Photo by Stuart Levine
“Nice to see everybody on a foggy night,” said a grinning Chris Robinson following the opening hip-tight boogie of Roy Brown’s “There’s a Good Rockin’ Tonight.” And there would be plenty of good rocking. The sometimes psychedelic fog that encircles a Chris Robinson Brotherhood appearance was less so at the band’s return to the mid-city El Rey Theatre, the thick haze left instead to the meteorology outside and the blanket of pea soup over Los Angeles.
Inside the movie house-turned-music hall, the country jog of “Roan County Banjo” meandered along unencumbered, colored by high harmony vocals from guitarist Neal Casal, dressed in a vintage Waylon Jennings T-shirt, before his short, tasteful solo tagged in Adam MacDougall and his battery of whirling and swirling keyboards. With the interplay and improvisation more concentrated, tucked into the oscillations of “Oak Apple Day” or the gothic blues of The Black Crowes’ “Tornado,” the quintet was still more than content to take its time. The eight-song first set clocked in over an hour and fifteen minutes, finding its peak on “Star or Stone,” as the Brotherhood mixed a gently unfolding vocal bridge into a beautifully patient Casal run, before the loping fuzz of “Meanwhile in the Gods…” cascaded darkly into a cleansing “Tulsa Yesterday.”
This is still a torn and fraying bunch onstage, but the intent, the focus, seems to have sharpened. Robinson’s name, voice, and songwriting claim their rightful place in the group’s performance and reputation, but it’s the evolving strength of each of the five that puts the accent more on the brotherhood portion of the title, as a collective rather than as support for its captain. Even so, there are instances, like the set-closing cover of Delaney and Bonnie’s “Poor Elijah/Tribute to Robert Johnson,” when Robinson owns the stage and excitingly reminds of his soul-shaking Southern roots more so than his present perpetual Summer of Love.
Funky and hot, the Brotherhood reached back to Carl Perkins for the second-set starter “Boppin’ the Blues,” holding the theme into an urgent “Ain’t it Hard but Fair,” and another Crowes entry with “Little Lizzie Mae.” The latter drove an audience call-and-response as it segued into “Can You Hear Me,” asking an obvious rhetorical question to the crowd, packed and gyrating to the hypnotizing hop. Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me” held the momentum before “Eagles on the Highway” gave the party a needed breather.
MacDougall’s moment came on “Tuff Mama,” with its spacey aftermath filtering into the four-on-the-floor disco-ball bump of “I Ain’t Hiding,” itself the third and final Crowes cut of the evening. The familiar wonk of “Beggar’s Moon” signaled closing time, leaving only a telling choice of encores- a debut of New Riders of the Purple Sage’s “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy”- that summarized neatly the essence of the Brotherhood’s vibe on this visit to the City of Angels.
Past Chris Robinson projects at times felt like side streets off of his main drag, The Black Crowes. The Brotherhood, possibly at first, may have carried that pretense for longtime fans of his work, but should no more. This is a band that has its own destination in mind every time it goes out for a ride, looking for that free and easy somewhere, however long the trip, and always choosing the scenic route.