Chris Robinson Brotherhood – Barefoot In The Head (2017)

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Barefoot In The Head as a state of mind and the title for the Chris Robinson Brotherhood’s latest album fits right into its namesake’s outlook of music being tied to metaphysical well-being. As Chris Robinson recently told Rolling Stone about what the CRB sets out to do with its oft-described ‘Cosmic American Music,’ “we want something that’s expressive and sensual and beautiful. It’s like a garment that feels really comfortable, but it has all these, like, magic symbols on it.”

What started as a side project for Robinson in 2011 while his more well known band the Black Crowes was in hiatus, the Brotherhood has now become his main focus in music following the bumpy breakup of the Crowes a few years ago. He’s now fifty and looks even older than that, but that youthful, distinctive voice drenched in soul is still very much his calling card, as is constructing songs with the wisdom of someone from the generation before his. The newest twist in his long saga as a musician is finding contentment again in making music for nothing more than the sheer joy of making music with like-minded comrades Neal Casal (guitar) and former Crowes band mate Adam MacDougall (keyboards), along with recent replacements Jeff Hill (bass) and Tony Leone (drums).

Up to now, Robinson’s six-year old band has been productive as hell, generating four studio albums, an E.P. and two live albums blended by famed Grateful Dead soundboard mixer Betty Cantor-Jackson. All while performing about 115 shows per year.

Proper album #5 will bow on July 21, 2017 (Silver Arrow). It’s another CRB concoction of blues, funk, country, soul and rock ‘n’ roll under a psychedelic, Grateful Dead tie-die mindset, a free ‘n’ easy hippie comportment being maybe the single greatest distinction of this band from the one Robinson shared with his brother Rich.

None of that means Robinson has put behind his past to the point of completely reinventing himself: “Behold The Seer” (video above) shares that same chugging groove as “Hard To Handle” but MacDougall’s Billy Preston funky keys adds a kick to the tasty guitar interplay between Robinson and Casal with Casal tossing off spicy leads. It’s also here where the first hint of an expanded role for MacDougall comes into focus with the first of many appearances of an analog synthesizer (though unobtrusively so).

Not to dwell too much on one instrument — and it does sound weird to hear it in the organic environs of the CRB at first — but ultimately this is a product of Robinson and his band being open-minded to anything that doesn’t betray their tie-dyed vibe. The experimentalism also comes in the form of songs straying from one style to another and sometimes back again, shifting directions and often creating a synthesis that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

“She Shares My Blanket,” for example, is countrified psychedelia, floating across idioms without effort like it was 1972. Speaking of 1972, the country number “High Is Not The Top” could have been lost track from Neil Young’s Harvest or something from Poco around that time. On the other side is the celestial “Dog Eat Sun,” which smacks a bit of Emerson, Lake and Palmer (Emerson and Lake, anyway) as layered, fingerpicked acoustic guitars is cast against MacDougall’s bottom-end Moog pulses. The swampy “Blue Star Woman” has all the down home charm of a song by The Band, save for the spooky sounds emanating on the bridge and eventually drifting off in a quasi-Indian direction. The Brotherhood makes things more interesting with all these unexpected left turns that keeps listener engaged without jolting them.

“Hark, The Herald Hermit Speaks” isn’t yuletide, it’s stream-of-consciousness with Robinson half-singing/half-speaking some his lines a la Bob Dylan amid a rich tapestry of guitars, piano, organ and melody, and moving into a strident rock strut when Casal proffers rough-edged licks. “If You Had A Heart To Break” is a moving country ballad that begs to be covered many times over. After a trio of quieter songs, “Good To Know” ends the album on a somewhat uptempo note; MacDougall’s bellowing synth and a hook-filled chorus might be the most crossover track on this pack of tunes, but the chord changes are still too sophisticated for radio today.

As both the Black Crowes and The Grateful Dead have now become part of rock’s past and not its present, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood is a welcome refuge for fans of both. But make no mistake, Barefoot In The Head doesn’t ape either band, it takes the best of both and runs it through its own carefree filter. This is hippie music at its finest since the original hippies ruled.


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
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