Barefoot in the Lowcountry with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood: A Look Back

By James Calemine

Chris Robinson Brotherhood
Charleston Music Hall
September, 28, 2017

“There’s a whole lotta dark
Before we’re gonna see the dawn…”

–Chris Robinson
“High Is Not The Top”

….Charleston loves the Chris Robinson Brotherhood…

In July, the CRB released Barefoot in the Head–their fifth full length album. The band has toured hard in the last five years, and they’ve built a formidable momentum.

I was set to see the band perform in St. Augustine and Macon several weeks ago, but Hurricane Irma altered those plans. The band cancelled the Florida leg due to Irma, and living on the Georgia coast we had to evacuate for almost a week. So, Charleston counted as the next stop.

My history with Chris Robinson’s music is long as his career. I won’t get too long winded, but I’ve written a book about his previous band, The Black Crowes, that will eventually emerge. Developing…

The CRB’s versatility continues to expand. I guess someone below 45 years old may stumble upon Chris Robinson’s music and jump right in without knowing his previous band, The Black Crowes. But, I suspect that is rare. These are unkind times for artists. But Chris is poetically and professionally cunning. And he’s held in contempt in some circles as expressing what he would call “gratuitous bohemia”. But, he’s never been concerned with opinions…

The CRB’s line-up consists of Jeff Hill on bass, Tony Leone on drums, Adam MacDougall on keys, Neal Casal on guitars and Chris handling vocals, lyrics and guitar. Each member’s strength augments the other musicians aptitude. If you enjoy an artist’s work, and other people show indifference or even contempt–it makes them an underdog to you. Each player carries his own weight. Hill, the newest member of the CRB, has played with musicians such as Rufus Wainwright, Shooter Jennings and Bob Dylan’s old cohort Larry Campbell.

Tony Leone, plays mandolin and drums, has collaborated with Ollabelle, Phil Lesh and Levon Helm. Adam MacDougall played in the Black Crowes and recorded with Robinson in various configurations. His playing is a cross between Bernie Worrell and Melvin Seals. Neal Casal operated as a guitarist in Ryan Adams band. He published a photography book revolving around those years called Ryan Adams & The Cardinals: A View of Other Windows.

Casal’s old band the Beachwood Sparks opened for the Black Crowes in 2001, which began his relationship with Chris. Casal is also an accomplished solo artist. He even recorded Circles Around The Sun for the Dead’s 50th Anniversary with a band he assembled. Of course, we all know Chris…

The group’s Big Moon Ritual and The Magic Door appeared in 2012. In 2013, Betty’s Blends, Vol. 1 was released. In 2014, Phosphorescent Harvest, was released, which strengthened the group’s repertory. The fourth studio album emerged in 2016 called Anyway You Love, We Know How You Feel, followed by an impressive EP titled If You Lived Here, You Would Be Home By Now.

The Grateful Dead-famed recording artist Betty Cantor-Jackson recorded the CRB’s Southern Blends that was released earlier this year. On the group’s latest effort, Barefoot In The Head, they decided not to record with any instruments they previously used in other shows or recordings. They recorded Barefoot In The Head  in the same studio overlooking the Pacific Ocean where they recorded Anyway You LoveBarefoot In The Head was recorded in two weeks. These 10 Barefoot songs were produced by the band.

Barefoot expands the group’s musical scope. There’s banjo, b-bender and the son of legend Ali Akbar Khan–Alam Khan, a sardonist, playing on the group’s new record. Barry Sless handles the pedal steel duties on this album. An Appalachian echo threads these songs songs where they could have been recorded in 1917 or 2017. Chris coined the group’s ‘farm to table psychedelic folk rock and roll band’ ethos.

“I haven’t felt like a rock star in decades,” Chris recently said in an interview. He meant it as a good thing. He’s been going against his Black Crowes mega stardom grain for years now. There are very few rock stars left these days anyway. The day of the rock star is dead. These are unkind times for artists, and Chris Robinson understands that as well as anyone.

The Charleston Music Hall sounds great, but I don’t like assigned seating for my rock and roll shows. They opened the show with Nat Stuckey’s “Sweet Thang & Cisco”. One of my favorite tunes from Barefoot they played next–“High Is Not The Top”.

Next, they rendered “Little Lizzie Mae”, which Chris played and recorded with the Black Crowes during the group’s Before The Frostera.

Lately, the CRB has been playing a laid back version of Waylon Jennings’ “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line”, and they pulled off a stellar version. Chris Robinson has always been underrated for the diversity of cover songs he exposes his audience to, much less the ones he writes.

Another personal favorite of the evening counted as “Star Or Stone”. For the next couple of songs Neal played Jerry Garcia’s Travis Bean white guitar that was purchased by a Charleston fan who brought it down to the Music Hall for Neal to play.

“Blue Star Woman”, another new composition, meshed well with the previous songs and emitted its own original soul. “New Cannonball Rag” contends as another example of the group’s ability to augment various forms of the old American Songbook into their own material…and beyond.

They ended the first set with the Delaney/Bramlett number “Poor Elijah/Mr. Johnson”. This band does not disappoint…

On a side note, the CRB displayed dynamic merchandise such as vinyl, cds, new shirts, stickers, posters, lighters and other esoterica. Chris’ band slogans and art direction appeal to the senses, and it’s always interesting.

During the setbreak I walked backstage to say hello to Chris. I gave him a copy of my latest book, Insured Beyond The Grave. We swapped a few stories. Chris told me about how he flew home to California for one day, and the how he barely made it back to Charleston for showtime. He’s always very gracious, and funny when I see him. My interview with Chris, published in South Magazine, appears in Insured Beyond The Grave Vol. 2.

Set Two began with five new songs from Barefoot: “Venus In Chrome”, “Good To Know”, “If You Had A Heart To Break”, “Behold The Seer” and “Hark, The Herald Hermit Speaks.”

They covered Percy Mayfield’s soul classic “Loose Lips”, which again verified the group’s diverse styles, and wellspring of cover songs to pepper throughout their mostly original material.

The last song of the night was a Black Crowes song–”I Ain’t Hidin’”–that further electrified the crowd, and was about as far as Robinson dipped into his own nostalgia. They walked off the stage, and I realized they would be in North Carolina for the next two nights before they played Nashville on Sunday.

For an encore, the band played a killer version of the Peter Tosh gem, “Til Your Well Runs Dry”, and as they departed the stage…the lowcountry crowd hated to see them go. They rejoiced in the band’s existence. And The CRB just keeps on truckin’ through Freak America…

The Local Stranger

Insured Beyond The Grave

Insured Beyond The Grave Vol. 2

Photo #1 & #2 Credit: Jay Blakesberg
Photo #3 Credit: James Calemine