From his days with his eponymous Brotherhood, Chris Robinson learned, or possibly already knew, that leaving a live recording in the hands of Betty Cantor-Jackson was a good idea. The renowned Grateful Dead taper documented more than a few Chris Robinson Brotherhood performances, then compiled into official live releases, for the band’s own record label. Betty’s back, as too is Robinson this time with a new quintet, Green Leaf Rustlers, but with the same familiar flair for picking some hot numbers.
Selected from a grouping of March 2018 shows at Sweetwater Music Hall in Marin’s Mill Valley, the ten chosen ones all share a cowboy-music-on-the-moon quality. From country rock rambles such as the opening “Big Mouth Blues” to the closing Dead inflections on “Ride Me High,” this is exactly the alchemy one would hope for from Robinson, guitarists Barry Sless and Greg Loiacono, bassist Pete Sears, and drummer John Molo, with Betty capturing the magic. Hippy and trippy, torn denim and tie-dye, yet with punchy tempos and nods to Johnny Cash and the Rolling Stones, among others, the Rustlers remain above cliché.
Robinson is especially deft at morphing between vocal characters, and allowing plenty of space for the reggae-flecked, envelope-filtered jam that bubbles out of the Stones’ “No Expectations.” Robinson’s finest vocal comes on Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street,” in that it honors the original without a hint of parody. On Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” Robinson and friends turn the outlaw country classic upside down, at a charging pace that curls into “That’s Alright Mama,” and delights with the sparkling conversations of Sless and Loiacono.
Robinson has been frequently trafficking at the intersections of cosmic country rock and freeform exploratory improvisations since his move to the Marin area. The Rustlers, themselves, were spawned from an earlier jam at another establishment, also with Dead connections. As the Brotherhood was an outlet for that band’s original songwriting, here Robinson is paying tribute to some of his heroes, the only way he knows how: with a party on the moon and Betty at the board.