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If Chris Robinson aims to separate aesthetically his current band, The Chris Robinson Brotherhood, from his former, The Black Crowes, he can claim at least partial success: At the CRB concert last Friday at Razzmatazz there were nearly as many people wearing Grateful Dead T-shirts as of the Crowes. And elements of the Dead’s erstwhile scene—some attendees noted down set lists, compared the song arrangements and improvisational jams to previous shows’ on the tour, and discussed how many shows they had already seen and would be seeing this time around—were present too. Yet Robinson’s past loomed throughout the performance. Where in the early to mid-Nineties the Crowes kept relevant unalloyed rock’n’roll at a time when alternative rockers like Nirvana and The Smashing Pumpkins were at their peak of popularity, CRB retains a pure bluesy rock sound but adds to it extended, spontaneous jamming.
Nowadays it is possible that The Chris Robinson Brotherhood is the most unabashed group about perpetuating the genre-bending spirit of the Grateful Dead. The members are seasoned veterans in the jam-band scene. Along with Robinson, CRB includes Neal Casal—whose supple phrasing on lead guitar could pack a menacing bite at the drop of a hat—Adam MacDougall on keyboard, drummer, Tony Leone and Mark Dutton on bass.
Long periods without singing were dovetailed with bluegrass, country and blues numbers. The quintet’s musical themes and images—the irresistibility of the Southern belle, the mind-opening potential of recreational drugs, the futility of the rat race—are familiar; they stir in ample portions of psychedelia but don’t wander too far afield from the straightforward rock of Sir Jagger and Sir Richards. The lyrics range from playfulness through euphoric transcendentalism to fatalism. “Fools suffer gladly in the face of fate/I’ll leave it up to chance/If it’s the same/I’ll leave the way I came/Not afraid to dance,” Robinson sang in ‘Vibration & Light’.
The two-and-a-half hour concert featured songs from several CRB albums. The evening’s third tune, ‘Someday Past the Sunset’ from The Magic Door album (Silver Arrow, 2012), had a deep-tread groove from which Robinson’s rasps cackled between Dutton’s take-no-prisoners bass line; 'Roll Old Jeremiah', an up-tempo song from the Crowes’ repertoire, had the crowd shaking and swaying in a bluegrass hoedown. And on ‘Rosalee’, the first set’s closer, the funky rakes coming from MacDougall’s keyboards backed the tight riff until Leone’s cymbals arranged for a crashing release, giving exit to a fervent beat.
When CRB retook the stage for the second set, the members appeared noticeably more relaxed. Dutton had removed his jacket and, enabling him to interact more easily with his bandmates, had positioned himself within three feet of Leone’s drum kit—whereas during the first set he remained isolated on the back-right of the stage. Robinson pivoted, jittered and gesticulated over suede clogs. In the longer jams (the stamping ‘I Ain’t Hidin’' lasted more than 10 minutes), the audience travelled from the trippy Sixties of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood to the Mississippi Delta blues.
In all fairness, CRB played the encore, ‘Big River’, a Johnny Cash folk ditty, which the Grateful Dead maintained in their song rotation for 30 years, as a unique and distinctly soulful rendition. But in the end, Robinson couldn’t (and perhaps didn’t want to) escape his musical past. As the CRB crowd poured out into the Barcelona night, it was met with heavy metal concert-goers from one of Razzmatazz’s neighbouring music halls—a reminder of when the Hells Angels amicably did security for Dead shows in the Sixties and Seventies.