An invincible force of wandering minstrels rolled into town on Philadelphia’s Main Line for a two-night stand at the Ardmore Music Hall this weekend. The Chris Robinson Brotherhood is affectionately known as CRB, an insider moniker that quickly took root in the buzz around them, a lot of which was happening on social media, given their birth in 2011. A little ironic, since the CRB’s leader is notoriously vigilant about keeping experiences live and unfiltered. Only recently does he seem to have given up on bitching at people from the stage for “putting their technology in his face” – a.k.a. taking pictures. As we lined up on Friday night, the door guys made the announcement a few times – no flash, no video; pictures OK, but only with the flash off. Personally, I’ll just be sticking to Mr. Robinson’s old rules. Some of us miss when people used to hold up lighters at shows instead of cell phones.
The CRB is committed to sustaining a particularly American enterprise – the good old-fashioned rock tour, rolling across this great big country, town after town. A glance at their upcoming schedule at any given time is bound to include cities and towns up and down both coasts, plus a whole lot of places in between that you know of, but have never actually been to. This month: Cleveland, Grand Rapids, Columbus, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Madison.
One of the songs fans most treasure is “Tulsa.” It is a grueling place with a purposeful lack of rock star trappings that clearly requires true love and devotion to both presence and motion.
“The CRB loves you,” Robinson is fond of saying. And I wholeheartedly believe him. Because we are essential, a part of the garden they must cultivate and tend to if they want to live in it. They work for it, night after night, and their fans respond. I’ve been there from the beginning, chasing my toddler around the grounds of the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur, California, where they emerged from the woods to perform some of their first shows. So I’ve seen their fan base grow, both broad and deep. As the band name suggests, the Brotherhood is a family affair – homegrown. CRB fans are an eclectic bunch. My immediate perimeter in line on Saturday included: one well-heeled middle-aged couple, a son in his 30s with his mother, two boomer-age men as excited as teenagers, a college kid with a Stop Wars T-shirt on, and a fairly steady stream of bros of all ages getting dropped off in Ubers out front. CRB shows do predominantly attract dudes, it would seem. There is almost never a line for the ladies room at a CRB show. But I think that is just their connection to the Grateful Dead scene and those guys, who will come and go to almost anything that has some jam in it. Don’t get me wrong, there are still plenty of women in the family, like the one standing next to me up front who had flown in all the way from San Francisco.
I am with my own personal CRB family, a tight knit freaky foursome who has seen the band all over the place, from Big Sur, CA to Burlington, VT. My mother, who has often provided babysitting support to these endeavors (thanks ma!), thinks we might have joined a cult. We spot just a few Black Crowes T-shirts in the crowd, worn by those who haven’t heard that we are supposed to put all of that behind us now. Are they not aware of all the bad blood between brothers that has left us all totally hopeless for a reunion? It wasn’t always like that. Not so long ago, for a few brief years, you could have both. Robinson would alternate – a tour with the Crowes one year, CRB the next. In 2013, my husband thought nothing of wearing a crazy yellow CRB tie-dye to our VIP meet-and-greet with the Black Crowes. Unbeknownst to us at the time, that tour would be the end of the line. We should have known; there were signs. Luther gone, no new albums, VIP meet-and-greets?!? But little did we know, as Robinson has exclaimed “…that Donald Trump would be in the White House and my brother would be in a Black Crowes cover band!”
Fact: Philly folk live for a good rivalry. So of course there is talk of Magpie Salute, Rich Robinson’s Black Crowes tribute project. Many say it is worth going, just to hear Rich reunited with ex-lead guitar player Marc Ford. But I don’t know. I’m a pretty hard-core purist. For a long time at CRB shows, I couldn’t even stay up front for a non-Black Crowes rendition of “Hard to Handle.” Even with Chris singing, and even though it is technically not a Black Crowes song, I had a tough time. They were commonly closing out their first sets with that number, so I always used it as my signal to go and grab drinks before the lines got too long. But they won me over eventually, transforming that song into something truly new and different. I do love Rich and Marc, and have seen them both solo, but I haven’t seen Magpie. On one hand, I swoon to think of them together again, digging into songs like “Gone” or “She Gives Good Sunflower.” But I shudder to think how my heart would break to hear anyone but Chris sing them. All of that is just fodder for the crowd though, good cocktail conversation. My habit of getting there early to get up front means that for once I get some solid quality time with my favorite people, so we order doubles, speculate about opening songs, gossip about our friends, talk about local restaurants and the history of the Ardmore Music Hall.
