Chris Robinson Brotherhood Journeys Ahead As Perhaps Rock’s Hardest Working & Most Prolific Touring Ensembles (SHOW REVIEW)

When The Chris Robinson Brotherhood last appeared at Higher Ground just about a year ago, the band was offering ample proof it had stabilized after a couple of years in flux. Both bassist Jeff Hill and drummer Tony Leone were locked in as a rhythm section, fully integrated into a quintet where keyboardist Adam MacDougall had learned to restrain himself on synthesizer while Neal Casal continued to elevate himself as a guitarist.

On October 3rd, 2018, the latter had returned to the fold after being sidelined recently for a short period due to medical issues, but he played like he hadn’t skipped a beat. And new recruit Mark Levy played drums with admirable fluidity, needing few cues to navigate through the material offered over the course of the evening.

But it was just that selection of songs at least in part at fault for an erratic overall performance. And a corresponding audience response: somewhat in keeping with a less-than-capacity house that arrived late and began to leave early, the attendees too often gave the impression they were expending some effort to enjoy what they were seeing and hearing (except of course for the die-hards close to the stage).

That intermittent attention was no doubt sourced in too many tunes at the same mid-tempo for too much of the first hour, i.e., “Star or Stone,” “Tulsa Yesterday and “California Hymn.” After a perfectly reasonable introductory couplet of “Comin’ Round the Mountain” and “Oak Apple Day,” The CRB definitely should not have waited til the set closer to play the upbeat likes of Delaney Bramlett’s “Hello LA., Bye Bye Birmingham.”

Kudos to Robinson and company for their savvy though. The quintet must’ve devoted their extended break to some self-evaluation because the group commenced the second half with palpable vigor on “Meanwhile in the Gods” and, playing “Vibration and Light Suite” earlier in the set than usual, the musicians engaged in some lively all-around interaction that continued into “Beware, Oh Take Care” and “Ain’t It Hard But Fair.” Such increased intensity of interplay may not have been wholly coincidental with Adam MacDougall’s concentration on piano and, to a slightly lesser extent, clavinet, but he did forsake his ever-so-predictable approach to the synthesizer for most of this period (much to the derisive delight of some wags at the largely-empty rear of the room).

The contrasting nature of these two segments suggested the MacDougall relegate the synth  exclusively for use in his other collaboration with Casal, Circles Around The Sun. Focus on those aforementioned percussive keyboards might well nurture more distinct and sustained back and forth between those two that would benefit CRB performances and might also enliven interplay within  the rhythm section, whoever’s aligned with bassist Hill.

Levy is actually the drummer with CATS, so that may explain how he played with such panache, especially on the sole encore number, a truncated interpretation of the Rolling Stones’ “Time Waits For No One.” The CRB as a whole otherwise sounded a bit tentative on this closing cover though: Robinson was reading the lyrics as he sang and while Casal nimbly navigated the ascending guitar figure at the heart of the tune, he did so without the flair he displayed so often earlier in the evening, with and without a slide.

Given the comparative paucity of attendees, it occurs the Green Mountains might have become somewhat overly-familiar with The CRB. As is, perhaps, the band with itself, at least based on a certain whiff of stagnation evident in this concert (though that static element might well have arisen simply because this was the first night of tour). Still, it would not appreciably undermine the prolific nature and staunch work ethic of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood if the group considered a hiatus: its namesake betrayed some measure of fatigue this damp fall night. And it stands to reason the loyalty this group elicits from its fanbase would endure such a wait as patiently it did the late start of this show.

Photos Courtesy Ross Mickel Bootlegger’s Beware

Chris Robinson Brotherhood Setlist Higher Ground Music Hall, South Burlington, VT, USA 2018, 2018 Fall Tour

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