“Rock on, roll on, get off, get it on / Be one, be two, be all, be you…”
The Chris Robinson Brotherhood share these guiding words of encouragement on “New Cannonball Rag,” the first single of their latest EP If You Lived Here, You Would Be Home Now, released last November.
There’s no doubt 2016 was bittersweet and, for some, just downright awful. Despite the myriad disappointments and celebrity earthly departures, the music played on, bands continued to produce excellent albums, and fans flocked to shows and festivals. Washington, D.C., and the surrounding area hosted an incredible amount of talent over the course of the past 365+ days. On this second #MusicMonday of the new year, Parklife DC takes a look at one show specifically which was performed by the aforementioned California rock collective who define themselves as “psychedelic filling in Folk Blues pie.” The following words, photos, video, and even audio — yes, official live tracks — will assist you in reliving that Sunday night several months ago.
But before we do that, let’s get some quick background and context. Georgia-born Chris Robinson (who turned 51 in December) and his band combatted the tumultuous loss and change that 2016 wrought by staying incredibly busy creating and performing music. Not only did they tour stateside rather extensively and briefly overseas, they also released two new companion records. And if that wasn’t enough, Robinson launched a new monthly “psychedelic show” in April called “Chris Robinson’s Gurus Galore” on SiriusXM’s satellite radio station Jam On (Ch. 29). It airs the first Monday of the month and is the “Only radio show in the cosmos that dares ask you the musical question . . . do YOU guru?” according to the talented singer and guitarist.
Lack of time and inspiration appear to be the least of Robinson’s worries, and for his fans that’s a good thing. The band released their fourth studio album Anyway You Love, We Know How You Feel on July 29th 2016 via his own label Silver Arrow Records. It’s their first self-produced project and critics have hailed the LP as the group’s best to date. New drummer Tony Leone, who joined in 2015, makes his studio debut with other members on this recording. The band’s official online bio indicated that the title of the 8-song record comes from its third tune “Ain’t It Hard but Fair.” Robinson stated:
“We’d just finished a hectic year on the road, and I was looking around at the world and all the anxiety and the chaos. The phrase felt like this universal statement, to me, that it doesn’t matter who or how or where or why, no matter what you’re going through, as long as you have love, everyone can relate to that.”
This was the kind of energy that really helped shape the album. Manufactured on a limited budget at a new (albeit more scenic) location with one fewer band member, you would think that there would be a level of frustration involved, but wasn’t the case. Anyway You Love has “some of [Robinson’s] favorite lyrics” and was the “most spontaneous record” he’s ever been a part of. Additionally, he stressed his pride over it being very much “a group effort.” In fact, the recording session was so on point, and the quartet was so in tune with each other and the “universe” at large, that an additional 5 tracks were put down on tape and strategically released November 4 as a stand alone EP, as previously mentioned. Robinson told media outlets:
“[It’s] the sonic bookend to our ‘Anyway You Love’ recording and song cycle. When we were sequencing the original album, these five songs seemed to want to hang together in their own way and tell their own little story, so they were set aside to present separately.”
The new EP arrived just in time to drum up even more excitement for their November 20 9:30 Club show in Washington, D.C. It was the final East Coast tour stop before heading west. The last time the group played this popular DC venue was almost a year ago to the date on 11/17/15. Now, on to the show! One thing you must know about the Brotherhood is that they have a loyal and enthusiastic, freak-flag flying fan base, willing to travel to a number of shows on any given tour. Many super fans in the audience who I talked with had seen their Philadelphia show several nights before, in addition to their nearby July 27 Annapolis, MD, gig.
While the show was not sold out, the venue was far from empty. Band merch was plentiful, with some tour-specific items. The energy was welcoming and anticipation was palpable, especially since there was no opener. A majestic statue of an owl named “Possible Dust Clouds” perched stage left on a speaker, emitting fragrant incense and casting a watchful (and eerie) eye on the crowd. I learned from a fan that the wise bird is one of two iconic figures synonymous with CRB, the other being their “resident and inevitably stoned space gnome” dubbed “Captain Nebula,” who appears on front of the drum.
A giant, American-style flag, featuring a single “F” in the upper left corner, served as the stage’s backdrop. Hunter S. Thompson would most definitely approve! Several lucky fans positioned front row center on the rail proudly displayed a smaller version throughout the show. The hard-to-miss fabric represents “freak power,” which is a political movement Robinson is passionate and somewhat vocal about. Given the results of the very recent presidential election, the venue’s proximity to the White House, and the looming prospect of familial holiday meltdowns, it’s safe to assume that many people in the audience were not just there to enjoy some soulful, funky rock music. They needed an escape. Maybe I’m thinking too hard, but the parallels are too ridiculous to ignore. Here’s a quick bit of history trivia to impress your friends.
