Since leaving The Black Crowes, Chris Robinson has released six albums, it’s hard to keep up. Betty’s Blends Volume 2 is the first one I’ve connected with as I plug into his Allman Brothers meets Grateful Dead, Southern Rock, Soul, Psychedelia. This is a live album, the second in a series captured from West Coast shows and curated by legendary Grateful Dead archivist Betty Cantor-Jackson. Hearing them like this makes me want to go back, listen again to their studio albums and see if they can deliver this much heart and soul in the studio.
Here’s the band line-up:
Chris Robinson — lead vocals, guitar
Neal Casal — guitar, vocals
Adam MacDougall — keyboards, vocals
Mark Dutton — bass, vocals
George Sluppick — drums
Track 1, Side 1, Vibration And Light is 16 minutes and 34 seconds long and comes from the second Chris Robinson Brotherhood album, The Magic Door (2012), it’s ambitious for its style, the reason it works is because it sounds like it may have been recorded in 1971. Muted drums, keyboard and synth sounds from Weather Report or Return To Forever, playing solos galore, groovy bass and warm guitar tones that makes you want to close your eyes, nod your head and join them on the journey to the centre of the piece. Guitar players that don’t have the skills of Warren Haynes or Derek Trucks or Dickey Betts but it’s welcomingly not as disciplined either, not as musically studied and that’s why it works. It can never hope to rise to The Allman Brothers soul and prowess, instead it relies on a random Psychedelic element that The Allmans never had giving this music its own face as it steals from the South and the West Coast meeting somewhere in the middle. This is where Adam MacDougall must have bought those synths because I don’t hear them appearing in either Southern Rock or the San Francisco sound. Vibration And Light’s destination is its genius as the jam turns spacey and as those crazed keyboard sounds wind around the guitars.
Suddenly, we are into the next track, the 10 minute Rosalee from the debut album Bad Moon Ritual released in 2012. It’s a song with those Black Crowes black aspirations and adept slide guitar, it can only have come from America and Robinson’s voice suits it so well. Born to sing the southern Soul, the song changes into gospel backing singers tones and what sounds like a whole different song, but it’s soon back into the original tune after exquisite tangents in all directions but never losing focus. The drums are mixed so low, it’s quite unbelievable for an album today. Lead and rhythm guitars dominate, keyboards pushed up there, bass rumbling away and a vocal that fits in perfectly with the blend. The drums stay buried and although they possibly could be a little louder, the idea works, relegating the drums to a place that allows the other instruments to shine.
They Love Each Other is the shortest of three long songs at 7 minutes and welcomes back that anachronistic synth, mixed perfectly with those slighty edgy guitar tones. You don’t have to like this mix of ideas but this band is so aware of what they’re doing. You wonder how Robinson could assemble musicians that ‘get it’ without having been in a band together for twenty years. Perhaps this is why The Black Crowes broke up, Robinson no longer felt the chemistry that obviously exists here – Lynyrd Skynyrd if they were black and on acid.
Tumbleweed in Eden floats along for another 11 minutes, you wonder at the length of sections and how the singer lets the guitar players play and the guitarists let’s the singer sing. (I’m presuming that Robinson is one of the guitar players). On stage Robinson must spend a lot of time meditating on the music as the musicians interact and if that is him he’s doing a great job behind Neil Casal’s more technical playing. It’s delicately executed Rock, subtly powerful, dynamically controlled, gently rising and falling. It’s cosmic music, contradictory in that it’s also earthy, inspired musically expert and rough and ready all at the same time.
Shore Power the opening track on Phosphorescent Harvest (2014) is the first shortish track at five minutes and here you hear a little more of that Stones/Faces influence that originally inspired The Black Crowes but because Robinson understands that it all came from Black music, that element is also present in this uptempo track in that Otis Redding or Sam And Dave might have made it their own had they sung it.
We drift in to the Floydy seven minute Burn Slow, another track from Phosphorescent Harvest. Americanised by Robinson’s voice turning this into a pastoral Soulful hybrid complete with a Dave Gilmour guitar solo – if he was American. Suddenly that synth sounds like they stole it from Rick Wright’s rehearsal space. Spacey, soulful what more could you want.
The Driving Wheel at 8 minutes finishes the album, it might be a song by The Band with Emmylou Harris. Robinson delivers with that distinctive American retro, a tradition that is hard to pull off with any magic intact, especially in 2016. The simplest ideas are the hardest to execute, the well trodden path hard to justify unless you are absolutely nailing it, but the skill is in not giving up any idea that you have to try to make it work, you play you open your mouth and it just does – and that’s the story of this album.
Tour Dates – 2016
Feb 27 Nalen Stockholm, Sweden
Feb 28 Pustervik Göteborg, Sweden
Mar 01 Doornroosje Nijmegen, Netherlands
Mar 02 De Oosterpoort Groningen, Netherlands
Mar 03 Paradiso Amsterdam, Netherlands
Mar 04 Muziekgieterij Maastricht, Netherlands
Mar 06 Konzerthaus Schuur Lucerne, Switzerland
Mar 07 Fabrique Milan, Italy
Mar 09 Zentral Pamplona, Spain
Mar 10 Sala But Madrid, Spain
Mar 11 Razzmatazz Barcelona, Spain
Mar 13 Le Trianon Paris, France
Mar 14 KOKO London, United Kingdom
Mar 19 Jackson Hole Rendezvous Festival
w/ Zac Brown Band
Teton Village, WY
Apr 02 Fool’s Paradise Saint Augustine, FL
Apr 15 Wonder Ballroom
Apr 16 The Showbox Seattle, WA
Apr 17 Hi-Fi Music Hall Eugene, OR
Apr 19 Eureka Theatre Eureka, CA
Apr 21 Mcnear’s Mystic Theatre Petaluma, CA
Apr 22 Mystic Theatre Petaluma, CA
Apr 23 The Observatory Santa Ana, CA
Apr 25 Brooklyn Bowl Las Vegas, NV
May 13 Cherokee Creek Music Festival Cherokee, TX
Jun 02 Mountain Jam Hunter, NY
Jun 18 4 Peaks Music Festival Bend, OR