“Two thousand fifteen was — as the year’s just a few grains left in the hourglass now — it was awesome,” reports Chris Robinson, the namesake of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, on the year’s nearing end. It was a year jam-packed with shows, and though the band had no new material to support, the Brotherhood is bigger than ever. The group is wrapping up the show-studded year with a winter West Coast tour, featuring their beloved Santa Barbara at the Lobero Theatre Thursday, December 10. With a new album of live recordings released this year, Betty’s Blends Vol. 2: Best From the West, and a busy tour schedule behind and ahead, it’s fitting that, come New Year’s Eve, they will be straddling the interstitial space between years upon a Denver stage.
The Chris Robinson Brotherhood isn’t so much a commercial engine playing to promote this album or that single; rather, this psychedelic jam band is in a constant state of becoming. “We’re still building our culture, show by show, tour by tour, song by song,” Robinson said. Theirs is not a mechanized, big-budget rehearsal act; sets are largely improvised, with not one identical. The Brotherhood began in 2011 as an organic experiment for Robinson to leave behind his Black Crowes background for more explorative blues-rock pastures. The experiment was successful: The band quickly found themselves on the road, where they established their reputation as a live act to watch.
In fact, so compelling was their take on psychedelic blues-rock that it perked the ears of none other than Betty Cantor-Jackson, The Grateful Dead’s legendary recording engineer and soundboard recorder, who heard them play at Wavy Gravy’s 75th birthday party five springs ago. “She was like, ‘I’m gonna record your band — is that cool? I’m gonna follow you around and do it because your band is awesome,’” Robinson recounted. The result is two volumes of live recordings, Betty’s Blends, preserved in limited-edition vinyl.
It’s no accident that the Brotherhood united with Betty. Robinson befriended Bob Weir in the ’90s and even supported him at the Santa Barbara Bowl last year with Weir’s band RatDog, so on a relational level it was inevitable — but the connections are more than mere friendships. Robinson intends the Brotherhood as a continuation of a psychedelic tradition. “You can call it whatever you want — hippies or beatniks or bohemia or the fringe element — it’s people who are demanding something other than commotion and consumerism, something other than, ‘Hey, that guy looks nice and dances around, and he won a contest ‘cause his teeth are so white,’” Robinson said. “People are looking for a more soulful experience.”
With all-seeing eyes, magic fungi, and blissed-out wise gnomes being some of the recurring symbols of the Brotherhood’s art, they don’t hide the mystical underpinnings of their music. Robinson stresses that it’s not about making money, and that he and the other members strive to preserve their countercultural integrity. “We always joked when we started that the only thing that would make this band dysfunctional is if there were a lot of money, and I don’t think you make a soulful cosmic sound when everyone’s just worried about their money,” he said. Having seen firsthand the contractual and transactional frictions of rock stardom with The Black Crowes, Robinson uses the Brotherhood to make music without the same pressures of fame. “The sheer idea of being in show business gives me psoriasis.”
But as strong as the pop-music machine may have become, Robinson sees the counterculture as ever stronger, noting the legalization of weed and the opening of university psilocybin clinics as potential solutions to societal problems. And there is, of course, the music, which the Brotherhood hopes gives listeners “the power to love and to have a different perspective, and as opposed to gray grass of the trance machine,” he said. Show by show, solo by solo, they’re doing just that.
The Chris Robinson Brootherhood plays Thursday, December 10, at 8 p.m. at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.). For tickets, call (805) 963-0761 or see lobero.com.