Regardless of how one weathers the years, the impact time has on an artist is almost always intriguing. For former Black Crowes frontman Chris Robinson, time has witnessed him mellowing (down easy) into a far more laid back sort of guy -- an evolution that began at the latter end of the Crowes catologue, and continues via his current project, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood.
- Chris Robinson Brotherhood Guitarist Neal Casal on Willie Nelson: "He Plays a Mean Game of Pool"
The CRB features Neal Casal on guitar, best known as Ryan Adams' right hand man within the Cardinals, along with Crowes alum Adam MacDougall on keys, drummer George Sluppick, and a bassist known only as "Muddy." Saturday night, the band floated through Fort Lauderdale's Culture Room like a mystic cloud of sound, where they were greeted by a crowd ready for a multi-set adventure into the land of smooth, psychedelic jamming.
As the crowd filled Culture Room, a roadie placed bundles of burning nag champa incense around the stage. Lurking towards the back of the stage was a decoy owl (the kind people mount on buildings to ward off other animals) with a crown of the incense burning away. With the room smelling thoroughly like a Mumbai bathhouse, the group set off on the lazy drawl of "Someday Past the Sunset," and the crowd was immediately caught in the CRB sway.
Long skirts flowed back and forth as Robinson displayed how well-preserved his inimitable voice remains. The singer -- once no stranger to eye-liner and flowing shirts nicked from Mick Jagger's closet -- wore a gray T-shirt, a thick beard, and the look of a man at peace. From behind a guitar decorated with a totem in the same place as Jerry Garcia's famous coffee-table guitars, Robinson lead his unshorn band through nearly three hours of music.
The group was beyond intuitive, functioning in a way that is usually reserved for bands that have spent far more time together. Relative to other jam-oriented bands, the CRB stuck to the songs rather faithfully, running off on instrumental tangents just long enough to explore a bit and build excitement without losing the road home. Though the solo excursions were all pleasant enough, nothing in the first set really jumped out beyond the relaxed nature of the songs, all of which were mid-tempo sonic journeys best suited for late night driving or spirit quests.
The first set (though excellent) paled in comparison to the sounds created by the band following the break. The group ended the first set with "Tulsa Yesterday," the track that opens the first official CRB release, and a song that showed the band finally cutting loose and showing their instrumental teeth a bit.
Casal and Robinson traded bars on guitar during the solo break, at which point the audience (which had been singing along during the choruses) could be seen shaking their heads from side to side, slack-jawed, as if to say "Whooaaaa maaaaan." Robinson, the guitarist, is far more skilled than he once was, playing intricate leads and phrasing things very much like he sings.
The second set followed suit with "Tulsa," bringing forth more of the headier jamming, and a major highlight, "Mother of Stone" -- a soulful cut from Robinson's second solo album. At one point in the second set, keyboard and synth-shredder Macdougall was given the spotlight, where he broke into odd, psych-out oscillations by tweaking his effects pedals before bringing the solo back to his funky, '70s sounding keyboard riffing. With the band stripped away save for drums, it became apparent how integral MacDougall was to the band's sound -- without it, the texture of the group would be entirely different, and certainly less memorable. Other second set highlights included the spacey synth/guitar interplay of "Vibration and Light" and the climactic "Rosalee."
Throughout the evening, Casal acted as a symbiotic element to Robinson, meeting the frontman's vocals with the perfect harmonies at the perfect moments, and always finding just the right thing to say with his guitar -- without hitting the cloying over-play many jammy bands run headfirst into.
The majority of the songs meandered along, pushed by Muddy's thumping bass and Sluppick's masterful drumming. The numbers melded into one another without much punctuation, which allowed for an easy experience to fall into. Robinson's voice, if reserved these days, is still one of the most distinctive vocal gifts of the past 30 years. Unfortunately, there was nary a classic Robinson howl to be heard last night. However, there is a great deal of charm to what this group does, and for fans of this style of music, this is the band to see right now. They're tight, they're fluid, and the quality of the music transcends the genre itself -- at least in a live setting. And this is not to mention the fact that Chris Robinson is doing something absolutely no one in the '90s would have ever predicted: Aging with grace.
Personal Bias: Diehard fan of the rockin' period of the Black Crowes. Generally not a fan of jam-based music.
Overheard: "I drove up from Key West for this show!"
Random Detail: Hippie crowds are soooo much easier to navigate through. They should give lessons on show etiquette.
"Someday Past the Sunset"
"Jump the Turnstile"
"Star or Stone"
"Badlands Here We Come"
"Brown Eyed Woman"
"Roll Old Jeremiah"
"Do Right Women"
"Mother of Stone"
"Vibration & Light"