Golden Ears: Chris Robinson Brotherhood Meet Their Match
Photo by Jay Blakesberg
Chris Robinson is on the phone. His voice is hoarse and weary. It’s mid-November and the singer is nearing the end of a nearly year-long tour with The Black Crowes. That band re-formed after an extended break, during which Robinson had started the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. The latter, it seems, is becoming Robinson’s main axe, the thing he is looking forward to at the end of the Crowes tour. It makes ironic sense. On some level, the Crowes is the band of hard-rocking guns hired by the Robinson brothers, and the CRB is the band band, flush with the energy of its formation.
Robinson is talking about Betty’s SF Blends, Volume One, the quadruple LP, live set that was due to come out as part of Record Store Day’s Black Friday event on the day after Thanksgiving. The release comes packaged in a big red and gold sleeve that is designed to look like an enormous Victorian era tea tin. (It happens to match the interior of the Great American Music Hall.) Four red and white vinyl albums are packaged in a thick red gatefold, with the requisite Alan Forbes artwork to set the tone: a gnome shaman smoking tea on the front, and various CRB icons inside. The records themselves come in a sort of rice paper, intended to create the feel of actual tea bags. Only 2000 were made—a super-limited release. An objet d’art. The aesthetic of the super-rare, handmade object gives Robinson deep joy—it’s part of what this band is all about.
The album follows the 2012 studio album The Magic Door, but it feels like a sequel to the Grateful Dead’s Europe ‘72. If you first heard that album on vinyl, then the first thing that struck you was that it was three fucking records. And now here comes this enormous thing: four records full of laid-back guitar leads, shape-shifting, space-constructing keyboard weirdness and guitar rhythms, shuffling drums and steady loping basslines. It’s hot shit rock and roll with gruff vocal harmonies and the gospelic gift of Robinson’s singing voice—songs full of outlaws and outcasts and cosmic and religious imagery that hint at discontent and change.
And it was recorded through the ideal set of ears.
In December 2012, as they had the December before, the Brotherhood held court for several nights at the Great American Music Hall, a gilded rock temple in San Francisco’s still-seedy Tenderloin neighborhood. The hall’s swollen red balconies were decked in Christmas lights and prayer flags, and a glowing full-moon umbrella hung stage right. (In 2011, it had been the sun.) Above the stage, the CRB’s Freakifornia flag flew. As the band cooked up its ever-tighter brew of space cowboy rock and roll, a figure stood perched in a room behind the stage, twiddling sliders and tweaking knobs. A wizard-woman, a teller of tales, collector of sounds, she had tapped every line. She was filtering the electromagnetic streams into a digital phial.
This was Betty. Betty of the Boards. Betty Cantor-Jackson, tape warrior of the Grateful Dead. She had met Robinson and the fellows at a Seva benefit gig on the Bay in Richmond, Calif., in May 2011. She hadn’t known The Black Crowes. She didn’t know who Robinson was. But she liked what she was hearing with the CRB, then still in their first year as a band.
“I want to record your band,” Robinson recalls her telling him, “and there’s probably very little you can do to stop me.”
Because Cantor-Jackson has carte blanche to record at the Great American, she brought her gear down to the hall a few weeks later and recorded the band’s first gig there. When they returned in December 2011, she did the same. On that run, both Bob Weir and Phil Lesh showed up—separately—to sit in. When Lesh saw Cantor-Jackson at the board, he turned to Robinson and boomed: “Is that Betty Cantor I see?”
“He gives me the Phil professor look,” Robinson says, “and he’s like, ‘Best ears in the business!’”
Photo by Jay Blakesberg
Betty Cantor-Jackson’s live soundboard recordings are the stuff of legend. She had worked at the Avalon and Carousel Ballrooms before Bob Matthews brought her into the Dead’s fold in 1968. She recorded, mixed or produced much of the Dead’s canon: Live/Dead, Aoxomoxoa, Workingman’s Dead, the Fillmore East shows that were culled for Skullfuck [the group’s eponymous double live album], the Europe tour. She was close with Jerry Garcia. She helmed his solo debut and most of his records. Look at the credits on the live sets that have been released as Dick’s Picks or Dave’s Picks or Pure Jerry or the new Garcia series GarciaLive. She recorded most of those, too.
Cantor-Jackson and Matthews built a morphable studio into the Dead’s jamming space in San Rafael, in Marin County, and much of the band’s recording happened there like the Rhythm Devils’ work for the film Apocalypse Now. They recorded the Altamont festival—that’s their work on Gimme Shelter and also Sunshine Daydream, the 1972 benefit to save the Kesey family creamery.
Suffice it to say that if you’ve heard a recording of the Grateful Dead that caused your brain to rewire itself sufficiently, then chances are that the music was first filtered through the ears of Betty Cantor-Jackson.
* * * *
On a Monday night, Cantor-Jackson is eating tuna sashimi and drinking hot sake in a favorite alley-side restaurant off Fourth Street in San Rafael. She has long, wavy brown hair and the air of a veteran rock and roller. She laughs a lot. She wears a Steal Your Face on a chain around her neck and a black T-shirt with a yellow 45 rpm record label printed on it: the single for “Uncle John’s Band,” on which she is credited.
