Sunshine, Sea & the CRB: Asbury Park, NJ & Patchogue, NY – July 26-27, 2018
Riding high, the CRB came rolling into Asbury Park last Thursday night with a lot of horsepower for the Stone Pony. Before the sun even went down, they sidled into the bar and onto the stage and made it real clear, real fast – this ain’t their first rodeo.
It ain’t my first Pony ride either. The summer CRB show at the legendary Stone Pony has become an annual pilgrimage, always worth the drive from wherever you are in the region. The band travels far to get there too, all the way from their headquarters in Unicorn, California, which is about as far away as you can get from New Jersey, in body-mind-soul, and still be in America. But this band is no stranger to the Garden State, as some of their birth certificates will attest, and the Stone Pony shows have become a reliable regional homecoming party. In the middle of festival season, it is a welcome opportunity to see them stretch their legs into their “Evening with” format – a two-set/three-hour trip into CRB space and time.
The space is packed, the air heavy with East Coast humidity that the a/c would never touch. But with the club doors swung open on all sides, and the Atlantic just across the boardwalk, there is a cross breeze of ocean air. The crowd imbibes in the cocktails of their choosing, and by the time the band comes on, our faces are aglow with a salty sheen, even though most of us spent the day inside at our daytime occupations. I literally had to change my clothes for the show in the car.
It seems more crowded than last time and there is a palpable buzz in the air. The real fans are here, chatting about their favorite topic – prior shows. There’s the guy who comes all the way from California every summer, and over there is the couple I saw together for years at Crowes shows. There is even a couple standing together who are divorced, which just goes to show, the ties that bind us together in music can really endure!
The last time I saw the CRB it was for their two-night stand in October in Ardmore, PA. I didn’t know it then, but I was living on cloud nine compared to the cloud that life was about to knock me down to. After that last show came a long stormy winter, and I had been fighting my way through a downright fog for months. So when the summer tour schedule came out I immediately marked the Stone Pony on the calendar and made plans to follow the band to Long Island for their show the next night too. I figured I could also find a beach and some sunshine – my medicine.
The lights go down. The band rides in with Coming Round the Mountain and wastes no time getting serious. With the contrast of the setting sun through the open bar doors, it seems extra dark inside, and by song two, Chris is belting his way through Someday Past the Sunset. Chris can wail in a certain way that makes you know when he really means it, and “I feel weary in the weight of these days” is a line that has aged well. We all feel it a little deeper in our bones these days. He tears through the song’s bridge from his gut with some anger and disgust – “Long live your king when he is dead like me.” Like the rest of us, he is probably hearing too much news about too many fools. But not tonight. Tonight, we resist.
This is New Jersey though, and the CRB knows that the people came to party. The harmonica will make more than one appearance, always a sign that it’s gonna be a barn-burner. They run out the first set with an inspired triptych of Narcissus Soaking Wet, Clear Blue Sky and the get-down good I’m a Hog for You. At intermission there are a lot of wows and whoas and talk about the band being at 11, the mythical number from Spinal Tap that represents not so much noise level, but that “little something extra”. Someone disagrees with the consensus and has the audacity to say that they think the band isn’t there quite yet. I didn’t get a chance to follow up afterwards, but I am certain that the second set convinced even that guy. To start, we took a deep breath in for two – Venus in Chrome and Rare Birds, a Jonathan Wilson cover – then exhaled with Hark, the Herald Hermit Speaks and Behold the Seer. We bask in the California glow of their last album for a couple more before dancing the night away to a threesome of Ain’t it Hard, Ride and Got Love. Ride, always a brave choice, an epic dig-deep song you have to really commit to, had no problem revving its engine and convincing us all to come along.
After the show, my girlfriend and I stumbled over to the boardwalk for some fresh air and to get a glimpse of the sea, all lit up by an almost full moon. We live around a lot of lakes and rivers but have to put a couple hours of good effort in to get to the ocean. We sigh, we smile and agree, we are definitely ready for more. Good thing I made plans for Long Island. And we drove home across the Pine Barrens under the spell of the moon and the rare red glow of a visible Mars.
I am a secret sociologist, so one of the joys of following a band for me is discovering the places they lead me. The Stone Pony was familiar territory, but Friday night’s venue, the Stereogarden in Patchogue, NY was all new to me. Sure, I had been to Montauk and the Hamptons, but I had no real clue about what was in between there and Manhattan. Turns out it is mostly traffic! Or so it seemed as we fought our way out on the LIE Friday afternoon, cursing ourselves for not getting an earlier start. Disoriented, we finally landed in Patchogue. Strolling around the bustling and sizeable city that was crawling with street life, we looked at each other and said, “Where ARE we?” Funny how you can go just a couple hours on the East Coast and feel like a stranger in a strange land.
Stereogarden is an old converted roller skating rink, with multiple levels and bars. It has a new vibe, confirmed when I ask a door guy where the bathrooms are. He has no idea. It is his first night on the job. Before I wander off to look for them myself I tell him, “You know, you are really lucky. You are about to have a GREAT first night. You are going to love this band!” It is a bigger room, with a bigger, elevated stage that requires an upward gaze. I’m too short to even see Tony. You might think that would mean a less intimate show, but surprisingly it was just the opposite, the band working extra hard to make sure any barriers were broken.
Set one was a veritable feast of unexpected surprises. This is a prolific band, with a big catalogue of songs to choose from now. We were lucky to get gems like a Jump the Turnstile opener and a Tulsa into Tumbleweed in Eden. Intermission was followed by one big perfect second set, anchored on both ends with the always crowd pleasing refrains of Rosalee. In between, we were treated to yet another trilogy, an epic Vibration and Light, Shore Power, and I Ain’t Hiding. Instead of boot-stomping harmonica, we got a lot of extended psychedelic slow-downs, with Neal checking in constantly to make sure we were digging it as much as he was. That’s the thing about Neal. He’s not one to waste notes. These are jams that are going somewhere. They are not intended to make you marvel at his virtuoso. They are intended to make you get down and actually feel something. This is a band of cerebral heads preaching in carnal language.
They sent us off with an encore of the Stones’ Sweet Virginia and we ventured back out into the unfamiliar territory of Patchogue, not really knowing what to do with ourselves. Even the band seemed a little lost. Jeff was looking for Neal who had seemingly wandered off into the leafy suburbs. I went to sit on the stairs and wait for our Uber, and just as it arrived, another car was pulling up too, and there was Chris getting into his own Lyft. I thought to myself metaphorically, “See, even Chris Robinson needs a lift sometimes.” I was grateful he had provided one for me and hoped he had found one too.
The next day, my fellow travelers and I hit the beach hard on Fire Island. With my head on a pillow of sand and my body depleted, I had found a cure, at least for the moment. Clear Blue Sky says, “If the song you sing can’t make you happy, you really got the blues.” I had tested that theory and was relieved to discover that my medicine still worked.
The CRB is next headed South and West, like the title of Joan Didion’s latest book. Like Didion herself, who wrote about the “dreamers of the golden dream”, they travel toward the sun. Go with them. Shore Power is a real thing. Take your medicine, chase the waves. Find the light.