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Chris Robinson Brotherhood (is not a cult)

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Chris Robinson Brotherhood played a show at Harlow’s on Tuesday night in front of an exuberant and packed house.

CRB consists of the eponymous once and future Black Crowes frontman, Neal Casal (Ryan Adams) on guitar, Adam MacDougall (Black Crowes) on keys, George Sluppick (Robert Walter’s 20th Congress, JJ Grey and Mofro) on drums and Mark "Muddy" Dutton (Burning Tree) on bass.

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This was the eighth show on their spring-long pilgrimage throughout the Golden State, and I went into it not really knowing what to expect (other than a great show).  As of this writing, youtube only has two videos of CRB, and one of them is a Black Crowes song. 

I arrived at Harlow’s ten minutes before 9pm, and to no ones surprise, the place was already jumping. Artists of Chris Robinson’s stature don’t often play at 300+ person clubs. I mean, The Black Crowes are the 92nd greatest hard rock band of all time. VH1 doesn’t hand that out to just anyone.

The first thing I noticed upon entering the venue was a mammoth "California Republic" flag flying above and behind the stage, a tip of the cap to the only state that they’ll be visiting on their whirlwind two month tour. 

I began my pre-show ritual:

1) Hit up the restroom. Peeing during the show is for suckers. (The top of the toilet paper dispenser was covered in green shake. A precursor of things to come.)

2) Hit up the bar. (My beer of choice depends on the crowd. Fair to middling crowd, PBR. Packed house, Racer 5. On this night it was a Racer 5 with a bullet.)

3) Grab a smoke. Smoking during the show is for suckers. On my pilgrimage outside I met Josh, a jam band enthusiast and self described "square" who teaches in Elk Grove and has two kids. I thought I’d met him at Harlow’s before, but he scoffed at the notion "nope, this is my one get out of jail card". With all the great jam bands that have been coming through Sac recently, it couldn’t have been easy to decide on just one. I saw him later on the dance floor and it was clear that he’d chosen well.

4) Find my photographer. Taking your own pictures is for suckers. Steven had maneuvered his way to front and center, it looked like he’d be in great position to get some killer shots.  Alas, it was not to be. Midway through the first set, Steven was approached by a large dreadlocked fellow I can only presume was a roadie for the band. The man informed Steven, in no uncertain terms, that there would be no professional photography on this night. It would be up to me and my spectacularly amateurish pointing and clicking to win the day. What a sucker.

At 9:19 in the PM, Chris and the boys took the stage. The crowd responded with a roar and more than a few clouds of marijuana smoke.

I was immediately struck by how much they look the part. If you saw CRB walking down the street, or at the movies, or painting your house, you would immediately recognize them as a rock band. 

Sluppick was wearing a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles and a sports coat to go with his relatively kempt mane. Macdougall had a classic scraggly rocker look with his long hair, beard and many-zippered brown leather jacket. Casal went with a flannel shirt and red corduroy pants to complement his shaggy hair and grey-tinged beard. Dutton sported the ubiquitous rockstar black snap-down collared shirt with jeans that belled ever so slightly at the bottom. The look befitted his Brian May-esque coif perfectly. Which brings us to Robinson. All the other outfits, though screaming "Musician! Rocker! Keep that guy away from my drugs!" could conceivably have been worn by laypeople. I have trouble imagining anyone but a rockstar wearing Chris Robinson’s shirt.

Flowing pink tie-dyed open collared shirts just aren’t done by "normies". And if you think for a second that he was wearing shoes, you haven’t been paying attention.

They opened with an original song called "Tulsa Yesterday", and it became immediately clear that they sounded the part at least as well as they looked it. As they would throughout the evening, to the delight of Josh the "square", they extended the jam to great lengths. "Tulsa Yesterday" featured an epic psychedelic Moog organ solo that really stood out.

After the first song, Robinson chopped it up a bit with the crowd, "I’ve hit my head on the microphone twice already!" he said, illustrating the point by accidentally-on-purpose hitting his head on it again. "Just a reminder" he joked "The Brotherhood is not a cult, but it would be nice to get tax exempt status".

Up next was their first cover song of the evening, a rip-roaring honky-tonked out take on Bob Dylan’s "Tough Momma". "TM" featured another rollicking pedaled-out Moog solo and extended jam with all of the musicians showing off their prodigious chops. It was the second of what would be five 10-minute songs in a row to start off the show.

They returned to the new original stuff with their third song of the evening, the slower, pleading "Beware". This was the one original CRB song that I’d heard before, and it’s lovely. At one point, Robinson was singing nearly unaccompanied with just the sparsest musical backing. It was a beautiful, but momentary, interlude before the whole gang came crashing back in.

They mined the gargantuan well-spring of source material that is the Grateful Dead oevre for their next song of the evening, "They Love Each Other". They really knocked this bluesy rocker out of the park. It may have been partly due to my vantage point (right in front of the keyboards) but once again I found myself particularly struck by Macdougal’s keyboard wizardry. Just a wonderful song, played both expertly and with great soul.

Possibly in honor of the song’s originators, a joint was thrown on stage by an audience member during the Dead cover. It was put aside, whether to be smoked later or discarded later, well, your guess is as good as mine. I didn’t see the band smoke it, but I didn’t see the band not smoke it either.

As they began their next song, another original called "Star or Stone", Steven was called out by the dreadlocked brownshirt, and decided to take off. I was on my own. 

"Tomorrow Blues" was one of my favorite songs of the evening, a raucous blues number that featured a sick Moog solo seemingly culled from the furthest reaches of outer space. Phenomenal.

They capped off the set with a couple songs that were familiar to the Chris Robinson true believers in the crowd. "Appaloosa", the aforementioned Black Crowes song, is a heartfelt ode and was a crowd favorite.  They followed that with "40 Days", a hard driving rocker from Chris Robinson and The New Earth Mud, Robinson’s side band the last time the Crowes went on an extended hiatus. It was the most searing track of the first set and sent the crowd into a tizzy heading into the break. A sign of things to come.

The band left the stage at 10:34, having taken a cool hour and fifteen minutes to play 8 songs. They don’t scrimp on the jams, these cats.

They returned to the stage at 11:00 PM on the button, and proceeded to blow the doors off for another hour and a half. Nine songs this time, including the encore, a rousing version of Elvis’s Blue Suede Shoes. 

I am going to spare you the blow by blow break down of the second set, in part because I am 1300 words deep already, and in main because I was too busy cutting the rug a new one during the rousing second set to take anything more than the most elementary of notes ("Awesome!" "Epic!" and "guitarist put his flannel back on!" all appear in my second set scribblings")

The set list is pictured.

You’ll get another chance to see them for yourselves when they return to Harlow’s on May 3rd.  

As good as they were on Tuesday, I expect they’ll be even better with another month of shows under their belt.

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