OAKLEY – The 20th Century Theater does not look like a typical rock-show venue. The 1941 building originally opened as a state-of-the-art movie theater and today hosts the occasional concert when it is not booked for a wedding reception.
It was a strange place to see one of my musical heroes.
I will do my best to stay objective in this review, but the Black Crowes changed my life.
Well, maybe that’s a bit strong, but they certainly shaped my tastes in music after my first listen to their 1990 debut “Shake Your Money Maker.” I remember removing Digital Underground’s “Sex Packets” from my CD player just before my first listen to the Crowes.
I listened to that disc from front to back that night and probably everyday for the next year after. I read every interview with the group I could get my hands on and I checked out any musician they listed as influences. After hearing a 20-minute cover version of “Dreams” at my first Crowes show, I went out the next day and bought my first Allman Brothers album.
I was just 15 at the time. I had no idea who Gram Parsons was or what “Exile on Main Street” was until I first heard them mentioned by lead singer Chris Robinson.
The Crowes recently embarked on their second hiatus after 20 years together, prompting Robinson to trot out The Chris Robinson Brotherhood.
The group is vastly different from both the Crowes and New Earth Mud, Robinson’s previous solo project.
The band features Neal Cassel on guitar, Adam MacDougall on keys, George Sluppick on drums and Mark “Muddy” Dutton on bass.
The band took the stage at almost 8 p.m. on the dot. While most concerts allow an hour or so for fans to get properly lubricated at the bar, no such buffer was present this night.
After a quick tune-up, the band slid into “40 Days” from Robinson’s second New Earth Mud disc “This Magnificent Distance.” The Brotherhood’s version leaned more toward spacey-folk rather than straight-ahead rock. A drawn-out bridge section melted into one of the many jams of the evening.
Robinson continues to grow as a guitar player. He seemed most comfortable strumming chords, leaving most of the lead lines to Cassel. However, Robinson does stretch out from time to time.
The set list featured a few songs Crowes fans might be familiar with. “Little Lizzie Mae” was featured on the “Cabin Fever” DVD and “Poor Elijah/Tribute to Johnson” became a staple of Crowes shows in recent years. Also, “Tumbleweed in Eden,” “Sunday Sound” and the funky “Ride” from the New Earth Mud days popped up.
The band still seems to be finding their footing. Some jams felt a little forced and the cohesion that only comes from years of playing together has not quite solidified. The venue did them no favors, as it was not really built to house a rock show.
That’s not to say there were no highlights. The Grateful Dead’s “Mr. Charlie” and “Sugaree” had the crowd doing their best hippie bop on the eve of Jerry Garcia’s birthday. Bob Dylan’s “Tough Mama” flowed into “Beware,” one of several new originals.
“Rosalee,” another new song, served as the night’s centerpiece and stands as the strongest of the original tunes.
The two-set show lasted nearly three hours. Robinson continues to grow as an artist and it is clear now how strong his influence was on the Crowe’s “Before the Frost…After the Freeze” double album. Several of those tunes have popped up on this tour and the overall sound of the Brotherhood leans heavily in that direction.
I don’t know if the Crowes will get back together, but Robinson certainly will never be one to let the grass grow between his toes. While the Brotherhood is far from a well-oiled machine, they bring a ton of talent to the table and the potential this band possesses merits excitement.