The Chris Robinson Brotherhood made its annual Northern Nevada ski season pilgrimage on Friday, Jan. 26, at a sold-out Crystal Bay Casino Crown Room. The Tahoe winter sports scene is a veritable treasure trove of groovy, deadhead freaks and the CRB decided it was the perfect place to kick off its 2018 Winter Tour.
The hard working NorCal jam quintet always seems to be playing somewhere. It closed an aggressive 2017 tour with a pair of three-night runs at San Francisco’s Fillmore and at the intimate Terrapin Crossroads just north of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County.
Rather than rest a bit for a winter schedule that will take them to Europe as spring approaches, both frontman Chris Robinson and guitarist Neal Casal took to the road for a half-dozen shows with side projects. Robinson’s Green Leaf Rustlers and Casal’s Circles Around The Sun (which also features CRB keys wizard Adam MacDougall) wrapped their half-dozen or so shows just a couple days before jumping on the bus over Donner Pass.
It appeared initially that perhaps they could have used a tad more rest. They moved a bit unevenly at times, save for drummer Tony Leone and bassist Jeff Hill (who were rock-solid all night), through a first set focused on CRB stalwarts. “New Cannonball Rag” featured solo sections from both Casal and MacDougall before blending seamlessly into “Tomorrow Blues” with MacDougall animatedly injecting keyboard psychedelia into the back half of the tune. The theme continued with the spacey “Vibration and Light,” a staple from CRB’s earliest “Betty’s Blends” recordings.
They settled down and found their footing together a half-dozen songs in. The country-flavored “High Is Not The Top” featured Casal exchanging his Jerry Garcia-toned Walker guitar for a twangy baby blue Telecaster, and picking through a stylistic solo. It was the first offering of their latest album “Barefoot in the Head” to an intensely engaged, dancing crowd.
The album was created and recorded over the span of just two weeks last year at a house in Stinson Beach, California, while all five members lived together sharing ideas and inspiration. The result is a record born and nurtured organically among the sea, fog and redwoods of the Northern California coast. The CRB’s calling card has been its lengthy, Grateful Dead-inspired expository jams. As a result, Robinson’s often-beautiful lyrics and vocal presentations occasionally get overshadowed. “Barefoot in the Head” is more rhythmic and lyrically focused, while still leaving space for additions in live performances, and may be the band’s best pure songwriting effort to date.
The second set began with a cool cover of Roy Orbison’s “Dream Baby.” I’m always a big admirer of any band that takes on someone so singularly unique as Orbison, and the CRB did him proud, showing the tune deference while massaging in their own tonal touches and some playful MacDougall keyboards. More CRB standards followed, including “100 Days Of Rain,” before the Crown Room revelers were treated to a block of four consecutive tunes from “Barefoot,” all of which sounded great live and contained some surprises not found on the album.
The jaunty toe-tapper “Hark, The Herald Hermit Speaks” expounded fun, ’60s feeling instrumental hooks that had the crowd moving. Continuing without interruption, things intensified with the up-tempo funky rocker “Behold The Seer.” It’s a tune that really features talents from every player in the band wrapped in one package. Tony Leone’s smooth time-keeping and punchy fills are skillfully accentuated by Jeff Hill’s bounding bass line and Adam MacDougall’s funky foundation. The recorded version reveals only a sniff of Neal Casal’s guitar, but the live offering revealed an edgy solo before Robinson’s paced lyrics gave way to the harp in his back pocket to blow the top off the tune, which brought a chorus of roars and applause. I even detected a quick smile of satisfaction from Robinson after the final note, and I’d concur they nailed them both.
The beautifully crafted ballad “If You Had A Heart To Break” settled things down and put Robinson’s vocal front and center, enhanced by airy support on guitar from Casal, as it slowly ramped up in intensity. The final new song of the four might have been the best. Spring boarded by an opening riff reminiscent of 311, “Good To Know” fuses reggae roots with sections of cosmic keys and guitar, while leaving plenty of space in between for poppy lyrics. As the tune began, Leone and MacDougall made eye contact, Leone revealing a little smile as he established a pleasing in-the-pocket groove. It’s really unlike any other CRB composition I’ve heard, complete with some sweet background harmonies from Hill, MacDougall and Casal.
Jam favorite “Narcissus Soaking Wet” concluded the main set before CRB dropped the ‘Dead’s “Mr Charlie” for its encore tune. While it took a few songs to rekindle the timing, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood brought it home tight and ready for a long run. Might we see them rest a bit as the weather warms? Probably not. Who knows, maybe a couple weeks together along the shores of Lake Tahoe this summer could produce some more new magic for the future. Until then, local “CRBeings” have a wonderful set of new songs to set them free until the Sierra Nevada range sees the band again.
– Michael Smyth