Some bands are great for the things they are. They fulfill a cookie-cutter vision we’ve created, and they fulfill it well. Some musicians meet our mainstream, group-consciousness expectations and exceed them in ways we’ve not yet expected. They crash the charts with a fury, fill glossy posters with their polished looks, and drill their catchy, simplistic tunes into our minds just like we believe they should. We worship them for what they are.
The Chris Robinson Brotherhood makes no attempts at these things and no apologies for their decision not to. There are, undoubtedly, those superficial music fans who will see these as shortcomings. Those “fans” are missing the beauty of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood by looking in the wrong direction. Their genius lies not in what they are, but rather in what they are not.
“Chris Robinson isn’t another aging celebrity musician entertaining himself with an obscure pet project.”
The band is not a mainstream, pop radio act. They’re not drawing in throngs of mindless, soulless, clamouring teenagers. In Green Bay, Wisconsin, where I saw them, they filled a small theater, and the young people present were not mainstream, nor ironically counter-culture hipsters. They were individuals and artists, eccentrics and introspective introverts. I sat two rows up from the long-haired, awkward young man I saw playing his guitar at the farmers’ market hours before.
The music is not lazy. There’s no sloppiness, no half-hearted effort. The instrumentation is complex and sophisticated. Each song is substantial, with most featuring multiple tempo changes, dizzying rifts, and masterful solos. There is no cheap reliance on hooks or predictable repetitions. Each note appears to be played with a level of intention that can only be wrought by genuine care and devotion to quality. Yet, it doesn’t come across as overly technical or unnecessarily complicated. It speaks of a group of masters taking true joy in the intricacy of their craft.
It is immediately obvious to anyone who has not already been disabused of the notion that The Chris Robinson Brotherhood is not a continuation of the Black Crowes. Although, the legacy of Chris’s 90s-era endeavor must be present in the minds of at least a portion of his fans, the current band makes no reference to and shares virtually no similarity with the band of old. Anyone who arrived without knowing that Chris Robinson had once fronted the Black Crowes would have no reason to suspect as much when the show let out.
The Chris Robinson Brotherhood sound is dramatically different from the former sound of the Black Crowes, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that the current music feels more natural, more comfortable, more organic to Chris Robinson as an individual artist than the songs that made his band famous almost 30 years ago. It seemed to lack the spite, the cynicism, or the reluctance of the albums of those early days. It seemed to come more from inside, to offer a more genuine reflection.
Chris Robinson isn’t another aging celebrity musician entertaining himself with an obscure pet project. He’s not a desperate former star clinging to some lost glory, inventing ways to remain in the spotlight just one more moment. He seems like an artist matured, a talent developed, an adventurous wanderer who’s finally found his place.
He also isn’t past his prime. Despite the decades he’s been on the scene and the gray creeping into his long, shaggy beard, his voice remains as clear and crisp in person as any voice I’ve ever heard. The tone in it is otherworldly, and he delivers each and every note with amazing accuracy. He didn’t seem to be reading anything, yet every lyric seemed to spill out easily and naturally, as if it required no conscious thought at all. He ripped through harmonica solos with crowd-staggering gusto, and his guitar playing was skillful without being overpowering.
Despite the obvious victory that is this project, and the gaudy tour de force it has the potential to be, The Chris Robinson Brotherhood is not showy or pretentious. There’s a quiet comfort to their confidence, a warm invitation to join them in their purposely humble celebration. There’s no sense of an obsessive , relentless drive toward commercial success, just the enjoyment and appreciation of art at it purest and most unobscured.
Do yourself a favor and don’t get too wrapped up in what The Chris Robinson Brotherhood is or what it will become. You’ll skip right past the beauty of it all. Focus instead on what the band isn’t. Consider those things it is choosing to shrug off and leave behind. Consider the burdens that aren’t weighing them down and the chains that aren’t holding them back. Consider the veil that doesn’t hang between you and the music inside them, and then appreciate that you have the opportunity to witness it.