Chris Robinson Brotherhood – Betty’s Blends, Vol. 2: Best From the West (2015)

Maybe it goes to show you what a lost art recording and mixing a live show has become when the person doing a good job with that ends up with her name in the album title. But Betty Cantor-Jackson’s soundboard boots of Grateful Dead concerts have become legend in jam band circles, and anyone who has been able to enjoy her Grateful Dead concert documents might want to sample some of the “Betty’s Blends” soundboard records she’s produced for the Chris Robinson Brotherhood.

Betty’s Blends, Vol. 2: Best From the West are choice selections from the Western leg of the CRB’s 2014 tour, the second in a series of limited-release live albums that started in 2013 with the 4 disc vinyl set Betty’s SF Blends, Vol. 1. Vol. 2 is also available on CD and mp3’s, covering only sixty-six minutes of music and since the Brotherhood aren’t into playing anything at radio length, that means only seven songs. But like the first volume, this and all CRB recordings come via Robinson’s private imprint Silver Arrow Records.

Formed in 2011 during one of the Black Crowes’ many hiatuses (the Crowes finally broke up ostensibly for good earlier this year), Chris Robinson will always be known primarily as the ex-frontman for the Crowes just as surely as Ringo will go to his grave as the former drummer for the Beatles, but that fun fact shouldn’t cast a shadow over his current group because the Brotherhood is a mighty fine band on its own. Sure, the bluesy, soulful handmade rock they play targets exactly the same audience that digs the Crowes, but Robinson has groomed the CRB into one soul-stirring and intuitive unit. He brought keyboard wizard Adam MacDougall over from the Crowes, and lead guitarist Neal Casal is a Ryan Adams alum. Mark Dutton (bass) and George Sluppick (drums) make up the rhythm section.

A little more laid back, a little more risk-taking and a little more psychedelic than that band from Marietta, Georgia, Chris Robinson Brotherhood’s Left Coast focus finds more in common with the Grateful Dead than just Betty. Phil Lesh and Bob Weir are friends of Robinson’s and one tune from this latest road record (“Shore Power”) was even performed at Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads venue in Marin County north of San Francisco. That song is a chugging, backbeat rocker, except to slow down for acid-drenched middle section.

Such changes in directions are common from their stage. “Vibration and Light Suite,” from the group’s second studio album The Magic Door begins on a peppy note, with MacDougall’s Moog synth replicating the sound of a violin. Combined with Casal, it’s an interesting twist on the Southern rock two guitar lead ethos. This could all work well as an instrumental but as soon as Chris Robinson’s soulful vocal kicks in, you forget that notion right away. Later on, MacDougall uses a psychedelic clavinet and a jazzy electric piano, the latter used in an extended aside, and it does become an instrumental anyway. The song goes completely off the script and ends with some slightly trippy, drum-less free-form playing.

“Burn Slow” is a slow burn — a dirge, really — and presents early 70s psych-jam in its best light. Robinson’s weary vocal puts a fine point on this feeling, as does Casal’s slide guitar and MacDougall’s mellow synth solo. “Rosalee,” from CRB’s first long player Big Moon Ritual is a funky number paced by MacDougall’s clavinet, with more of Casal’s dandy slide guitar. It goes off in another direction midway through, straight into the trip zone, but Chris Robinson signals the inevitable return to the original groove when he begins to chant the lines “Is the air getting thinner/Are we getting high?”

Tom Rush’s “Driving Real” is given a bucket full of soul by the band, as Robinson’s sings it so effortlessly and earnestly (and the harmonies from Casal aren’t too bad, either). And as if the make their fealty to the Dead more explicit, “They Love Each Other” is covered, too, in the lazy, soul-rock groove like the Dead typically played it, punctuated by terrific guitar and Moog solos.

With Chris Robinson’s full attention now on his well-oiled jam band just as the granddaddy of all jam bands ride off into the sunset, it almost feels as if a torch is being passed. It also seems like Betty Cantor-Jackson is the one taking that torch from the old band and handing it off to the new one. Regardless, that sweet ol’ hippie spirit lives on in the down-to-earth musicianship of Chris Robinson and his Brotherhood.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron