The year 2015 is shaping up to be a banner one for the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. With the apparent dissolution of the Black Crowes, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood is now receiving singer/guitarist Chris Robinson’s undivided attention. This is not to say he hadn’t been devoted before; he established the Chris Robinson Brotherhood as a “farm-to-table psychedelic rock band” by touring relentlessly in 2011 and 2012. Robinson then split time in 2013, touring with the Black Crowes while working on a third album with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, the lushly textured Phosphorescent Harvest, which dropped in early 2014.
There’s no looking back now, as Robinson is all in with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. Oft-rumored creative tensions with brother Rich perhaps finally doomed the Black Crowes, as the 2013 shows veered between typically brilliant and cookie cutter greatest hits setlists. It’s hard to say for certain, but what has become clear is that Chris wants to let his freak flag fly, both figuratively and literally. Chris Robinson Brotherhood shows are draped with a giant American style flag featuring an “F” in the corner. Robinson is fond of speaking about “freak power”, the movement first launched in the ‘60s for those who do not fit into the mainstream and can’t help but go their own way.
It’s a movement that’s been resonating in the 21st century, and definitely in Southern California. The Observatory North Park represents a step up from the band’s previous visits to the Belly Up Tavern up the coast in both size and vibe. The theater in San Diego’s hip North Park district gives fans far more space to let their own freak flag fly. There’s also a plethora of pre-show options for drinking and dining, which is key since the new Observatory is still working out the kinks with their liquor license, which currently fails to allow drinks in the theater area. But everything was coming up Chris Robinson Brotherhood on 29 May, as savvy fans could even find the Brotherhood Steam beer, the band’s delicious dry-hopped collaboration with San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing, at certain local stores.
All factors coalesced for a freak power party that drew all the usual suspects from the local scene. Familiar faces were all around, pumped and ready to rock for an evening with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, save perhaps a couple stragglers who didn’t realize they wouldn’t be hearing Black Crowes songs. They, however, were soon converted by the Brotherhood. Robinson is out to blaze a fresh trail with new music, yet one that is still based in the classic rock roots and adventurous jamming for which he’s long been known.
The band wasted no time lighting a fuse, opening with the bluesy swagger of “There’s a Good Rockin’ Tonight”. The midtempo tune had the perfect vibe to get the room moving and grooving. “We’re gonna rock all our blues away”, sang Robinson, connecting immediately with a congregation that was ready to let the good times roll. “Badlands Here We Come” showed another dimension of the band’s sound, veering into a darker sort of cowboy tale yet tinged with the band’s trademark psychedelia. The good rockin’ energy was rolling again on “Little Lizzy May”, with a groove recalling the bluesy shuffle of the Grateful Dead’s “New Speedway Boogie”. The jam segued expertly into “Can You Hear Me”, which surged with a raucous energy and guitar twang that brought Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” to mind.
The band shifted gears again with “100 Days of Rain”, slipping into an Americana vibe, yet with keyboardist Adam MacDougall bringing some ambient psychedelia into the mix for a lush jam. “Meanwhile the Gods” also opened up into a deep jam where lead guitarist Neal Casal cut loose, showing his multi-dimensional skills, yet playing for the song as always. The band threw a great curveball with a set closing groove that sure sounded like the Grateful Dead’s “Loose Lucy”, but featured Robinson singing the lyrics of Johnny Cash’s “Big River” (also a longtime Dead staple.) A Grateful Dead song or two has become a staple of the repertoire, what with Robinson being a longtime Head who has toured with both Phil Lesh and Bob Weir. With the Grateful Dead preparing to wrap an illustrious 50 year career with their “Fare Thee Well” shows in Chicago this summer, there’s a comforting assurance in knowing that next generation talents like the Chris Robinson Brotherhood will still be around to carry the torch.
This became even more apparent when the band threw down a smoking rendition of “Get Out My Life, Woman” in the second set, a funky staple of the Jerry Garcia Band. Drummer Tony Leone and bassist Mark “Muddy” Dutton had been clicking all night, but the groove they laid down here led the quintet to gel in that special way where the music plays the band. MacDougall threw down a big organ solo a la Melvin Seals, while Casal and Dutton threw in “Jungle Boogie” teases. The energy surged higher still when Robinson broke out his harmonica for a stellar solo that truly conjured visions of Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, complete with appreciative hooting and hollering from the crowd.
The medicinal sonic magic peaked on “Vibration and Light Suite”, a transcendent song that can stand with anything the Black Crowes ever produced. The band gelled again here with Robinson on rhythm guitar, while Casal and MacDougall weaved melodic lines in masterful fashion to synch with the stellar groove from the Dutton and Leone. The jam took the audience on a true sonic journey, at first conjuring the uplifting power of the Dead at their peak circa 1974 before evolving as other classic rock influences from across the decades carried the jam further. Cosmic freakout tones made it feel like the Chris Robinson Brotherhood was on a rocket to Saturn for a freak power jamboree with the Sun Ra Arkestra, before beaming back down to terra firma.
With feet back on the ground, the band took it old school for a smoking take on the ever popular “Hard to Handle”, the Otis Redding/Grateful Dead staple the Crowes had a hit with on their first album. The dance party was in high gear, as it seemed like a big finish to close the show, but the band capped the already triumphant set with “Rosa Lee”, yet another of their biggest jam vehicles. The last three songs of the set were akin to three homeruns in a row.
“We’ve created a piece of rock ‘n’ roll here. People can look to us and rest assure the genre is alive and well”, says Robinson at the band’s site. It’s no idle boast. He’s like a mythical troubadour who truly is all about the music, and the Chris Robinson Brotherhood is out to prove it on a nightly basis.