“They just really have a nice, sweet shuffle goin’ on,” she says of the Brotherhood. She has a California accent, her inflection is a little like Garcia’s. “It’s pretty music,” she says.
“It has open spaces in it, and places where each little thing gets its own little part—and I love that. It’s a 3-D thing. It’s like looking in those little Viewmasters…I want to get in around and between the musical instruments. I want to be able to feel all that stuff.”
She says she keeps listening to the music, over and over. Even after mixing and heavily scrutinizing 99 songs to pick cuts for the album—you can download her mixes of the shows and she highly recommends 24/96 FLAC—she still finds it beautiful. Stunning, even. She loves Robinson’s voice. The one thing the Dead never had, she says, was a real singer. She loved Garcia’s singing, but that was a different kind of singing. She finds listening to Robinson’s singing instructive. She wants to bring him down to Glide Church, where she is technical director, to give the choir some lessons. And this band, the music—it’s fun.
At the Great American in 2012, Cantor-Jackson’s process for recording in stereo was the same as ever: She splits each instrument’s line to the house mixer, and runs her leads all into a little room off stage left, where she mixes to digital two-track on the fly. It’s lightning in a bottle. If she misses something, then it’s gone forever.
She is sculpting the three-dimensional soundscape inside her head. And that soundscape, in turn, is reproduced inside your head when you listen to the record, especially if you’re listening on a dynamic stereo system—or through headphones. She doesn’t use pan effects. She mixes each instrument hard left or hard right, and varies “the amount” of each sound, each element. And that’s what creates the space. She wants to put the listener either right in front of the stage or right inside the band. Everybody, she says, wants to be in the band.
In this case, when you listen, you’re facing the stage. Adam MacDougall’s honkin’ Rhodes and his ooky Moog are mostly in your left ear with Neal Casal’s strikingly melodic lead guitar; Robinson’s guitar and vocals are in your right ear (and reverbed in your left ear), a little right of center. Muddy Dutton’s bass feels deepest in your left ear. George Sluppick’s drum kit is split across the center. You can feel the band. Though this band was built with an ear to the architecture of the Grateful Dead, and they occasionally sound like the Grateful Dead, they sure feel like the Grateful Dead in the spaces between. Especially on this live recording. And this recording is live.
Photo by Jay Blakesberg
Cantor-Jackson wants to bring Robinson down to Light Rail Studios, where she’s been mixing an album of the Glide Church choir. It has a big open room that is just like the studio at Front Street. The outside producer who came in to record Go To Heaven had wanted to build a control room. She said, no fucking way. She didn’t want to hear the control room. She doesn’t want to hear any confining spaces. She wants to hear the band in wide open space.
“Headphones, in other ways, is a confining space,” she says, “but it’s all right there. And I’m not dealing with the room. I’m dealing with just the band, in my ears, and the whole space is between my ears, and I can create my own air within that. My head gets to get bigger.” She laughs.
It becomes the room, I say. Your skull is the room.
“Yeah,” she says. “And the whole environment is there within.” She cups her hands around her head, her ears. Her brain. “And it’s all right there.”
* * * *
“We’re really going by the electricity and the vibrations that we can sort of tune in to,” Robinson says. “And I think that’s a perfect component in terms of Betty’s aesthetic, as well. There’s a psychedelic component to it. That’s part of the greasing the wheels of the great cosmic engine, with psychedelic thought and philosophy and action. If you get my drift.”
The CRB have been slowly working on their next studio album—laying down tracks and overdubs here and there—over the course of a year. Titled
The Phosphorescent Harvest, it’s due at the end of April. It’s got an even hotter rock-and-roll feel than their last record, Robinson says. That seems to be
this band’s arc as they’ve grown into their own sound and, over some 230 shows, developed their mutual language.
But someone must be giving him a hard time for shifting focus to this little psychedelic country rock band, and away from trying to make big hit rock records.
“I’m not gonna have hit records,” he says. “I don’t write pop songs…but then, again, I find a deep need to express myself and how I’m feeling and where I am and where I’ve been and where I’m going by writing songs. I also get great satisfaction with having a partner like Neal to write songs with now, as well. That will be super-evident on the new CRB record, as a progression.
“We have great ambition for the CRB,” the singer says. They’d like to get more popular, so they can do more cool, eclectic projects and more conceptual stage shows. They’d like to be able to afford to bring Cantor- Jackson on the road, to lay down not only Volume 2, but Volume 20. They’d like to be able to feed their families with this band.
At the same time, Robinson said he foresees the band’s music getting more heavily conceptual, even incorporating electronic avant-garde jazz craziness, down the road. Europe ‘72 is his favorite Betty record—but Ned Lagin’s Seastones is up there, too. Given MacDougall’s sonic palette, it isn’t a far stretch to electrofunk.
“Why water it down?” Robinson says. “Why play it dumb? Why change something to make it easier for anyone else, when I think if we stay sincere and keep our energies in a real creative place, then people will wander into our small community, and it maybe would get more popular. And it’s funny—as it goes on, after doing a year in The Black Crowes, I realize, as well, the CRB exists on its own, you know? Black Crowes is a real rock and roll band. And CRB is definitely on more of a Cali cosmic wavelength.
“To tend that garden is not a heavy responsibility. But I want it to grow.”