Chris Robinson: Transit of the Binary Star
Casal admits that, at early CRB gigs, he was a reluctant lead player. But you could sense him, throughout the course of 2011, becoming more comfortable with grabbing the wheel. He kept a Les Paul onstage as a backup, and everyone kept asking him, “Why don’t you play the Les Paul?” He compares the experience to being a samurai, waiting for the right moment in his training, when he is worthy enough to draw the magic sword. The hammer of ice.
He is mindful of serving the Brotherhood’s needs—especially singing the tight, brother-team-style close harmonies with Robinson—and with MacDougall and Dutton. But he’s also trying to give Robinson space.
“One of the more exciting things for him is to take his guitar playing further,” says Casal. “Obviously, we all know what he can do as a singer. And we all know what he can do as a songwriter, too. He has the ability at any moment to come in with a great song. But his guitar playing is newer territory for him. So, apart from being the lead player, I really do my best to give him a lot of support as a rhythm player, so he can find his way.”
Robinson says the band members rarely talk about their musical intentions. They just all move in similar directions. “The one thing that we really discussed in this band is: the CRB, we never rock,” he says. “This band swings .”
He scats a swingin’ groove. P-tut, p-poop, p-ta, p-toop.
“For Muddy to hold that down with George—and then, there’s Adam over there, who’s like in his own fuckin’ spaceship, who one minute is like, you know, phosphorescent Ray Charles, and in the next minute he’s like Garth Hudson, and then like some weird robotic Moon Mulligan or something.”
He talks about the keyboard setup, then turns to the guitarists’ roles.
“I’m a rhythmic guitar player,” he says, “and Neal’s so eloquent, melodic and beautiful. I’m more, like, punchy and…”
“Percussive,” Dutton says.
“Yeah,” Robinson says. “Definitely.”
Cervantes’ Masterpiece in Denver is a sort of old West dance hall—a big square room, ringed with balconies. The finish is worn off the floor in front of the bar. In one spot, the narrow floorboards are falling through. An enormous disco ball hangs like a moon.
It’s sound check time and Robinson wants to run through the soul ballad “Do Right Woman.” Aretha Franklin had a hit with it in 1967, but the Brotherhood’s take is a fairly straight read on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ version, released in 1969 on the seminal cosmic country album The Gilded Palace of Sin.
In the vacant hall, you can hear every nuance of Robinson’s vocals. His voice breaks with emotion where Parsons’ does. But when the country arrangement yields to the soul bridge, “They say that it’s a man’s world/ But you can’t prove that by me,” Robinson is even more convincing. Of course, Robinson is a mature soul singer, with a twenty-year career notched into his belt. Parsons died at 25, in 1973, in Joshua Tree.
He’s something of a lodestar for Robinson.
“Country rock was one of my first real loves,” Robinson says on the bus. “I was a Byrds fanatic, and, as a Byrds fanatic, I was a Sweetheart of the Rodeo fanatic. Gram was my bridge to the Stones.”
He says he’s always been drawn to the fractured ones—Parsons, Syd Barrett, Alex Chilton, Skip Spence.
“And I think Gram being from Georgia—that was a big connection, as well. A guy from Georgia who went off and…”
He stops himself.
“I wouldn’t really have been romantic about his demise,” he says. “I just always felt those records were so cool. I can listen to the originators of those styles and get just as much. But I like the bastardization of this glittery, stoned, beautiful amalgamation of music that comes together in a transient place like Los Angeles—that still, again, we’re here today and people are still interested in it.”
The band runs through “Badlands Here We Come,” a cowboy tune. Robinson leaves the stage and stands out front as the others keep tinkering.
“I just think we should do a little riff here together,” Casal tells MacDougall, and he flat-picks a Knopfler-esque run. He tries it a few more times. Robinson sings out his suggestion from the floor. MacDougall tries it on the clavinet. He’s skeptical. They play it again and again, until they lock it down.
That night, nearly a thousand people pack the hall. There are more Dead shirts than Crowes shirts.
The Chris Robinson Brotherhood come out stomping, with Hank Ballard’s early rock and roller “Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go”—which opens The Magic Door —and they never let up. After a year and a half of touring, the band is super-tight, especially on the vocal harmonies. They do “Tomorrow Blues” from Big Moon Ritual. The rhythm section thumps it in, then MacDougall’s Mini-Moog whistles across. Indeed, its sound is the band’s signature.
“Badlands Here We Come” comes off as an eerie, supernatural western. The new riff comes around and Casal hits it the first time. He’s playing the Les Paul. On the second run, he and MacDougall nail it together.
They play “Star or Stone,” a mournful ballad that alludes to Judas—a song of betrayal, from the betrayer’s point of view (it could well be about dissolving the Crowes). They snort into Mel Tillis’ “Goodbye, Wheeling,” and “Roll Old Jeremiah,” from Until The Freeze. They’re playing to the place—to Colorado.
At around the time the solar flare hits earth, “Do Right Woman” unfolds into space, and segues into the super laid-back groove of “Tulsa Yesterday,” from Big Moon Ritual. It is a perfect cowboy set.
In honor of Umphrey’s McGee’s return to Summer Camp this weekend, we present the group’s Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger performing this version of “The Pequod” from UM’s Anchor Drops.
Dame shares a song from her new EP Preventions of Heartbreak.
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The Chapin Sisters share an tune from their new album A Date With the Everly Brothers.
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The Milk Carton Kids share the first song from their new album, The Ash & Clay.
Here is the new video from Serbian guitar ace Ana Popovic. “Object Of Obsession” appears on her latest album Can You Stand The Heat.
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