Chris Robinson Brotherhood returns to Belly Up Aspen on Monday
The legendary Grateful Dead archivist Betty Cantor-Jackson has honored the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, lending her revered ears to the psychedelic blues outfit for a series of recordings.
The band, currently touring in support of the live LP “Betty’s Blends Vol. 2: Best From the West,” returns to Belly Up Aspen on Monday. The story goes that the woman behind the “Betty Boards” Dead recordings hadn’t heard of Robinson, or of his hit-making period as the frontman for the Black Crowes, before she decided to record the band. She saw them live in San Francisco and insisted on mixing records of the Brotherhood’s live gigs.
This will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen the Brotherhood’s freewheeling sets live. For music fans still searching for the spirit of the Dead on-stage, the Brotherhood has proved to fit the bill.
Since the quintet took to the road four years ago for what’s been a nearly nonstop tour of adventuresome shows — often two-set, three-hour affairs — the Brotherhood has earned an envelope-pushing reputation that quieted misgivings about it being a vanity side project for Robinson.
His familiar, soulful vocals lead songs driven by the keyboard wizardry of Adam MacDougall and shape-shifting lead guitar of Neal Casal (formerly of Ryan Adams and the Cardinals). Within a year of the band’s formation, it put out two albums of neo-classic rock and long, Dead-style jams while searching for its sound by performing upward of 200 times a year.
The Brotherhood puts on improvisation-heavy shows that blend its songs with covers and jams — a style that’s as much a performance as it is a creative process.
“You have to keep your ears and your mind open to try new things and not get locked into your particular patterns,” Casal told The Aspen Times on one of the Brotherhood’s Aspen stops last year. “You have to be wiling to abandon all that, step out and try something new. This band was founded on those kinds of principles — not to be locked into the same exact thing all the time.”
For its most recent studio record, 2014’s “Phosphorescent Harvest,” the band wrote and arranged songs on the road and then perfected them in the studio.
“I think it made for a better, stronger record — a more densely put-together production,” Casal said. “The attention to detail in this case was of great benefit to us. … We wanted to push it musically and sonically and have it stand apart and not sound like a typical record.”
The album opens with MacDougall’s distorted, up-tempo keyboard on “Shore Power” and then progresses unpredictably. There’s the country rock of “Badlands Here We Come” and “Clear Blue Sky & the Good Doctor,” with the latter descending into a lengthy psychedelic space-rock fade-out. There are rock ballads like “About a Stranger” and there’s slowed-down funk on “Tornado.”
Its far-flung sounds, Casal said, are the result of the kind of onstage experimentation the band brings back to Belly Up on Monday.
“It’s real hours logged, not conceptual ones,” Casal said. “We dragged ourselves across the country many times over in the course of a few years, and we got a good record as a result.”
The band had to prove itself to get out of the shadow of the Black Crowes. And though the Brotherhood does sometimes throw a few Crowes songs into a set, it has pretty quickly differentiated itself.
“The first couple months there was maybe a weeding-out process of some of the Crowes fans that were coming out to see what he was up to and making direct comparisons,” Casal said. “But it wasn’t long before we had our own scene, our own people.”
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