Room to grow, explore in Chris Robinson Brotherhood
Keyboardist Adam MacDougall is sitting in his truck in the rain. His main band, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, is on a tour break after its phenomenal run of New Year’s shows at Phil Lesh’s San Rafael enclave Terrapin Crossroads. The keyboardist is gonna go get some studio time with his other band, Circles Around the Sun, which also features CRB guitarist Neal Casal. The outfit was originally tapped to create musical interludes in between the Grateful Dead’s sets during its Fare Thee Well concerts in 2015. Today, they plan to mine whatever sonic nuggets they come across. “I saw a really nice rainbow on the way over,” MacDougall said. The prospects for the day are looking up.
The keyboardist certainly has a history of finding musical gems during his multi-decade career. For many years, he worked as a session musician in the Los Angeles area for the likes of artists Macy Gray and Ben Taylor, while playing in his own semi-serious band Furslide. While in L.A., he began traveling back into the hallowed hills of Laurel Canyon to sit-in on weekly, in-the-know jam sessions with musician and producer Jonathan Wilson and Chris Robinson, with whom he briefly had toured when a band he was in opened for The Black Crowes in Europe in the mid-1990s. Between late-night jam sessions and playing on records with people together, Robinson and MacDougall rekindled a musical relationship that led Robinson to ask the keyboardist to join The Black Crowes in 2007.
That relationship has remained strong, as they’ve been evolving their main project of the last seven or so years — the cosmic boogie of The Chris Robinson Brotherhood. The group’s latest album, “Barefoot In The Head,” is a new highlight for them. They dropped the seven- and eight-minute jams and focused on constructing concise songs that played to each of their strengths, culminating in MacDougall’s favorite release so far. It was built upon the core of MacDougall, Robinson and Casal.
“I think the lineup of the band solidified, the fact that Neal, I and Chris have been doing this for six years and put out records together. I don’t know, something just clicked. We found the way that we work together and used that properly,” MacDougall said.
The band cut the record in two weeks at a secluded bungalow in Northern California that was both home and recording studio. Where previous albums were essentially songs they had road tested for months, the musicians didn’t come with many ideas in hand for “Barefoot In The Head.” Instead, they ate, roomed and played music together like a small family and recorded the ideas that bubbled to the top.
“When you live in the house, your kind of thinking about music all the time and you’ve got your records. We had a really nice player and everyone brought up their records and you could just take a break, cook dinner, come back to it. It was much more natural and organic, I think that was a big part of it. The perfect studio with the perfect lineup and the confidence to throw out ideas and know that the other people could take them seriously and work with them,” MacDougall said.
For all the success and acclaim MacDougall has earned over his career, he has no interest in hanging his hat on it. He recently got a new music teacher to help him get back to the basics and build from the ground up.
“I haven’t taken lessons in a long time, therefore, you don’t practice as much because you don’t have someone there who you are paying to bust your ass when you don’t do your homework. So getting back to a teacher and playing rudiments and practicing scales you didn’t want to do as a kid, I can see a difference. I want to learn as much as I can harmonically and see how I can fit that into the band. That’s me trying to not get musically stale and rest on my laurels. It’s easy in a band like this because we created our own personality. If you created the character, then all you have to do is play the character. It’s pretty easy to play the character. I’ve been trying to break out of that for years,” MacDougall said.
He points to artists such as Keith Jarrett and Herbie Hancock as models for the type of musician he’s striving to be. He notes their musical knowledge and sophistication as strengths and hopes his lessons will give him the tools he needs to build up his musical muscle. As he explains, having the mastery to interpret what the music is saying is the ultimate goal.
“Your pretty lucky to get it a couple shows a week. To feel free and to phrase the way you want to phrase and hit the notes you want to hit and find the right pocket and feel natural. It’s almost as if you are being played more than anything. That’s the place people want to get to, where their ability is so strong that when the spirit hits them they can do what they want to do,” MacDougall said.
MacDougall certainly will have plenty of opportunity to keep working toward where he wants his craft to be. In addition to his continued Winter tour with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood and studio time with Circles Around The Sun, the keyboardist will embark on a tour with As The Crow Flies in the spring that stops May 12 at MontBleu on South Shore, Robinson’s ode to The Black Crowes that also includes guitarist Marcus King. He’s spent a lot of time in the saddle as a musician and his eyes are always on the horizon for the next adventure, to keep traveling. He might find some musical gold, he might not, but either way, he’s free to follow whichever path he chooses, to see what’s on the other side of the rainbow.
“I know people who tour and make a million a year and some who make 15 grand a year. It’s about what you want and what you are willing to do to get it. I think a lot of us in the CRB have put the idea of the music and the kind of freedom we want to have musically in front of any giant dreams of stuff, like the Hollywood Hills. This music may never get us a retirement plan (laughs), but we are realize it’s important to be free musically and state your musical opinion in a way that fits with everyone else, and hopefully everything else is falling in line.”