The Chris Robinson Brotherhood are making the most of their relationship to music.
In 2011, Black Crowes co-founder Chris Robinson recruited fellow Crowe Adam MacDougall (keyboards), sessions/touring musicians Mark Dutton (bass) and George Sluppick (drums), and soloist/alt-country/jam band heavy hitter Neal Casal (guitars/vocals) to experiment with a musical side project, what Robinson called a “farm-to-table psychedelic band.”
The band took to touring and pressed two records by 2012, not including “Betty’s S.F. Blends, Volume One,” featuring songs picked by Grateful Dead producer Betty Cantor-Jackson.
In April, CRB released their third album, “Phosphorescent Harvest,” featuring new songs from their vast catalog honed over the course of at least 230 shows. The band learns and grows with each live performance, song written and past accepted, musically and personally.
“As you move on in time, you get older, you have relationships. Some of them are good, some fail. Friends, drugs, life, death. People come, people go,” Robinson said in a news release. “Songwriting is a completely different emotional response to your life and to what it means.”
Whatever melancholy there is on the new album is softened by melodious guitar tracks expressing bittersweet relief and resignation. MacDougall sometimes is like a kid with a new toy, experimenting with the functions on his keyboards. It’s beautiful blues, moody rock and dreamy, mature psychedelia. These guys are high on life or thin air and are cool about it. They’ve been around the block and squeezed out every last note.
“It comes from years of making records, listening to music, trial and error. ... We’re not able to realize the more nuanced, subtle, sophisticated songs in our heads” without experience, Casal said in a recent phone interview. He calls the new album “dynamic psych, well-rounded psychedelia.”
The songs are timely, based on personal experience, but during a live show, how much of the tangential energy feeds off the now? What parts of the performance are planned or not?
“We can kind of hear it. We work hard on writing melodic structures; we plan the free space. ... We know when it’s gonna start and know it eventually will end — sometimes in the middle of a song,” Casal said. “What happens in between is where the mystery lies. We build the mystery sections into our shows.”
The tour kicked off in April and now it’s August. How has the tone of the setlist changed?
“It changes quite a bit. We have a large repertoire of songs,” he said. “There are tunes that seem to be endlessly interesting, and we play them every night. With others, they get stale; you hit a brick wall.”
Casal has 10 solo albums to his credit, but, he said, working with others is an inspiration worth investigating.
“These days, I’m only interested in working with bands. Working solo can be faster, simply put. You can get your ideas out quicker, there are less people to run it by. The cons would be, there are less people to run it by,” he said “You hit your own personal wall a lot faster. Being in a band is the most dynamic, funny, interesting, weird thing. You go a lot further that way.”
Robinson has said that the band wanted to create songs that are more dynamic and nuanced. So what comes first — the music or the lyrics?
“Chris comes up with an idea, sometimes just a verse and a chorus,” Casal said. “He leaves it at a certain place and then passes it over to me. Then we pass the ball around until we can feel good about the song.”
Are there any songs from the new album that CRB haven’t played live yet?
“Yeah, ‘Wanderer’s Lament,’ ” he said. “It’s the heavier, emotional tune of the album. It’s territory that we’ve been treading lightly around so far. I think, in the way that certain sad tunes wouldn’t be played until the end of the night, this is an almost end-of-the-tour song. It might take a chill in the air or fall melancholia. That’s when that song may present itself.”