The Chris Robinson Brotherhood happily continues in the tradition of another classic band—and not its namesake frontman’s old outfit the Black Crowes.
“We’re propagating the seed of the Grateful Dead,” Chris Robinson said from his California home base last month, when he was looking forward to catching the first “Fare Thee Well” shows by the Dead’s surviving members in Santa Clara on June 27-28.
“Maybe we’ll busk in the parking lot,” said the Georgia native, 48, who has played in Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s own group, as have other members of the CRB. “This band is unashamedly born and bred in California. That’s what we came looking for, and by God, that’s what we got … we wanted those kinds of stories and spaces.”
Those “Fare Thee Well” shows (with Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio filling in for the late Jerry Garcia) are the summer’s hottest stadium ticket, rounded out by a Chicago swan song on July Fourth weekend, and Robinson embraces the hype. “You’re talking two generations of people who never got to see Jerry,” he said. “And being the last time, it’s a celebration for everybody who’s been a part of the culture, whether it was ’69, ’79, ’89, whatever. That’s kind of the vibe, and good for them.”
Particularly for people who can’t make that trip west, similar vibes will flow when the CRB plays what he calls its “cosmic California rock ’n’ roll” at the Levitate Festival in Marshfield on July 11 and Lowell’s Boarding House Park on July 17.
In the past four years, and over three albums and two live volumes of Betty’s Blends (by Dead engineer Betty Cantor-Jackson), the CRB has hatched originals that blend roots and psychedelia, from the soulful ballad “Wanderer’s Lament” to “Vibration & Light Suite,” which devolves into a space jam.
“We’re architects of the song,” Robinson said, adding, “With great architecture, we can have great moments of inspiration, which would be places to improvise.”
Co-guitarist Neal Casal, who also plays in Hard Working Americans and uncoils sweet Garcia-esque tendrils, serves as Robinson’s leading foil. But keyboardist Adam Macdougall, who came from the Crowes with Robinson, provides other textures, from jazzy piano to Krautrock-like synth colors.
The CRB also plays covers spanning Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Dead and even the Crowes. Robinson’s keen on ’50s tunes, too. “In a weird way, [we’re] spreading the word,” he said. “You might have forgotten about the song or not known who Bobby Mitchell was, and you grab those records. That’s how I learned about music.”
Indeed, growing up outside Atlanta with a dad who was a major-label folksinger, Robinson listened to Jimmy Reed, Mose Allison and the Stanley Brothers, then funk, R&B and punk, Dylan and the Byrds, R.E.M. and the Dream Syndicate.
“Most people get into bands, I guess, because they want to be rock stars,” he said. “The main motivation for me was to get everyone together, and writing songs when I was underage and I wanted to see the Replacements or whatever.”
It’s been 25 years since Robinson nonetheless became that rock star, when the Black Crowes released their debut, Shake Your Money Maker, and the singer and his guitarist brother Rich forged a rocky but successful partnership that’s apparently met its final impasse. In January, Rich Robinson said that the Crowes were done because he could not agree to his brother’s unequal contract terms.
“I feel bad that my brother felt like he had to lash out like that, but it kind of makes it an easy decision,” the singer said, adding of the Crowes’ last reunion in 2013, “I felt that was my last contractual obligation to that organization. I always felt—whether family or not—that business, those things aren’t for public consumption. So I still have nothing to say except that it’s sad.”
Robinson thinks his future—and joy—lies with the CRB. “We’ve rid ourselves of any things that we feel are negative energy,” he said. “Just keep tending the musical garden, and we’ll keep reaping the benefits. At least that’s our mantra around here.”