A consciousness shift is happening around the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. A handful of years ago, the most common response to hearing the band name might have been, “Oh, you mean the guy from The Black Crowes?” But today when I say, “Chris Robinson Brotherhood is coming to The Ogden this Thursday, February 2nd, and of course I’ll be going to the show,” I’ve been met with responses like, “I love that band! Can I go with?” or “I’ve heard their shows are great, I should get tickets to that too.”
Yes you should. CRB, as they’re affectionately known by fans, consistently deliver rousing and inspiring performances rich with not only high-level musicianship and song-craft, but also a sense of family, belonging, and welcome with every show. This spirit of openness and warmth is reflected in the titles of their two nearly back-to-back 2016 releases, 'Anyway You Love, We Know How You Feel' and its companion EP from the same recording sessions, 'If You Lived Here, You Would Be Home by Now.' Released on July 29th and November 4th of last year respectively, CRB painted a two-paneled picture of a group of musicians and songwriters who manage to be hard-grooving, thoughtful, and fun all at once using a varied palette of musical styles and influences. Who wouldn't want to be in on one of their concert experiences and feel like they’re a part of that family?
CRB have been around since 2011, but the feel of their most current records, their first self-produced releases recorded on the side of Mount Tamalpais near San Francisco, are of a family that have grown together through extensive touring, collaborative songwriting, and endless conversations around meals cooked by band members. They visit record stores everywhere they go and stack their newly-purchased vinyl on their tour bus turntable every night. The group’s core: Chris Robinson on vocals and guitar, lead guitarist Neal Casal, and keyboardist Adam McDougal (who stepped over from The Black Crowes) have been together since the beginning, and are now all involved in the songwriting process. Drummer Tony Leone (Ollabelle) brings a touch of his jazz background to the grooves, and has also joined in on the songwriting, and bassist Jeff Hill holds it all together with a deeply soulful pocket.
Watch CRB play "Narcissus Soaking Wet" live:
The band’s latest recordings also show a group that has grown beyond its former identification as a Deadhead-type act into something richer and more difficult to pigeonhole into any simple genre classification. The cosmic funk of 'Anyway You Love...'’s opening track, “Narcissus Soaking Wet,” lets us know right away that the vistas have widened for CRB with echoes of Sly and The Family Stone and early Funkadelic wafting through the grooves. The lyrics, too, are far from simplistic, revealing a sociological awareness, an artful use of stream-of-consciousness imagery, and a sly humor that outstrips most jam-band lyrics by miles. Listening all the way through 'Anyway You Love' is a trip that takes you through a mid-60s-Dylan-esque time (think Highway 61 Revisited / Blonde On Blonde) with a stint into The Band-style Americana on “Ain’t It Hard But Fair,” more groovy and variegated scenery on “Give Us Back Our Eleven Days,” “Some Gardens Green,” “Leave My Guitar Alone,” and “Oak Apple Day,” (which is actually a song about CRB). The record then ends with the heartfelt, Gospel-soaked “California Hymn,” and as any good trip should always stop with near-religious feeling of wholeness and peace, this one certainly does.
If 'Anyway You Love' is an extended trek, 'If You Lived Here...' is a day trip into side roads and lesser-known destinations, some of them practically off the map. “New Cannonball Rag” has a swinging, rolling feel again reminiscent of some of The Band’s best stuff, “Roan County Banjo” goes from country-ish to almost discordant craziness at the end, and the jaunt continues through a few more changes in scenery to end on the gentle empathic kindness of “Sweet, Sweet Lullaby.”
In anticipation for this Thursday’s Ogden show, I recently got the chance to ask CRB guitarist Neal Casal some questions about the band, life on the road, and music in general. His answers shed more light on CRB’s latest sounds, and the inspirations behind their newest music:
It’s easy to see why the word “brotherhood” is part of your band name; there’s a clear feeling of love and community in your music. Do you feel that’s been growing the longer you’ve played together?
The sense of community that The CRB promotes is definitely growing the longer we play together. We’re entering our seventh year as a band, and the seeds we planted back in 2011 are definitely showing flowers now, and it’s a nice thing to see. We have a great group of fan/friends/family across the country and we’re looking forward to another year of touring and visiting everyone.
How do you feel that the in-studio writing process of 'Anyway You Love, We Know How You Feel' affected the way the songs on the album turned out?
