Chris Robinson Brotherhood released their second album, “The Magic Door,” earlier this month. That in itself may seem pretty unremarkable because it came right after their debut album, “Big Moon Ritual,” was released in June.
Robinson, who leads the band, is best known for his work as frontman and vocalist for southern rock band The Black Crowes, whose hits include a high-energy interpretation of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle,” the ballad “She Talks To Angels,” and the fan-favorite “Remedy.”
The Crowes are currently on an extended musical break. The hiatus has allowed Robinson to form a band that allows him to explore musical directions that might not necessarily gel within the confines of the Crowes’ usual, in-your-face, distortion-filled southern rock.
Both albums were recorded and produced at the same time by Robinson’s Silver Arrow Records. Brotherhood finds Neal Casal, renowned multi-instrumentalist, solo artist and former member of Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, in a position where he can truly flourish. Along with Robinson’s trademark emotive vocals, Casal and Adam McDougall, the most recent keyboardist for the Black Crowes, are the bread and butter that really make the band shine. Mark Dutton on bass and not-to-be-underestimated George Sluppick on drums round out the lineup.
Performing live over 100 times in 2011, the band has formed a strong chemistry. The music is laid-back, southern-doused blues, soul and rock ‘n’ roll, with a heavy dose of psychedelia. Robinson’s progression should come as no surprise, if you listened to The Black Crowes’ 2009 album “Before The Frost…”
Robinson has used his latest band as a chance to catch his breath from the heavy-hitting approach originally taken by The Black Crowes. The sense of urgency is mostly suppressed, with the exception of the opening track, a cover of Hank Ballard’s “Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go,” which is surely a go-to tune in their live repertoire, as it has all of the tools needed to prep a crowd for a grand old time.
Most tunes played by Chris Robinson Brotherhood stretch out the sound, deeming them unsuitable for commercial radio airplay.
The clear high point of the album is the third track, “Vibration & Light Suite.” Clocking in at just under 14 minutes, it is also the longest offering. It begins with upbeat, delay-heavy guitar work comparable in sound to that of U2. Sluppick’s driving, rhythmic hi-hat carries the energy into an absolutely blissful, disco-esque transition that fans of the Grateful Dead’s late-‘70s sound will find especially appealing. The track draws heavily on soul and disco influences, but doubles as a fast-paced rocker. Casal is in fine form throughout, and his guitar work really shines. A second guitar softly adds an echo-clad wah-wah pedal effect. A breakdown around the 5-minute mark leads into a darker, urgent frenzy, featuring guitar play that is reminiscent of Heart’s “Barracuda” and Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.”
By minute seven, the song ascends from the dark tonality with the band loosening up the groove and spreading out the landscape, trading off chances to solo between the guitars of Robinson and Casal, and the distinct textual supplementation of McDougall’s keys. At about the 10-minute mark, melody gives way to psychedelia. The instruments fade away and the rest of the track sounds like a cross between the Grateful Dead’s live staple “Space” and the multitude of sound bites used throughout Pink Floyd’s various records. Sounds of ocean waves and drops of water, vehicles in traffic, insects buzzing and an ominous gong eventually give way to the sounds of birds chirping as the volume softly fades away.
Overall, the album is not quite as impressive as “Big Moon Ritual.” Perhaps “The Magic Door” would have benefited by being offered as a single, two-disk album. At the very least, Robinson’s newest side project takes the sting out of the Crowes’ current hiatus.