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Mud honey: Chris Robinson at Northern Lights. Photo by Joe Putrock

Baked Crow(e)
By Bill Ketzer

Chris Robinson’s New Earth Mud
Northern Lights, Dec. 15

Any band whose playbill begins with the words, “An evening with . . . ” makes me very nervous. More often than not you are in for the long good-bye, and photographer Joe Putrock and I moaned when arriving well after post time to find a trickle of bedraggled fans still humbly slouched on cue outside the unlit nightclub. The idea of actual scheduling was as elusive as the Great Northern Yeti throughout the night—our illustrious Metroland shutterbug endlessly circled the grounds in search of a tour manager apparently named “Cutlets” to ensure pic-taking privileges, imploring doubtfully to stricken, vacuous audio techs in Timberland boots who were clearly, as they say in politics, approachably unapproachable, wandering away forever despite promises of sending out someone in charge.

Chris Robinson himself also just kind of meandered onto the stage at a seemingly random time, never looking up as the drums tumbled into “Sunday Sound,” the first of a few very shaky tunes. “Oh, boy,” I said, “Here we go.” But to my surprise, the shaggy gaggle quickly snapped to the grid and delivered a controlled burn, driven by the unmistakable timbre of Robinson’s voice. Indeed, as if someone had blown pixie dust on the bearded quintet, the tour-bus rust flaked away as the famous frontman led his traveling kibbutz into easy, doting stuff like “Are You Ready for This Country?” “Sing Me Back Home,” and “Stealin’,” a delightful honky-tonk rag that tipped a hooka to the Pigpen-era Dead.

This was pure ’70s, from the bundled twigs of incense placed in cups by the monitors to the hand-woven carpets partitioning Robinson’s personal space to the single-headed toms (and Remo Roto-Toms!) on the drum set. Guitarist Paul Stacey wielded absolute control over his entire musical presence (and about 30 vintage guitars), his sensitivity to the requirements of each song taking very simple progressions and stirring ’em into thicker, creamier delights, coaxing nectar from tunes like “Silver Car” with slide piece and volume chided with Goodrich pedals. Keyboardist George Laks hit it with his tongue wagging like Linda Blair in all her split-pea splendor, standing, sitting, standing in convulsive fits of almost satanic whimsy. Bass man George Reiff and drummer Jeremy Stacey served not so much as “anchor” for the outfit as they did, say, “Rock of Gibraltar,” as Robinson held his own on both the acoustic and the Strat. He even took leads during an impetuous “Reflections on a Broken Mirror” and the Fillmore Eastern “Mother of Stone,” which devolved into a sweet reggae improv, underscoring already debatable loyalties to gravity and equilibrium.

After a prolonged break (“We’ll be back, um, in a little while,” said Robinson), the band reemerged from the dressing room, acting quite differently, because the entire troupe were now verily baked to the bejesus, chuckling knowingly into each other’s ears and squinting painfully into no-man’s land. Yet they were refreshed and smitten with ease, and they quickly plunked back into heady grooves established in the previous set. The only time they swam upstream was when attempts were made to give up the funk, which sounded forced, white and somewhat distracted from purpose, but such was a short-lived malady that gave way to the roadhouse rambling “L.A. City Limit Blues,” “No Expectations” and a decent rendition of Garcia’s and Hunter’s “Sugaree.”

So yeah, yeah, he married Kate Hudson. Big deal. Every review I’ve read of the New Earth Mud CD thus far seems obsessed with predicting the duration of this union, implying that the slinky shaman’s googly-eyed adoration for the Almost Famous star has diluted the potency of his music into some sort of nonalcoholic sparkling cider where Cutty Sark once flowed like the Euphrates, and that he should dump his turtledove for the old Black Crowes so that they may once again return to frighten away the pesky squirrels of obscurity from one of the finest feeders of rock & roll. This is unfortunate, because it horribly discredits his seasoned capabilities as a songwriter in his own right and his obvious ability to mesh a number of styles and influences into a comfortable, if mildly bloodshot, mélange.

Live, Robinson’s is as solemn an effort as any solo jaunt, perhaps even better-intentioned than most, maintaining a casual, conversational tone with the somewhat sparse audience and buttressing his talents with seasoned pros—these men are not wanton, unschooled hemp- jammers by any stretch. Despite the potential superstar drawing power, people weren’t exactly giving blow jobs to get into this Sunday evening show, but NEM completed two sets of mostly accomplished, spur-jingling rock, country and blues like they couldn’t give a damn, and without offering up a single Crowes tune, no less. All without putting me to bed. That’s good copy.

Funky Dory

James Brown
Proctor’s Theatre, Dec. 27

Several friends told me they skipped this show, figuring that James Brown, at 69, no longer had it. They couldn’t have been more wrong. I saw Soul Brother No. 1 in 1980 and again in the early ’90s; this was easily the best show of the three. The Hardest Working Man in Show Business must feel really good to be riding so high at his age, and I think he did feel good. He even said so.

In many ways this was not a whole lot different that those previous shows. The James Brown Show has probably not really changed much in 30-or-so years. There’s the overload of jive hucksterism: guys in shiny suits fluffing the crowd with “Ladies and Gentlemen!” proclamations, the band playing ornate fanfares for no discernable reason, the turn-on-a-dime arrangements and, of course, the ABM. That’s “all band movement” to you.

But this was crisper, hotter, brighter, happier and more fun. The band were certainly key. Actually, make that bands—there were two drummers, two bass players, and a gaggle of guitarists along with a percussionist, some keyboardists, the four-piece horn section and the four shimmying and sashaying sirens on stage right. Rhythm sections and guitarists seemed to alternate on songs, until the end, when everybody was in on it. Brown always packs a tight band (and they were a lot of guys up there I’d seen playing with him before), but this was special. Things were a little more breakneck, the solos were a little more crazy, the string more taught. And at the same time it was insanely tight, and damn funky. “I’ll Go Crazy” swung so hard my shoes untied themselves.

Then there was James Brown. From the opening yelps of “I’m Back!” (from the always sublime Get up Offa That Thing) to the mournful wails of “It’s a Man’s World,” he was in spectacular voice. There is absolutely nothing in American music more iconic than a James Brown shriek, and we got them, as good as they get, by the busful. And he spun, he did the boomerang mike-stand thing, he did the shaky-leg thing, he even did the Bunny Dance. He didn’t do these things for very long, but he did them like he’s always done them, and frankly, they were more special in their brevity. He didn’t do any splits, but I doubt he’s done one in 30 years, and, as someone much smarter than I recently observed, “splits are overrated.” Brown (it seems weird to refer to him as “Brown,” I don’t know why) conducted the big band, creating arrangements on the fly and changing the direction of the show, whenever he thought things would be better elsewhere, with a flick of the wrist. He’d also chop a song if he thought there’d been enough or if going the distance would burn him out. And the band slavishly followed him wherever he went.

There was the special guest, a young woman who came out and sang and danced, which would have been OK if she were any good at singing and dancing. But such was not the case, and to make matters worse, the guys in the horn section were more attractive. And they’re a country mile from handsome, and I’m straight.

But this is a trifling matter in the greater scheme of things. This was just killer from start to finish. One wonders how many times Brown will go out again and if the next time out he won’t, as my friends feared, have it. But after all of those songs, and as the revival-tent call-and-response at the end of “Sex Machine” got crazy, and everybody in the room was yelling and sweating and grinning ear to ear, I didn’t think about that. I just danced and wondered how this show would compare to those legendary ’60s shows at the Apollo. Well, I’d think.

—Paul Rapp

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