seventh Son, 100 Days Of Rain, Never Been To Spain, Sunday Sound, West L.A.. Fadeaway, Rosalee Encore: Goodbye Wheeling, Older Guys