Brothers in arms

by Ryan Snyder


After a 28-year music career that’s taken him to the top of the Billboard charts as frontman for iconic Southern rock act the Black Crowes, Chris Robinson still has a lot of new things to say. It’s just that now, he’s relishing the time it takes to say them. The shaggy-haired starchild of the ’70s has just released his third solo album, but first with his sonically adventurous new outfit the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, a seven-track release entitled Big Moon Ritual. Clocking in at around 53 minutes, it’s a rare jam-friendly record that hardly wastes a breath or a note. It’s both patient in its approach and protean in execution, the product of the tightest-knit group of players with which Robinson has ever worked. It’s a real brotherhood, as the name states, but unlike the blood with which he’s famously feuded for the better part of two decades, this one was born of it’s own volition.

“With all the trials and tribulations of the Black Crowes, there’s the tongue in cheek part of it, but then there’s the cult part of it, like its our cult,” Robinson said in an interview the eve of the album’s June 5 release. “I think we found ourselves into a brotherhood. Our musical bond definitely feels that way.”

CRB began as just another band: five guys and their manager packed into a cargo van, touring every corner of California for six weeks in the spring of 2011.

They logged more than 13,000 miles on the odometer and 40-plus gigs without ever leaving the state. That might sound laborious in practice, but as Robinson stated, when it’s love, it’s not that much labor. They were all still quite fond of each other at the end, their musical bond having grown exponentially in that time, and thus, a band became a Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood is composed of keyboard player of record for the Black Crowes, Adam MacDougall; guitarist Neal Casal, formerly of Ryan Adams & the Cardinals; renowned session drummer George Sluppick; and bassist Mark Dutton, who sided for Marc Ford’s pre-Black Crowes trio Burning Tree in the early ’90s. With a solid degree of interpersonal familiarity already in place, the time spent packed into a van was as crucial in tempering the band’s magnanimous internal dynamic as the reliance on the same set of instruments for the band’s formative first year was to whetting their sonic chemistry. Robinson, whose personal guitar collection is fairly legendary in scope, found that such simplicity can breed complexity.

“We have backups. We’ve never even touched them. That’s what we were cultivating. There’s a certain pragmatism to something that maybe sounds like there is nothing pragmatic about it,” Robinson said. “These musical tools, we have a lot of colors and a lot of textures at our availability. With a little bit of fortitude and imagination, they were able to take us where we wanted to go.”

There’s no complicating the music Robinson had in mind that he wanted to make with this band. He cites Grateful Dead studio records and early Pink Floyd and as the muse for wandering well past accepted commercial time barriers. CRB’s press shot even bears more than a coincidental resemblance to the Dead’s iconic shot at the San Francisco Zoo. It’s not about recreating a psychedelic past or making anything close to a commercial record, however, it’s about fomenting a scene that manifests most evidently live and lingers in the minds of listeners long after.

“The psychedelic part of it isn’t just being an inner-space astronaut. I teasingly say that we’re the farm-to-table band. It’s about being organic. We’re in control, we’re in charge of the vibes,” Robinson said. “In this scenario, this is [the band’s] spot. Whoever has something to say can say it as long as the conversation is interesting.”

That conversation, potentially to the chagrin of some of Robinson’s more seasoned fans, does not include the overly tread parts of the Black Crowes discography. There are countless Black Crowes cover bands, he notes, but this isn’t one of them. They are intrepid in their pursuits, making zesty soul gravy out of shouted gospel, sinuous guitar phrases and a veritable charcuterie of vintage keyboard sounds.

“The people who are coming to see us, they know we’re not going to get up there and play ‘She Talks to Angels.’ I’m not that kind of artist. I’m not going to put a band together to go and play the same songs I’ve been playing for 28 years,” Robinson said. “If there’s 30 people or 300 or 3000, that’s where we want to keep it — likeminded people who are interested in progress and can get together for a few hours and let their minds melt together. We’re looking for those moments that make it possible to live together.”

The Chris Robinson Brotherhood will play Ziggy’s on Sunday.

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