Betty's Midwestern Magick Blends Vol. 4
There are two bands it's hard not to mention when talking about the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. One is, of course, the Black Crowes, the group Chris Robinson formed with his brother Rich, a band that brought some much-needed roll to the 90's rock scene before their volatile relationship and sibling rivalry finally became too much for both to continue in the same outfit. The other is the Grateful Dead, who's example of constant touring, while changing the set list every night for their travelling fans, and then releasing those shows on a multitude of live recording, seems to have been taken as an instruction manual of how a modern band can not only survive, but prosper on their own terms in this age of something-for-nothing streaming services.
The Grateful Dead references don't end there, either. This live recording, and several others CRB have released on their own label, Silver Arrow, since 2013, was captured by the legendary Betty Cantor-Jackson, a recording engineer who taped hundreds of Grateful Dead concerts during Garcia & co.'s peak years. Her ability to capture the magic(k) of a band in full flight has certainly not faded with time.
This set kicks off with rolling ivories, heralding Forever As The Moon, a keyboard line that bares more than a passing resemblance to the intro of the Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker). The snaking slide guitar of Neal Casal that soon accompanies the piano vamp does nothing to dispel the Stones comparisons, although the lyrical poetry owes more to Dylan than Jagger in this instance. In fact, most of the tracks selected here represent the more rootsy side of CRB's recent output. Psychedelic interludes and flourishes still remain, though, and the bands ability to stretch out and jam is shown off to fine effect, especially on the barnstorming 11-minute version of the Jerry Leiber-penned, southern soul hit, Down Home Girl, originally recorded by Alvin Robinson. Peppered with some deliciously funky Sly Stone clavinet, it would almost be worth the price of the concert ticket just to see this performed live. The yearning cowboy melodies of Shadow Cosmos follows, then lead on to possibly their biggest song yet, the epic Narcissus Soaking Wet. A-10 minute monster jam that definitively answers the question "What would it have sounded like if Pink Floyd and Stevie Wonder had got it together in their mid-70's pomp. Robinson spits out a couple of bad-ass honking harmonica solos before Neal Casal lets rip with a stratospheric guitar solo.
Casal originally started off playing for Rickey Medlockes' southern rockers Blackfoot, before making a name for himself in Ryan Adams backing band the Cardinals. Apart from his role in CRB, he also currently plays with Hard Working Americans, The Skiffle Players and Circles Around the Sun. His quality guitar playing and song writing always add a real touch of class to every project he's involved in. But back to the gig, and the soul/prog experiments continue on Precious Precious. originally a hit for Jacksonville soul diva Jackie Moore and here featuring a mammoth Moog solo that I'm certain was never envisioned by the writers when the song was first composed. For Black Crowes fans yet to experience Chris Robinsons current direction, the most Marmite aspect will most likely be those keyboards. The bending analogue sythesizer lines of Adam McDougall play a prominent role in much of the music made here, which can be a shock to those used to the Humble Pie / Faces grittiness of those early Crowes releases. There can certainly be a fine line between the Mothership funk of Bernie Worrell and the theme from Grange Hill and, although the combination of sounds at first seemed like very odd bedfellows to me, I have really grown to love the qualities that sound brings. Quite often it's the grit in the oyster that elevates the CRB output into something truly unique. Another cover follows in the form of Magic Carpet Ride, a faithful, if more fleet-of-foot, rendition than the Steppenwolf original. Those feet well and truly leave the ground when the band ignite their rocket boots and launch into full wig out mode (twice!). Then it's back to the original compositions with the desert blues of Somewhere Past the Sunset, recalling Texan guitar god Joe Ely, amongst others. This is followed by a magnificent version of one of my favourite CRB tunes, New Cannonball Rag, which, at nearly 13-minutes, takes the Deadhead boogie of the studio version right out to the edge of the Solar System and back.
Robinson’s vocal dexterity is on fine display all throughout these recordings, but especially during It's All Over Now, Baby Blue. Most of Dylans' compositions have been covered several times and this one is no exception, yet despite the rarified company, Chris more than holds his own, as the band add shades of Leon Russell to this spin on this old classic. I've always been a big fan of Robinson’s delivery, right back from when I got to see them in Manchester on their first UK tour waaay back in 1990. Considering his herbal requirements and his relentless touring schedule, his voice has survived remarkably well in a way that belies his age. The register is maybe a fraction deeper and the edges a little more grizzled, but he was, and remains, a rock singer of unique quality and soul. Backed by a band that plays with all the assurance of The Band, the audacity of the Allmans and is free of the shackles of expectation that comes with having to play songs you first wrote nearly 30 years ago, you can just tell that Robinson is right where he needs to be at this point in his career, and enjoying every minute of it. You can hear it in the assured delivery of the last two CRB compositions, Ain't It Hard But Fair and California Hymn, and, as if to silence those blinkered old Black Crowes fans who just won't be happy unless Chris Robinson is shaking his moneymaker to a Stones back-beat, this quality collection finishes with a dynamite rendition of Let It Bleed that could only come from that wily old Crowe.