A momentary departure from politics. A small slice of life that deserves some marking before it fades into memory.
I went to an outdoor concert in Austin Friday night at the Old Scoot Inn. It is much like Stubb's, one of our better known, smaller concert venues. Both feature stages at one end of an open area with several places to buy drinks. Stubb's is a venue often favored by bands coming to Austin to play the ACL festival, for example, and get booked at Stubb's for "after festival" shows.
I've lived in Austin for many years and had never heard of the Scoot Inn, let alone seen a show there, until I found out that Chris Robinson Brotherhood was playing a concert there. Robinson was a founder and lead singer of The Black Crowes, of course, a solid if somewhat derivative rock band. Their sound is rootsy Southern rock, Robinson is often described as a younger, wannabe Mick Jagger, but their better known songs are distinctive and original.
The Crowes secured their rock bona fides, though, when they went out on the road with Jimmy Page, Led Zeppelin's mastermind, to perform music from the Plant/Page catalogue. Page had largely been off the road, despite his occasional efforts to persuade Robert Plant to do a reunion Zeppelin tour, but there was obviously something about the Crowes and Robinson which must have appealed to him. A double album (remember what those are, millennials?) which chronicled the performance at The Greek Theater in LA is iconic: the Crowes are in powerful form, Page's guitar leads are authoritative and playful and Chris Robinson's vocals, impossible to not compare to Plant's, are soulful, but imbued with an obvious affection for the original.
But the Crowes were also always about a hazy '70's ethos. Clearly inspired by the Stones' Exile on Main Street era, the Crowes were open about their affection for weed which their audiences were only too happy to embrace. The band even looked like they had been plucked from some time capsule: long, shaggy hair, bell bottomed jeans, scarves around Robinson's neck, big, fat guitar sounds. It wasn't 21st century stuff.
Last year, Rich Robinson, Chris' brother and a guitarist in the band, announced that the band had broken apart. Like the Gallagher brothers of Oasis, the Robinsons had a tumultuous relationship which often played itself out in band affairs. Chris started his own band which is Crowes inflected, but also embraces a jam band sensibility: instrumental improvisation, blues and roots influences and, of course, some embrace of the Grateful Dead and the godfather of combining drugs, music and counterculture, Jerry Garcia.
At the Scoot Inn, there were several hundred in attendance at the sold out show. Leftover Salmon, a popular jam band from Colorado appealing to the "legalize it" crowd, opened, but their music was poorly mixed, the vocals muddied and the songs not terribly original (one was about pot smokers' favorite time of day, 4:20 - just seemed like an easy applause line).
Chris Robinson comes out about 10:30 after a leisurely equipment change. He's got two flags hung on the backdrop: an "all seeing" eye which looks like a Stanley Mouse Dead logo and the "freak flag"', a homage to the American flag with violet blue and red stripes with a blue corner in which a psychedelic stylized "F" is displayed.
He opens with a song called "Hello LA, Bye Bye Birmingham", a chugging rocker that sounds like it should have been sung by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. The music is loud, but comfortably so. The band is tight, everybody takes a small solo and the chatter on stage is minimal. The band just moves from song to song without much delay, Robinson constantly flipping laminated pages on a music stand. Nobody changes guitars. The bass guitarist wears a woolen pancho looking like Chris Hillman on a Burrito Bros album.
The remarkable thing about the show is how mellow the crowd is (and it doesn't have anything to do with all the weed references. Really.). Generally speaking, going to concerts in Austin is a throwback experience. It really reminds me of the pleasant times of days gone by. People are considerate, there is minimal assholery and, while we're not Colorado or Washington, there is this tacit understanding that if you want to smoke at an outdoor show, keep it on the down low, don't be a jerk and don't take it outside. There were no cops in evidence at the Old Scoot Inn and there wasn't a need for them.
I have railed against today's music industry, especially as it relates to live performances. Spontaneity is nonexistent, astronomic ticket prices the norm, obnoxious crowds the rule. Who wants to subject themselves to something like that unless one has a young daughter who wants to see Taylor Swift? I addressed this in my own experience with the later stages of The Grateful Dead who became, despite my youthful devotion to them, unwatchable.
Chris Robinson is a legitimate rock star trying to break that mold. He releases original material on high quality vinyl, he makes music that has no easy purchase on radio, he engages one of the Dead's recording engineers to master his live performances for release and his music is clearly inspired by American traditions interpreted by people like Garcia; bluegrass traditionalists like Del McCoury; roots rockers like T Bone Burnett, Jeff Tweedy, and, yes, Robert Plant.
I heard all that stuff as I listened Friday night and I'm grateful to Chris Robinson for not leaving the Black Crowes for some money grabbing, high profile gig I'm sure he could have found. As a fan, it is gratifying that there are a handful of artists today who honor the powerful influences of the past by either interpreting originals or channeling them through original compositions.
After tonight's show in San Antonio, the band's taking a little break. Chris is off to San Francisco. He's playing with Phil Lesh & Friends (from the Grateful Dead) for two nights at Phil's Terrapin Crossroads. THAT should be quite a show.