It brought more immediacy to our process and applied some pressure to us, which turned out to be a good thing. Everyone hates deadlines but sometimes they can be good; they can force you to do things that maybe you wouldn’t have otherwise.
I’d imagine that working with the relatively new rhythm section of Tony and Jeff has brought about some changes in the band’s overall feel. Has that felt like a pretty organic process? What do you think these guys have brought to CRB’s sound and vibe?
Tony and Jeff have changed the sound of our band dramatically and brought so much musicality, fluidity, and versatility to our sound. I can’t say enough great things about these guys and how important they are to the sound, but also to the vibe of the band. With them, we can explore any kind of music we like, and there’s a sustainability to our future that we had never felt previously.
I’ve seen some hopeful signs among the music community that people seem to be rediscovering a respect and appreciation for the album as an art form unto itself, and there’s definitely a feeling of intention in the way 'Anyway You Love' and 'If You Lived Here' are put together. Did the band spend a lot of time just looking at these releases as whole documents and shaping them accordingly, or was that more of a quick, intuitive thing?
We’ve always approached records as complete documents because that’s how we grew up thinking of them, and that’s how we’ve always worked and always will work. There’s no rediscovering anything for us: this is our way of life.
I hear so many different possible influences in your playing that I’m not even going to bother speculating- so who have some of your biggest influences been on guitar?
Malcolm Young, Magic Sam, Dickey Betts, Blind Owl Wilson, Robert Nighthawk, Mick Taylor, Ry Cooder, Clarence White, Nic Jones, Ollie Halsall, John Renbourn, Doc Watson, Scott Gorham, Julian Bream, Baden Powell, Leo Nocentelli, Randy Rhoads, Freddie King, Mississippi John Hurt, Jim Hall, Dave Murray, Adrian Smith, and of course, the great Gabor Szabo.
On an average afternoon, or an evening off, what might be a handful of albums you’d be listening to?
Incredible String Band - The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter
Magic Sam - Black Magic
Charlie Rich- The Essential Charlie Rich
Ronnie Lane - Anymore For Anymore
Cass McCombs - Mangy Love
Bobby Hutchinson - Components
Kacy And Clayton - Strange Country
Eddie Bo - Hook And Sling
Kimono My House - Sparks
Your songwriting relationship with Chris has clearly grown over the years. When you first joined, was it more of a thing where he brought in the songs and you just played leads, or have you worked together on songs since the beginning?
We worked on songs together from day one and have always cultivated our writing partnership. He had some songs he’d written on his own and will always do that, but we really enjoy writing songs together and it’s a big part of our work flow.
There’s a quote from Chris I read recently, “These are our services when we play our music.” I love that because it evokes a church-like atmosphere, and while I’ve never been “religious,” there’s an undeniable power in church services- a sense of people collectively reaching for some power bigger than themselves, and a joyousness in that collective effort. How does The CRB engage and work with the audience to get that feel?
Human beings are made of music; it’s as ancient and innate in us as anything can be. So we’re just taking part in this time-honored ritual of invoking it, and stirring it in people. We’re just a reminder to let you know that’s it’s there inside, and needs to be related to. The muse is not something to be ignored, in anyone, ever. It needs expression in the form of dancing, singing, or just hanging out and listening and being a greater part of your community. So we’re just here to help that process along.
Any special treats or surprises planned for this Thursday? Have have you guys ever played The Ogden before?
We’ve never played The Ogden, so we’re really excited about that. Denver was one of the first cities that really took us in during our earlier years, so it’s always a special place for us.
After you wrap up your current tour in New Orleans on March 31st, what’s next?
More touring throughout the year, and we’re releasing a new record later this year as well. Looking forward to it all!
CRB tour often and are well into their latest journey, so this Thursday is a great time to catch them live and join the party! They hit The Ogden Theater in Denver this Thursday, February 2nd (I’ll be there!), and continue on to The Center for the Arts in Crested Butte this weekend, The State Room in Salt Lake City next week, Sheridan Opera House in Telluride 2/10-2/11, and The Belly Up in Aspen on 02/12. Their tour will continue through New Mexico, Alabama, California, Nevada, and West Virginia, wrapping up at one of their favorite gatherings, Hogs For The Cause, in New Orleans on March 31st. Stay tuned because CRB are already recording a new album, and I, for one, can’t wait to hear it.
All photos, videos, and embedded tracks per the artists featured and those credited. This feature was edited for brevity and clarity by BolderBeat.