November 16, 2017 Chris Robinson Brotherhood Heats Up Grand Rapids, MI 11-12-17
The Chris Robinson Brotherhood have kept creative energy flowing with consistent release of new music over the past few years. Sprinkling in some live albums in between it all as well, back on July 21st they put out Barefoot In The Head, marking their third studio release in just two years! Showing no signs of slowing down, they return to the road for a late 2017 tour in support of the new record that kicked off on October 1st with plans to continue through December 16th, before re-launching in 2018 for a full on winter tour.
With plenty of performances ahead of them, the 12th of November, 2017 was a cold, misty Sunday night in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The temperature hovered right around freezing, and there was heavy fog since it had been much warmer just a few hours earlier. Inside The Intersection, just south of downtown, it was nice and warm, and the smell of incense was strong. The room was only half full, but that did not dampen spirits much. Why? Because the Chris Robinson Brotherhood had come to play, and the anticipation was unmistakable.
The Chris Robinson Brotherhood (CRB) consists of Keyboardist Adam MacDougall, Lead Guitarist Neal Casal, Bassist Jeff Hill, Drummer Tony Leone, and the one and only Chris Robinson on rhythm guitar and vocals, describing themselves as a “California Rock Band.” Though the band formed in 2010 in Los Angeles, their sensibility is firmly rooted in Northern California. To put it another way, they are a little Big Brother and the Holding Company, with a little Creedence Clearwater Revival, and a whole lot of The Grateful Dead. Where Robinson’s first successful band made their biggest hit covering Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” and making radio hits for mass consumption, CRB is a musician’s band that makes music for people who are unintimidated by and have the attention span for a laid-back nine-minute jam.
With no opening act, Robinson and company took the stage almost right on time at 8:10 PM. They opened their set with a flowing rendition of Nat Stuckey’s 1966 song “Sweet Thang and Cisco.” Robinson, whose stage presence tended toward aggressive, has mellowed significantly. Instead of dancing around the stage and bantering with the crows, Robinson stayed mostly behind his microphone and played with restraint.
Next up, the Brotherhood took up “Roan County Banjo,” from their 2016 album If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home Now, a Country-tinged tune that featured MacDougall’s exceptional skill on the keys. CRB went on an extended jam on “Banjo,” which was a fair preview of what was to come. Next, they mined two tracks from 2014’s Phosphorescent Harvest, “Badlands Here We Came” and ”About a Stranger.” These tracks featured more of MacDougall’s stellar keyboarding, and it became clear that he is one of the finer keyboardists working in music today.
The Brotherhood’s next offering was “High is not the Top,” from their most recent album Barefoot in the Head. On the album, “High” is a Country song, with jangly banjo and harmonica, but live, it stuck with the jam band aesthetic CRB features. Thereafter came “Blue Star Woman” before the funky bass line and Honky-Tonk piano of “Woman” expanded their range into the psychedelic. Then, the first set closed with “New Cannonball Rag” and “Beggar’s Moon.”
After an intermission, presumably so the band could get back into the right headspace, they came out with a cover of The Beach Boys’ “Sail On, Sailor.” While the original is a relatively upbeat, three-minute, radio-friendly hit, CRB applied their signature, with rambling guitars and keyboards featured. The second song of the second set was “One Hundred Days of Rain,” a smoky ballad about the feeling of leaving to go out on tour, from their debut album Big Moon Ritual.
Moving right along, the second set featured a number of covers, including CRB’s rendition of Percy Mayfield’s 1970 Blues standard “Loose Lips.” As with all their covers, CRB took liberties with the song. They turned it into a boogie-woogie adventure. Next, they picked up three songs from Barefoot in the Head. “Hark, the Herald Hermit Speaks,” whose title is a clever play on the Christmas standard. “Hark” recalls Robinson from the Black Crowes era, but with flowing piano and extended guitar solos. “Behold the Seer” is a catchy tune that features Casal’s funky bass style and is the most upbeat, radio-friendly tune on the album, and subsequently, a fan-favorite. The final original composition of the evening was “If You Had a Heart to Break,” a slow, melodic number about redemption and coming back from the pain of heartbreak. Robinson’s vocal on “Heart” is heartfelt and warm, inspiring nostalgia.
As a jam band generally tends to do, CRB closed out the show with a number of covers. They played Bob Dylan’s 1974 “Tough Mama,” from Planet Waves. CRB stayed mostly faithful to Dylan’s version on their rendition of the song. It featured more of MacDougall’s sublime keyboard work, and Robinson’s guitar playing stood out on the track. Lastly, the second set closed out with a rendition of “Ride,” a song that Robinson composed for his solo project. “Ride” is a funky callback to Sly and the Family Stone and feels perfectly at home in the hands of Robinson’s new band.
As CRB left the stage, the crowd’s energy was palpable, they returned to the stage quickly and played an encore of the Gospel hymn “Bye and Bye,” written in the early 20th Century by Charles Albert Tindley. Though an old spiritual, “Bye” in Robinson and company’s interpretation takes on the same character as their other covers. That is a smoky, Rock-n-Roll song with a rambling guitar solo and a funky bass line. Still revved up on the music, the crowd milled about for a moment, not quite ready to brave the cold outside. Eventually, they did leave, though it seemed like they were hoping for a few more songs, but everything must come to an end at some point.
Overall, Chris Robinson Brotherhood put on an excellent show. All the players in the band are very accomplished as they play together with flair and soul. Though there is something less commercial about CRB and their style, they play for the love of the music, and their fans appreciate that. That in mind, as everyone made their way out into the cold, they had a warm memory of the night Chris Robinson and his brotherhood came to town to share an evening with them.