The Chris Robinson Brotherhood Cooks Up "Psychedelic Filling in a Folk Blues Pie" to Rock North Park

There’s no looking back now, as Chris Robinson is all in with his Brotherhood and the "freak power" movement.

The Chris Robinson Brotherhood
City: San Diego, CA
Venue: Observatory North Park
Date: 2015-05-29

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.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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