When asked about his new album, Big Moon Ritual, Chris Robinson has described it as “psychedelic”, seemingly placing it in the company of the classic psychedelic rock albums of 1967: Love’s Forever Changes, Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, among others.
Upon listening to the album, however, one realizes that Chris isn’t using “psychedelic” to describe the album’s genre but rather to suggest the music as a potential avenue to a psychedelic experience.
Psychedelic experiences are often linked with hippies and drugs but the truth is that drugs are merely one means in which an individual can attempt to connect with something larger than themselves. Religion and spirituality, yoga and meditation, and dancing and singing all have a long history of being used by people in attempt to clear their minds, subsume their egos and live in the present moment.
Big Moon Ritual, taken as a whole, is a sixty minute experiment into the use of music as a means to play with the concepts of space and time in search of a true psychedelic experience. The songs are long but never meander. The individual sounds are often discordant yet somehow harmonious upon combination. This is music to immerse yourself in, to get lost within, to experience on a subtle level beyond the simple pleasure of tension and release. These songs are about experiencing the journey, not yearning for the destination. Big Moon Ritual is a transportation device to the ultimate truth, and that truth – judging by the mature lyrical content – is love.
Metaphysics aside, these are strong songs performed by expert craftsmen. Perhaps the strongest cycle that Robinson has written in his long and impressive career. The subtle difference between the past and the present is that these songs sprout from beautiful melodies, whereas the bulk of his work with The Black Crowes was rooted in the big riffs provided by his brother Rich Robinson.
Underneath all of the jamming and aural experimentation are some absolutely gorgeous tunes: Star or Stone, Reflections on a Broken Mirror, Beware, Oh Take Care and One Hundred Days of Rain are just stunners. In a weird way it reminds me of Tom Waits in that underneath the cacophony of sound are perfect melodies that could have been composed by Carole King or Burt Bacharach.
There’s really only one rocker in the bunch – a funky little number called Rosalee that is instantly appealing and addictive. But rather than just deliver a tight song the Brotherhood drops in a long bridge that once again defies expectations and elevates the song to a higher plane. This approach is mirrored in the lyrics where at first it seems like Chris is lazily employing clichés, until you realize that the song is all clichés – an oblique commentary on love song structure itself.
Even a straightforward number like Tomorrow Blues is buoyed by the impressive performance of the band (and this is definitely a band, even if Chris’s name is featured to help sell tickets) – the rhythm section of Mark Dutton (bass) and George Sluppick (drums) is both loose and tight, adeptly providing the foundation for exploration while always swinging. When needed, George will provide an interesting fill, or a martial beat, but they’ll always defer to the front-line of Robinson (guitar), Neal Casal (lead guitar) and Adam MacDougall (keys).
I have written at length of my love for Neal Casal and I’ll state once again that Neal might just be the most under-appreciated player in the business. He has the delicate touch of a certain Mr. Garcia, the ability to play as much or as little as is needed to get his point across. His tone is perfect, his playing is fluid and he can solo, play slide or just add texture.
Adam MacDougall provides a definitional sound to this band. It’s often his tone that dominates the sound and he’s a bold, audacious player. He’s funky, spacey and jazzy all at once. You can imagine some of his lines being played by a horn. I can’t imagine this band without him.
But of course, the song begins and ends with Christopher Robinson. No longer willing or able to scream over a loud band, Chris’s vocals have entered a new territory. He’s now fully a soul singer and his phrasing and delivery is unique and fluid. This is no act. He’s not playing a character. Chris is singing authentically, confidently and beautifully. It’s probably his most impressive vocal performance to date.
Of course, his vocals are well supported by the unbelievable harmony and backing vocals from the rest of the band. In many ways it’s their secret weapon and another manifestation of their cohesiveness as a unit.
It’s safe to say that this is not music for everyone. In fact, it’s probably for very few of us. For some it won’t rock enough, for others it will jam too much. But as a musical statement – and a philosophical expression – it is a triumph.
Tulsa Yesterday: 3
Star or Stone: 4
Tomorrow Blues: 3
Reflections on a Broken Mirror: 4
Beware, Oh Take Care: 4
One Hundred Days of Rain: 4
Big Moon Ritual: 3.7 (out of 4)
4 = great (exceptional composition/performance)
3 = good (a song you’ll always listen to)
2 = okay (has some redeeming qualities)
1 = poor (has no redeeming qualities)