It’s had a few name changes, hosted the Chili Peppers once upon a time, and for a while became somewhat of a home for Deadhead cover bands. Say what you will about the Grateful Dead, but there is a branch of true music aficionados amongst them that have found their way to the CRB. I once read an interview where Robinson said they tend to play at places they are invited. If that is true, the booking agent for the Ardmore Music Hall had a great idea. It is a much better, more intimate venue for them to play than their recent Philly stops, which include the cavernous TLA and Union Transfer, which has great sound but still has that slight Spaghetti Warehouse vibe to it.
Reflecting back on the year thus far, in January, as Trump was being inaugurated and women were marching in the streets, I watched the band play for two nights in Las Vegas as the Friends to Phil Lesh and Friends. In April, I saw a show in Dallas in which they had opened with an old Gary Stewart country cover, Sweet Thang and Cisco. I next saw them at the Stone Pony in New Jersey, then the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock, and each show they had opened with that cover, making it better every time. It was a lucky coincidence due to the nightly set list variation. I threw it out as my vote for opening song figuring there was no way, but sure enough, our Friday night kicked off with the sweet twangs of Sweet Thang and away we went. By now, it was an old favorite, bringing smiles to our faces instantly.
I am notoriously bad at remembering set lists and breaking down songs, so I won’t even try. But I can tell you that the band’s new album, Barefoot in the Head, must absolutely be heard live to appreciate the giant California sound they make. “She Shares my Blanket,” “If You Had a Heart to Break” – these gems have moments that literally make you feel warm – pure surf and sun through the trees shines all around you, impossible to be fully appreciated unless you are fully present. “Hark, the Herald Hermit Speaks” is Wilcoesque in its grandeur, but without the reserve and control inherent to that band’s Midwest sensibility. Let’s face it, Jeff Tweedy wouldn’t even want to try to pull off the swagger that Chris Robinson still can – a guy that moved to California long ago but still has country in his soul.
The set lists are stocked with surprises each night. We all agree, “Burn Slow on Friday” was a rare highlight, and on Saturday, possibly the best “Star or Stone” ever, and believe me, that’s saying a lot coming from the people around me.
Two-night stands are not unheard of for this band, but also not common, so I knew the shows would be special. But I had a particular interest in the experience of seeing the band over the course of two nights like that, back- to-back, double-duty. I tend to go all in for my experience, so I wondered on Friday night as I worked on the third drink in my cocktail of substances how I would feel the next day when I got to come and do it all over again. Would I be equally as excited on night two? When I woke up Saturday morning and never really got going until about 1 p.m., I realized that my level of exhaustion was going to chill me out in a way I hadn’t been on Friday. I watched a PBS documentary about Richard Linklater, had brunch, and noticed that the same level of physical adrenaline was definitely not there. Would the CRB really be able to bring me back? Was it worth it? I literally had the super lame thought, as I got sucked into the couch and a documentary about Princess Diana late in the afternoon, that maybe I should just have a quiet night instead. But unlike the characters in that David Foster Wallace novel, I wasn’t going to let the evil box get me.
You already know the end of this story. A little farm-to-table brew and small plates at the Tired Hands Brewing Company a few doors from the venue, some good conversation, and before I knew it I found myself rushing down Lancaster Avenue to line up and do it all over again. Saturday night. And I thought to myself with a smile, I know one song they are going to play.
Sweet Thang and Cisco
High is Not the Top
Meanwhile in the Gods…
Forever as the Moon
Clear Blue Sky
Leave My Guitar Alone
Little Lizzie Mae > Can You Hear Me
Wheel Don’t Roll
If You Had a Heart to Break
Ain’t It Hard But Fair
Encore: Dream Baby
7 Nights to Rock
Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line
Star or Stone
Blue Star Woman
Saturday Night in Ardmore
Venus in Chrome
Hark, the Herald Hermit Speaks
She Shares My Blanket
Behold the Seer
Little by Little
Good to Know
Narcissus Soaking Wet
Encore: Bye and Bye