Heady sounds generated by a hirsute bunch, The Chris Robinson Brotherhood’s Big Moon Ritual might seem a contrived throwback to an era long past, if the music didn’t sound like it came perfectly natural to them.
From the spacey intro of "Tulsa Yesterday," which proceeds into languid bass runs twirling from the fingers of Mark Dutton and glowing electric piano from Adam MacDougall, all resonating in near-perfect clarity of sound, this first of two full-length albums from the co-founder of The Black Crowes and his motley lineup radiates a glow as deeply colorful and detailed as its cover graphics.
Yet, "I will take my own sweet time/Look into my eyes and you can tell/I’m a believer" isn’t meant to hearken back to the glory days of The Monkees covering Neil Diamond: this quintet draws unabashedly, but ever so subtly, from the canon of The Grateful Dead in that band’s most structured period–and only as a starting point. The lyrics of "Reelections on a Broken Mirror" suggest the careful craft at work here and this disciplined ethic is comparable, strictly as a conceptual point, not a sentimental one, to the economical approach the iconic band applied to American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead.
So, contrary to the somewhat overly open-ended (and open-minded) philosophy proffered in "One Hundred Days of Rain," CRB are not nostalgists. Rather than stuck in the past, they are cognizant of contemporary influences like those that inform the likes of "Rosalee," with its syncopated drums patterns, courtesy loose-limbed drummer George Sluppick, which mesh with the clipped clavinet figures. The marked downshift the band navigates on this track, from which rises floating vocal harmonies and bubbling sound effects, is redolent of the psychedelic era to be sure, but because Robinson & Co. are firmly schooled in the mechanics of rock and soul, the subsequent turn they take into the firmly rhythmic bridge ("…the air gettin’ thinner/we’re gettin’ high!…") makes for yet another potent track among the eight fairly extended cuts here. Neal Casal’s crisp guitar leads directly to an authoritative finish.
If it’s not obvious by the time the tune appears, "Star or Stone" reminds that this band’s name isn’t about ego on the part of its leader, but yet another statement of purpose. While Chris Robinson’s wavering voice sometimes sounds as haggard as he looks, it nevertheless has a strength that conveys resolute determination and deep feeling. The same sensation pervades the musicianship that surrounds (not just backs) him and the transitions from lead vocals to instrumental passages are, as on this segment of the total hour-long plus playing time, perfectly seamless.
A second full-length album, not so cryptically titled The Magic Door, is due in September and it’ll be interesting to hear whether it complements or contrasts the aptly-named Full Moon Ritual. Based on this debut, it’s bound to be a provocative listen, as long as The Chris Robinson Brotherhood continues to so warmly embrace, and then transcend, their self-acknowledged roots.