Saturday, June 2, 2018

Bluegrass Underground: Chris Robinson Brotherhood (Todd Squirrel Productions, WCTE-TV Nashville, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the Live at the Belly Up program I watched a half-hour episode in the series Bluegrass Underground, billed as “Live from the Caverns” and whose Web site,, says the show “shines a light on purveyors of musical authenticity in a space unlike any other on (or under) earth.” On another part of their Web page they write, “Bluegrass Underground emanates from the Volcano Room, a subterranean amphitheatre 333 feet below McMinnville, Tennessee at Cumberland Caverns. The acoustic properties of the Volcano Room are singular. In fact, the room only resonates at two frequencies meaning that experiencing live music there is akin to attending a concert inside a recording studio.” Alas, last night’s band, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, wasn’t the sort of group that really challenged and showcased those awesome acoustics, though they brought a lot of electronic gizmos with them and that’s not easy to do in the Volcano Room of the Caverns because everything has to be brought in on those little trains like the ones coal miners use to take in their supplies and take out the coal. According to Wikipedia, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood is a side project of Chris Robinson, lead singer for the Black Crowes, and the personnel are Robinson, guitarist Neal Casal, keyboardist Adam MacDougall, bassist Jeff Hill, and drummer Tony Leone. Robinson is a good singer — a damned sight better than Robby Gira, but then he is the lead voice in an internationally known band instead of just a local musician in Carlsbad — though he tends to mumble, and the combination of his mumbling, the overall ellipticality of his song’s lyrics and the rather congested sound (if anything the band seemed to be fighting the natural acoustics of the Cavern instead of using them) made it difficult for me to tell what the four songs they played were called. I’ve got really spoiled by the Live at the Belly Up producers’ use of chyrons to tell us what the individual songs are called; PBS’s other shows of contemporary pop music, including the vaunted Austin City Limits as well as Live from the Artists’ Den (featuring famous, or at least semi-famous, musicians performing in oddball locations), don’t do that.

The first song seemed to be called “Keep Your Eyes On Ahead (Don’t Look Back)” and featured some unexpected synthesizer bloops and bleeps in the middle of what was otherwise pretty straight-ahead country-rock; keyboardist MacDougall had three available instruments: a grand piano (probably a fixture inside the Caverns because it’s hard to imagine the logistics of moving it in or out of there), a modern compact electronic keyboard that stood next to the piano, and a big box with a keyboard and a lot of knobs that sat on top of the piano and was responsible for all those cool 1970’s synth sounds. Their second song, of which I alternately guessed the title as “Loser Is as Loser Does” or “Can’t Help from Crying,” was by far the best of the night; it was a slow ballad, reminiscent of Bob Dylan not only in the elliptical and highly symbolic lyrics but also some of Dylan’s characteristic chords and Robinson’s singing, which took on the soulful character of Dylan’s at his best. The next two songs, the first of which I thought was called either “If the Moment Comes” or “The Sun Is Shining” (which would make it suffer from comparison with the wrenching Elmore James blues “The Sun Is Shining”) and the second was either “Rosalee” or “Bird in My Hand,” were O.K. good-time rock but didn’t have the emotional richness of the second song, which benefited also from MacDougall’s decision to play piano, not either of his electronic keyboards, throughout. I don’t think I have anything by the Black Crowes (I’m sure I’ve heard them but can’t recall them), so I can’t compare the Chris Robinson Brotherhood’s work here to what Robinson does with his main band, but the Brotherhood’s music here struck me as pleasant and on the whole well done, but quite frankly it could have benefited from a female singer — all five band members were guys, all had beards (something Robinson joked about when he said they all looked like cavemen so it was appropriate they were playing in a cavern — “We’re old-school, Neolithic old-school!”) and all had very similar voices and approaches to music, which at least made the band sound coherent even if it also made them sound rather unadventurous.