Photo by Stuart Levine
Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Fonda Theater, Los Angeles, CA- 12/17
The fairly straight lines that have been drawn between the Grateful Dead and Chris Robinson Brotherhood—as San Francisco-based psychedelic country rock bands performing a different set from night to night—is something the Brotherhood has tacitly if not implicitly encouraged. There is great admiration for the Dead and its approach to rock and roll, but therein lies also what was apparent in the band’s tour-closing appearance in Los Angeles at the Fonda. Sure, the drawn-out, loping improv was present in bushels, but there was an energy, a push into soulful, funky territory that recalled other rockers, as well, like ‘70s Southern California icon Little Feat and, even, Chuck Berry.
Known for their choices of synergetic cover songs, the Brotherhood tapped The Byrds’ “Lazy Days” in an up-tempo start to the night. The rock-and-roll groove played well to warm the near-capacity crowd filling in from an unusually cold Hollywood evening ahead of the holidays. On the previous two late-year stops in the City of Angels, CRB took up residence down the road at the El Rey, but the strength of 2016’s pair of wonderful releases from the quintet- Anyway You Love, We Know How You Feel and the If You Lived Here, You Would Be Home By Now EP- necessitated a graduation to a bigger house. With incense wafting from a faux owl propped on Jeff Hill’s bass amp and an oversized American Freak flag the band’s only stage adornment, the bearded five played it tight, but loose on new cut “Roan County Banjo” then into “Bandlands Here We Come.”
Guitarist Neal Casal, fascinating as a player of clarity and patience, continues to shine in his role as both lead and complementary instrumentalist; just as eager to shoot photos during an Adam MacDougall keyboard romp as he is to take the reins, as he did on “Clear Blue Sky & the Good Doctor.” It was on the following “Sunday Sound” that Casal turned to shutterbug when MacDougall and drummer Tony Leone carried on a duet conversation, reminiscent of classic Bill Payne/Richie Hayward breaks in Feat’s “Dixie Chicken.” The first set closed as it began, with driving rock, this time on Tony Joe White’s “Saturday Night in Oak Grove, Louisiana.”
Set two kicked off with an abridged “Rosalee,” its middle section dissolve instead providing a segue to the bop soul of “New Cannonball Rag.” With the same stride as the first half, the group worked through “Ain’t it Hard, but Fair” and “Reflections on a Broken Mirror,” MacDougall and Casal offering terrific solos against Robinson’s blues-ridden vocal and steady rhythm guitar. More nods to rock on “Leave My Guitar Alone” moved into “Forever as the Moon” and Black Crowes’ cover “I Ain’t Hiding,” before leaking into the acid-tinged strains of “Narcissus Soaking Wet.” Casal capped that with a brilliant run that weaved back into the middle section cascade of “Rosalee,” then raved up for a climatic bookending finish. Appropriately, the night closed on a slower, funkier reading of, what else, Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll.”
It is always a pleasure to see a group of talented musicians take what has been done, internalize it, and create something fresh and original of their own. Within five years, Chris Robinson Brotherhood has methodically and respectfully developed a sound that borrows from all the best influences of American rock and roll, folds it up in a tie-dyed bandana, and wraps it around a sound that reinvigorates as often as it revisits. This is more than just a nod to the hippie gods. This is a new gospel.