Album review: Chris Robinson Brotherhood, ‘Betty’s Blends, Vol. Two: Best From The West’
Relentless touring and an avid taper community was the backbone for the Grateful Dead’s rise to prominence in the national music scene in the 1960s and ’70s. A person who had a very integral part in that rise was taper Betty Cantor-Jackson, who recorded the band from the prolific years of 1971 to 1980. Psychedelic rockers and Grateful Dead enthusiasts Chris Robinson Brotherhood, or CRB, recruited Cantor-Jackson to record them on their Western summer tour of 2014, which culminated in release of the band’s new album “Betty’s Blends, Vol. Two: Best From The West.”
Frontman Chris Robinson and the rest of his brothers, guitarist Neal Casal, keyboardist Adam Macdougall, drummer Tony Leone and bassist Mark Dutton, have never hidden their love and appreciation for the Grateful Dead and their music. The band has jammed with Dead members like Phil Lesh and harbor a very similar aesthetic, in both its music and its community, to the jamband forefathers. “Best From The West” even features a heartfelt cover of “They Love Each Other.” But what this album clearly shows is how much CRB have embraced its musical expression through jams and improvisation, much like the Grateful Dead.
The seven-song LP clocks in at over an hour, so there are plenty of psychedelic roads to wander with Robinson and his band of brothers. The exploration begins straight from the start, with a 16-minute “Vibration & Light Suite” that is “one of the best versions captured on tape,” per guitarist Neal Casal. Casals guitar shimmers next to Macdougall’s theremin-like effects throughout the beginning of the track, a pairing that feels like an exact sonic representation of the song’s title. The two instruments lead a jam that shifts from a layered, surreal landscape to a sparse and hallucinatory atmosphere that undulates like the amorphous blobs of a lava lamp. Before the existential indulgence wears too thin, or maybe way after depending on the listener, the band breaks into the chipper “Rosealee,” which the band boogies down to for a solid 10 minutes.
The band is able to deliver its mystic rock in more concise offerings elsewhere on the album and “Shore Power” is pure cosmic boogie. The song bounces with a freewheeling rock and roll rhythm that crashes headlong into a mighty solo from Casal midway through. After a moment to gather himself from Casal’s electric surge, Robinson revs the band up again and cruises off into the horizon as lively as before. Casal has a lot of moments of sonic inspiration like on “Shore Power,” but his most defining performance is on the meditative “Burn Slow.” Robinson’s voice wafts around the tune like burning incense and Casal’s opiatic guitar envelops the whole track, giving it a very heady density.
“Betty’s Blends, Vol. Two: Best From The West” captures Chris Robinson Brotherhood approaching its music in a very exploratory manner, with the band heading off in a number of different directions throughout the album. It is beginning to be a sort of tradition for CRB to release an album of Cantor-Jackson’s recordings of the band every year, and as the series of continues it will be interesting to see what direction the band decides to head next.
Chris Robinson Brotherhood
“Betty’s Blends, Vol. Two: Best From The West”
Label: Silver Arrow Records
Release: June 2, 2015
Notable Tracks: “Burn Slow,” “Vibration & Light Suite”
ABOUT Garrett Bethmann
Garrett Bethmann is a graduate of University of Mary Washington with a degree in English. An eight-year resident of Lake Tahoe, he now lives in Denver, Colorado.