Golden Ears: Chris Robinson Brotherhood Meet Their Match
Photo by Jay Blakesberg
Chris Robinson is on the phone. His voice is hoarse and weary. It’s mid-November and the singer is nearing the end of a nearly year-long tour with The Black Crowes. That band re-formed after an extended break, during which Robinson had started the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. The latter, it seems, is becoming Robinson’s main axe, the thing he is looking forward to at the end of the Crowes tour. It makes ironic sense. On some level, the Crowes is the band of hard-rocking guns hired by the Robinson brothers, and the CRB is the band band, flush with the energy of its formation.
Robinson is talking about Betty’s SF Blends, Volume One, the quadruple LP, live set that was due to come out as part of Record Store Day’s Black Friday event on the day after Thanksgiving. The release comes packaged in a big red and gold sleeve that is designed to look like an enormous Victorian era tea tin. (It happens to match the interior of the Great American Music Hall.) Four red and white vinyl albums are packaged in a thick red gatefold, with the requisite Alan Forbes artwork to set the tone: a gnome shaman smoking tea on the front, and various CRB icons inside. The records themselves come in a sort of rice paper, intended to create the feel of actual tea bags. Only 2000 were made—a super-limited release. An objet d’art. The aesthetic of the super-rare, handmade object gives Robinson deep joy—it’s part of what this band is all about.
The album follows the 2012 studio album The Magic Door, but it feels like a sequel to the Grateful Dead’s Europe ‘72. If you first heard that album on vinyl, then the first thing that struck you was that it was three fucking records. And now here comes this enormous thing: four records full of laid-back guitar leads, shape-shifting, space-constructing keyboard weirdness and guitar rhythms, shuffling drums and steady loping basslines. It’s hot shit rock and roll with gruff vocal harmonies and the gospelic gift of Robinson’s singing voice—songs full of outlaws and outcasts and cosmic and religious imagery that hint at discontent and change.
And it was recorded through the ideal set of ears.
In December 2012, as they had the December before, the Brotherhood held court for several nights at the Great American Music Hall, a gilded rock temple in San Francisco’s still-seedy Tenderloin neighborhood. The hall’s swollen red balconies were decked in Christmas lights and prayer flags, and a glowing full-moon umbrella hung stage right. (In 2011, it had been the sun.) Above the stage, the CRB’s Freakifornia flag flew. As the band cooked up its ever-tighter brew of space cowboy rock and roll, a figure stood perched in a room behind the stage, twiddling sliders and tweaking knobs. A wizard-woman, a teller of tales, collector of sounds, she had tapped every line. She was filtering the electromagnetic streams into a digital phial.
This was Betty. Betty of the Boards. Betty Cantor-Jackson, tape warrior of the Grateful Dead. She had met Robinson and the fellows at a Seva benefit gig on the Bay in Richmond, Calif., in May 2011. She hadn’t known The Black Crowes. She didn’t know who Robinson was. But she liked what she was hearing with the CRB, then still in their first year as a band.
“I want to record your band,” Robinson recalls her telling him, “and there’s probably very little you can do to stop me.”
Because Cantor-Jackson has carte blanche to record at the Great American, she brought her gear down to the hall a few weeks later and recorded the band’s first gig there. When they returned in December 2011, she did the same. On that run, both Bob Weir and Phil Lesh showed up—separately—to sit in. When Lesh saw Cantor-Jackson at the board, he turned to Robinson and boomed: “Is that Betty Cantor I see?”
“He gives me the Phil professor look,” Robinson says, “and he’s like, ‘Best ears in the business!’”