The Fillmore has long been known for presenting cutting edge music across a wide variety of genres. But there’s always a special vibe when a band rolls in with a classic rock sound that harkens back to the venue’s original glory days in the ‘60s. The Chris Robinson Brotherhood is such a band, steeped in the psychedelic rock roots that put the Fillmore on the map. Singer/ringleader Chris Robinson has been down this road before with the Black Crowes, but now he’s got the CRB flying their freak flag even higher (physically evidenced by the giant American flag banner behind the stage with a big F in the blue square.)
The Crowes liked to rock and jam, but the CRB has put a vintage trippy Americana sound at the forefront of their musical adventures right along with the more obvious classic rock influences. Having released their fourth album Anyway You Love, We Know How You Feel this summer, it feels like the CRB could be a band from the early ‘70s that Cameron Crowe’s teenage journalist character would have covered for Rolling Stone magazine. But the CRB is at the forefront of the 21st century movement to keep rock ‘n’ roll alive as a vital force for counterculture community gathering and musical catharsis.
“Come frolic thru the West with your intrepid bliss merchants as we throw colors on the wind! Seek your pleasures on the dance floor! Indulge your senses! Blessed are the Trip Takers! Let The CRB Set You Free,” beckoned the band’s tour promos. The cross country fall tour has the CRB concluding with a Golden State run that takes them from Sacramento to San Francisco and Santa Cruz to San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara, before finishing up in San Diego and Los Angeles. The CRB is an equal opportunity band for the people, bringing their adventurous music to as wide an array of fans across the California Republic as they can. They’re almost like a populist politician in this regard. Yer rather than the duplicitous rhetoric that marred American politics in 2016, the CRB are out to empower the people who view rock ‘n’ roll as a religious form of spiritual sustenance.
The CRB also helps fans with liquid sustenance, bringing along their ever trusty Brotherhood Steam beer made in collaboration with San Francisco’s own Anchor Steam Brewery (and saving fans from the Fillmore’s oddly diminishing beer selection.) There’s a bit of a homecoming vibe here as well with Robinson having relocated to the Bay Area’s Marin County, while he and guitarist Neal Casal have both become occasional players at Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads club in San Rafael. This Thursday evening show kicks off a three-night Fillmore stand, so there’s a sense of settling in for the long haul and it’s not surprising that the band takes their time warming up the room during the first set. The set leans toward a bluesy and even melancholy vibe at times, yet with the sense that there’s a simmering musical power in the works.
“California Hymn” from the new album builds the mood with a mid-tempo number that has a bit of an early ‘70s Dead vibe in its intro ala “Ramble on Rose” or Tennessee Jed”, yet becomes a CRB anthem with a melodic bluesy flavor featuring some sweet slide guitar from Casal. “Glory glory hallelujah / It’s time to spread the news / Though my good words may sound profane to some”, Robinson sings on the chorus.
“That whole chorus is about being a part of our community, our little CRB culture,” explains Robinson at the band’s website. “These are our services when we play our music. And when it’s at its best, we feel like the music makes a connection with people that’s on a level that has nothing to do with commerce or nostalgia. There’s some other gravity that keeps us all together in those moments, and I think this song is representative of that kind of magic spell.”
This communal gravity that exists adjacent to yet outside the mainstream music industry’s commercial culture is a big part of what connects the CRB to rock’s original glory days in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Those services are needed just as much now as ever in 2016, and so the CRB answers a calling. “Burn Slow” dips back into that simmering blues vibe, somewhat negating the momentum that seemed to be building yet also enabling the band to explore an ambient psychedelia that fits right in at the Fillmore.
Then they bounce back by cranking up their full blues rock power on Bonnie and Delaney’s “Poor Elijah”, an uplifting classic rock nugget that’s become a CRB staple. It’s a prime example of how the band applies their “farm to table” organic rock chemistry to a basic blues progression to turn it into a smoking jam thanks to Casal’s stellar slide guitar and the rhythm section’s ability to push the groove deeper and deeper. The vocal harmonies between Robinson and Casal also take on a soulful, almost gospel type aura that lifts the congregation up to a higher level.
The band pays tribute to the recently departed Leon Russell by opening the second set with their version of his “Stranger in a Strange Land”, featuring Robinson emoting with a classic catharsis when he sings, “How many miles will it take to see the sun, and how many years until it’s done?” The new “Forever as the Moon” finds the band putting it all together on what seems like an instant classic — Robinson’s urgently soulful vocals and deep lyrics, Casal and keyboardist Adam MacDougall gelling on complementary melodies and a dynamic groove from drummer Tony Leone and new bassist Jeff Hill.
“The album’s title [Anyway You Love, We Know How You Feel] comes from that song, and it was the first thing that came to my mind while we were playing it,” recalls Robinson at the band’s site. “I didn’t even have a pen and paper out. We’d just finished a hectic year on the road, and I was looking around at the world and all the anxiety and the chaos. The phrase felt like this universal statement, to me, that it doesn’t matter who or how or where or why, no matter what you‘re going through, as long as you have love, everyone can relate to that.”
The energy level surges again on the band’s Garcia-style rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Tough Mama”, with the band digging into a groovy jam that gets the room rocking all around. MacDougall stars here, using the some funky electric piano sounds to push the groove deeper while Casal tears it up on lead guitar. “Leave My Guitar Alone” finds the band exploring another new rocker with a playful and defiant spirit that suggests rock ‘n’ roll will never die as long as troubadours like the CRB keep coming along. A raucous jam on “Ride” closes the set with a flourish but it still seems like this show needs a little something more to put it over the top.
The CRB answers the bell yet again with a bustout encore of the Beatles’ “Come Together”, in honor of the 36-year anniversary of John Lennon’s untimely departure from the planet. It starts off a little tentative, but the band builds the song skillfully to conjure some high level melodic jammy goodness. They double down with another classic cover in the Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll”, freshly added to the repertoire on this tour.
The seminal anthem about the lifesaving power of rock ‘n’ roll music has been a beloved number for decades. Phish brought it to a new generation when they covered the Velvet Underground’s entire Loaded album at their Halloween ‘98 show and added the song to their repertoire. The CRB puts their own stamp on the uplifting number though with a unique arrangement that’s a little more laid back, with a bit more of a shuffle in the groove. It’s a perfect match for Robinson’s proud hippie vocal style and the theme of the song fits right in the CRB’s wheelhouse, making for a majestic conclusion to the evening as the band rocks out on the blissful jam while the audience is indeed set free…