Any Deadhead worth his 1977 Cornell bootleg will know the name Betty Cantor-Jackson, the Grateful Dead’s longtime recording engineer who made the pristine concert tapes known as Betty Boards; if you got a copy of a Betty Board, you were like a religious pilgrim gifted a piece of the true cross.
So Cantor-Jackson’s name on “Betty’s Blends,” a series of live Chris Robinson Brotherhood releases, is a big ol’ welcome mat for fans of the Dead and their various offshoot bands, and the music, which harkens to the Dead’s mid-1970s quasi-progressive “Blues For Allah” era, will make them mighty glad they decided to pay a visit.
Robinson, of course, was The Black Crowes’ frontman until the band’s recent split. Robinson has made no secret of his admiration of the Dead, its ethos and its freewheeling jams, and he leads his band, Neal Casal (guitar, vocals), Adam MacDougall (keyboards), Mark Dutton (bass) and George Sluppick (drums), through all of the same winding, dusty roads the Dead made so compelling in its heyday. This is deep-space cowboy music, driven by song and improvisation, sometimes simultaneously, and the “group mind” collective jamming displayed by the quintet recalls the instrumental telepathy of bands with a much deeper pedigree, like, yes, the Dead, and the Allman Brothers Band at its peak.
“Betty’s Blends Volume Two,” subtitled “Best From The West,” was culled from the CRB’s Western U.S. dates in the summer of 2014 and offers an ample cross-section of material over its seven tracks. The group displays its propensity for lengthy improv work right out of the gate with “Vibration Light Suite,” a 16:34 slinky incandescent piece of music. Casal’s reeled-in, note-perfect guitar solo is an exercise in restraint and melodic drift, while MacDougall (also of the late Crowes), as he often does throughout “Volume Two,” decorates the proceedings with wildly adventurous keyboard sounds and textures. His solo in the lead track recalls the keyboard work in the Jerry Garcia Band more than any of the Dead’s multitude of keysmen, but if you had to pick one, it would be Keith Godchaux when he would occasionally leave the piano for an electric foray.
MacDougall is again at the fore at the outset of “Rosalee,” churning out a big, thick, funky clavinet intro. The CRB’s tasteful dynamics emerge, as slide guitar gives way to a tempo change, turning the song into a dirge-y ballad around the 5-minute mark.
The appropriate Grateful Dead cover, “They Love Each Other,” is a comfortable addition, and it’s notable for what it is not: a carbon copy of the Dead’s original version – to the credit of Casal. Instead of copping Garcia’s lead lines and playing style on the solo, Casal instead captures the essence of the song and infuses it with his own unique approach. Meanwhile, MacDougall evokes Rick Wakeman or Keith Emerson with some truly 1970s prog-rock synth work.
The easy-rolling “Tumbleweed In Eden,” a Robinson staple since his days fronting his previous group, New Earth Mud, as well as the upbeat “Shore Power,” earn their keep, but the payoff comes in the form of the sixth song, “Burn Slow.” Played at a tempo that personifies its name, “Burn Slow” is a classic Neil Young & Crazy Horse-esque deliberately paced, hot, rocker in the vein of “Cortez The Killer.” While Casal and Robinson’s guitars are again key, MacDougall again cuts through with some astonishing playing, this time taking a page from Rick Wright and Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” As the tension comes to a breaking point, delicate guitars beckon the listener to a safe landing spot.
The CRB wraps up the live album with “Driving Wheel,” a nice palate cleanser of ’70s rock balladry that lives somewhere between the Laurel Canyon and Haight-Ashbury.
You cannot fault Black Crowes fans for bemoaning the demise of the Southern psychedelic rock outfit, but considering the long-simmering tensions within the band and a previous breakup, you can fault them for being surprised. But, as the cliché goes, with every closed door, there’s an open window. One of those windows is more time for Robinson to devote to the CRB, and if “Betty’s Blends Volume Two” is any indication, that’s something to be excited about.