The Gonzo journalist cited above helped form the “Freak Power Party” in 1969 during the Aspen Mayoral election and ran for sheriff in 1970. They lost both times, the first by a single vote. He and his friends established the alternative faction in direct retaliation to the lack of quality candidates and young voter turnout. On one of the campaign posters, Thompson defined their cause:
“We are not really freaks at all – not in the literal sense – but the twisted realities of the world we are trying to live in have somehow combined to make us feel like freaks. We argue, we protest, we petition – but nothing changes.”
The bright banner that night stood for something more – solidarity, freedom, and reassurance. No matter what, the rock and artistic expression would continue, and it did. (But I digress).
Watch Chris Robinson Brotherhood perform “Let It Bleed” at 9:30 Club on November 20, 2016:
Back to the rock ‘n roll!
The five men were greeted with raucous applause as they took the stage. After quickly re-tuning their instruments they began the show with “Leave My Guitar Alone,” the sixth track of their newest record. Robinson ended the song saying: “Thank you! It’s nice to see everybody this evening. Thank you for dedicating and devoting and sacrificing your Sunday night for us.” While the audience is clapping and cheering, one fan yells: “Thanks for being here. We’re just glad that you’re playing.” Robinson replies, “I know man,” and started “New Cannonball Rag.” That exchange represented the spirit of the night: inviting and grateful.
One of the highlights of the first half of the show was hearing Robinson emphatically sing a cappella towards the end of their third song “Tornado,” a rarity from the double-disc compilation “Lost Crowes,” by his former band, The Black Crowes. The powerful desperation in his voice was intensely moving. Later came a light-hearted moment you don’t get see every day – Robinson dancing – and he did so happily during one of the several lengthy keyboard solos on “Sunday Sound.” It’s a tune off his 2004 solo effort with The New Mud Earth. Keyboardist Adam MacDougall, who has been playing with Robinson since 2007, exudes cool charisma with a side of silliness. He helped form this band in 2011, along with masterful guitarist Neal Casal. The close camaraderie and shared history is evident as they interact on stage, feeding off each another. The collective energy they exuded helped elevate the sounds they were generating. Everyone was compelled to move and they did. At times it seemed like the instruments themselves were communicating with each other, having forgotten all about the musicians playing them. It was really extraordinary.
After playing an hour and fifteen minutes, the band took a brief intermission before returning to play the second half, which ran about the same time. This is a common practice for the band. Their encore was an epic, unconventional 9-minute cover of J. J. Cale‘s 1966 blues-infused rock track “After Midnight,” popularized by the legendary Eric Clapton in 1970.
They played seven pieces of new material over the course of the 17-song set that night. With melodies ranging from 7.5 to 15 minutes in length, CRB could most definitely be considered a “jam band” with a consciousness-expanding edge. At times I got lost in the music, but the Brotherhood always managed to bring me back. It felt like what I might hear at a major rock festival, sans the grass (or mud), fried food fragrance, and port-a-potty lines. The “official” iTunes review of their first album Big Moon Ritual indicated, “These are songs that require their length. The laid-back jams add to the atmosphere […] the playing is loose and inspired.” I couldn’t agree more with that description or the one provided by the band. They need to trademark the shirt new bassist Jeff Hill was wearing, because after that performance I’m going to make it a point to “Never Miss a Sunday Show,” especially one of theirs.
The Brotherhood wrapped up their extensive 81-stop tour supporting the last two albums December 17, at the Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles. Altogether, they played a little over 100 live shows last year. They’re back on the road again January 25 in Mexico, returning to the states for 15 national dates through March.
Are you bummed you missed the Brotherhood? Fret not! For fans unable to make it or those in attendance who want to relive that exceptional night of noise, an official soundboard recording of the band’s November 20 performance can be downloaded in a variety of formats (including a 3-disc set) here. You can purchase any number of bootlegs from this site in preparation for the next time they come to town.
Music helps bring together communities of people, no matter the state of national affairs. Robinson explained that when the band is:
“At its best, [they] feel like the music makes a connection with people that’s on a level that has nothing to do with commerce or nostalgia. There’s some other gravity that keeps us all together in those moments, and it’s representative of that kind of magic spell we’re chasing.”
Continue pursuing enchantment in 2017, interact with others and yourself, listen to their new albums, buy the concert tickets, and EAT THE PIE.
1. Leave My Guitar Alone
2. New Cannonball Rag
3. Tornado (Black Crowes cover)
4. Clear Blue Sky & The Good Doctor
5. Sunday Sound (Chris Robinson & The New Earth Mud cover)
6. Meanwhile in the Gods…
7. California Hymn
8. Hello, L.A., Bye, Bye Birmingham (Delaney Bramlett & Mac Davis cover)
9. Let It Bleed (Rolling Stones cover)
10. Forever as the Moon
11. Oak Apple Day
12. One Hundred Days of Rain
13. Down Home Girl (Alvin Robinson cover)
14. Shadow Cosmos
15. Narcissus Soaking Wet
16. Shore Power
17. After Midnight (J.J. Cale Cover)
Here are some more pictures of Chris Robinson Brotherhood performing at the 9:30 Club on November 20, 2016. (Photos courtesy and copyright of Theresa C. Sanchez.)