Chris Robinson Brotherhood
Big Moon Ritual
[Red General Catalog, 2012]
Jeff Pearson, July 24, 2012
Listen: “Star Or Stone”
There is something about humid summer days that makes extended guitar solos sound incredibly appealing. I think it is the hours I have spent under blazing suns smelling the freshly cut festival lawns, as the band onstage wills the breeze to blow through my hair, conjures a cloud to blot out the sun for a few minutes, and seemingly channels the inner dancing machine within myself to defy all logic and good sense that says to just hide, to find shade, to do something to escape that brutal heat until the sun goes down. Alas, it is one of life’s greatest mysteries. Instead of taking cover, I dance like it is the only way on earth to keep cool. I’m not sure how much scientific evidence there is to back this up, but it is believed (by me) that guitar solos combined with a hot July afternoon typically yield high ass-shaking returns. From the time that Chris Robinson Brotherhood’s debut album, Big Moon Ritual, meanders its way into my car speakers with “Tulsa Yesterday,” I can practically feel the sun beating down on me in some far-off field, my spirit’s ass shaking vigorously against all reason.
When The Black Crowes announced they would be going on an indefinite hiatus in late 2010, they left a big hole in many hearts which belonged to fans of their particular blues-infused southern rock. They made music specifically for those summer dancing days, whether it be in a field a strangers or in the comfort of an air-conditioned automobile with an audience of none—their music was visible heat, was incandescence on the paved road for miles ahead. On the Crowes’ final, at the moment, anyway, tour, stickers were passed out advertising a new Chris Robinson project, which at least gave those hearts at least the faintest hopes of having those holes filled. In March of last year, Chris Robinson Brotherhood was introduced to the world, immediately hitting the road and generating considerable amounts of buzz. In January, the lineup of Robinson, keyboardist Adam MacDougall—also of the Black Crowes, George Sluppick on drums, Burning Tree’s Mark Dutton on bass, and journeyman guitarist—most notably of the Cardinals fame—Neal Casal holed up in the studio and got to jamming.
Big Moon Ritual is the first of two albums from those recording sessions to be released this year—the other being The Magic Door, due out September 11th. It is evident right from the very start that Robinson feels at home with his new comrades, possibly even reinvigorated. It was always well-documented that Chris and his brother Rich butted heads quite a bit over the years with the Black Crowes, as is surely typical of all brotherly love, and perhaps a change of scenery was just what the doctor ordered. Robinson plays a bigger role in the Brotherhood—he takes on songwriting, singing, and guitar duties here—and Big Moon Ritual has his stamp all over it. This may not come as a surprise to those who take one look at the band’s name and immediately assume “solo project,” but the loose, inspired jam sessions that resulted in Big Moon Ritual couldn’t be further from those initial misconceptions. The record has that rare trait of feeling completely free and loose yet refined and completely in control—the type of playing that typically only manifests itself after years of getting to know one another in a band. With Chris Robinson Brotherhood, however, it just came naturally.
Back in my car, with the volume up just high enough to drown out my squeaking brakes (the easiest way to fix them, in my opinion), the sounds of “Tulsa Yesterday” slowly trickle into my speakers. Steadily rising out of a drone of tuning and ambiance come the three ever-present, interweaving voices of Robinson and Casal’s guitars with MacDougall’s fluid keyboard flourishes. Robinson’s vocals are subtler than the Crowes days, a honey-coating replacing his upper register wailing that their music was so often laced with. His voice seems to reflect the experience he has gained through his years on the road, opting for subtlety and simple melodies to tell stories that actually reflect that same experience. He coolly sings of the old days earning his stripes with the Crowes back in Georgia, “I learned my lessons in the days back in the dogwood / Left some footprints in the deep red clay / Found my way past temptations of plenty / Let the sound take me all the way.” “Tulsa Yesterday” is the longest of the tracks on Big Moon Ritual, each of which clocking in at over seven minutes, kicking off the record with eleven-plus minutes of blissful, free-spirited jamming accentuating the wonderful songwriting that will be prevalent throughout the entire record.
“Rosalee” picks up right where “Tulsa Yesterday” left off, with MacDougall injecting funky keyboard lines into the intro. MacDougall serves as the anchor to the Brotherhood’s rhythm section, playing both the role of keeping the low-end bouncing and serving as a melodic counterpart to Robinson and Casal’s interplay. As they pick up steam through the refrain, Casal’s reverb-soaked guitar lines dancing their way over the funky and tight rhythm section, I cannot help but be reminded of any mid-summer live matrix recording of the Grateful Dead in their prime—the tone with which Casal in particular delivers his solos is eerily reminiscent of that of Jerry Garcia’s, serenading the stars all those years ago, for so many summers. It never feels like reproduction or even homage, but simply the result of a group of musicians feeling tuned in.
Grateful Dead allegory aside, Big Moon Ritual really does feel like a live record; I can practically see the band members exchange grins as they nail a section, and the loose nature of the playing really gives the record the feeling of a first-take success. The slow-burning “Star Or Stone” has chilling and emotive lyrics as Robinson examines his life and career, “I won’t, I won’t turn back / See my dreams burning on the side of the road / Sometimes it goes just like that / Falling or flying / Star or stone,” perhaps telling his fans why it was time to move on from a band relationship that was potentially bringing him down. The musical accompaniment is subdued and somewhat mournful, yet reflective of the overall hopeful message that Robinson conveys in the lyrics. The way the middle section uplifts the atmosphere calls to mind an image of the emotional weight being lifted from Robinson’s words by the band’s joyful playing.
Chris Robinson’s songwriting is really what is most stunning about Big Moon Ritual, which is saying a lot considering the high level of execution with which it is being performed here. “Reflections On A Broken Mirror” and album closer “One Hundred Days Of Rain” are both examples of the patience and attention to detail that Robinson has learned over his time in the recording industry, examinations of his inner self and how his life as a musician affects the relationships that he holds most dear. The delivery of his vocals all throughout Big Moon Ritual is reserved and well-placed, each melody and phrasing serving a specific purpose within the framework of not just the individual songs, but the album as a whole. This newfound peace with letting the songs just be, of not trying too much, vocally, is what makes Big Moon Ritual not only Robinson’s best work outside of the Crowes, but what makes it stand among his best work, period. As he delivers the final lines of the album, my spirit snapping back to the roadway laid out before me, its ass thoroughly shaken, Robinson shows us that he has found his groove again, “The ocean always finds the shore / So let it be forever more.”