Servants of the Sun bursts into the clear blue air with the funky upper atmosphere bubbling of vintage keyboards and driving rhythm. A gateway swings wide open to a universe that the Chris Robinson Brotherhood has been tirelessly constructing for eight years through extraordinary musicianship, endless touring and a roving, seemingly bottomless wizard’s chest of sonic delights. The band’s 8th studio effort since forming in 2011—spread out over six full length albums and two EPs—sets aside the studio explorations of their more recent work and turns inward to the heart of the Brotherhood’s universe. Of the origin concept for Servants, bandleader Chris Robinson explains: “I let my head go to a Saturday night at the Fillmore, and said, what’s the best set we could play?” And in following that guiding principle the CRB bottled their pure essence into 10 new songs, a distillation of their journey so far. In many ways they have come full circle in delivering their most direct, bare bones, rock n’ roll record since debut companion albums ‘Big Moon Ritual’ and ‘The Magic Door.’
As the bounce and flutter of Adam MacDougall’s keys in album opener “Some Earthly Delights” gives way to guitarist Neal Casal’s sky-climbing lead, enter the voice of Chris Robinson; a mushroomed Muscle Shoals great out of time, high-stepping into the proceedings like Manson’s good twin just hit the party singing: “Leaving feathers where we go, following the breeze, some days cold, some days gold, it’s all a dream.” It is the voice of the pied piper, the rock and roll guru, the star-gazing poet, the hallucinator, the lover, the infinite vagabond and it simultaneously puts our head deep inside a fantasy and our bodies squarely in front of the band on the sticky ballroom floor.
“Let it Fall” sashays with fond homage to the slinky rhythms and stoned, but sizzling energy of Little Feat and New Orleans soul-funk. Casal’s bottleneck slide licks melt over Jeff Hill’s side-stepping bass and drummer Tony Leone’s layered percussion: “I just need a little space to let it fall, that’s all. Just some time to check my mind, and see if I’m still here, or have I disappeared?” CR sings as he walks the lyrical line between raved up middle-of-the-night drug score and self-reflective disassociation, the kind of pairing that Hunter Thompson often wrote about with humor, momentum and the undercurrent of psychological resonance.
“I like to write ‘scenes.’ I want you to be able to storyboard these lyrics into a visual, even the abstract part of them,” says Robinson. “You’re creating a world and you want people to come in, you’re doing it through language and this texture of music and melody but ideally you want someone to ENTER this place. Sometimes it’s a celebration, sometimes its mourning…it can be anything once you get inside.”
The CRB were a band born on the road from their very first days touring up and down the California coast in residencies in 2011 as they began to build a now mightily expanded international fanbase that, like the Dead’s before them, is a family and tribe bound by love, fun, lifestyle and not just a little dose of obsession. When asked about the ‘Freak Family’ without a pause CR says: “Ultimately they are the Godhead of this thing, they’re the ones that breathed life into a lump of clay and made this thing. It’s their involvement and their participation that gives this whole thing dimension and life.”
The road to Servants has gone from clubs, to theaters, to the farms of Oregon and the fields of Marin, to sold out tours across Europe, to the annual summer festival circuit including LOCKN, High Sierra, Mountain Jam, Bottlerock, Peach Music Festival and their own Freaks for the Festival in Big Sur, all fueled by an infinite cycle of US touring with all roads leading to the beloved multi-night stands at the Fillmore in San Francisco each December, a marker of triumph for the band and fans alike.
So it’s no surprise that much of the album finds our narrator and his group hurtling between the fire and mania of Saturday night and the bruises and rain-on-the-bus-window reflection of the cold Sunday morning dawn. Beyond the bullet holes, red-eyed angry angels, alchemy, praying mantis’, hangovers, and all other manner of cosmic debris gone lyrically airborne—love is lost, new love is found, relationships bent and broken by distance and time or by unrelenting proximity and timelessness; some repaired, some redeemed, some lost forever. The line between autobiography and psychedelic fantasy is completely blurred here, yet the weighted resonance of these themes runs deeply through Servants. On the cosmic night flight of “Stars Fell On California,” CR sings: “Now there’s nothing left to say, the bill has come, it’s time to pay, there’s a black car waiting outside, when every kiss is a goodbye” and on the blue country of Dice Game: “Stop to grab a coffee, near the LA county line, this evening finds me lonely but by daybreak, I’ll be fine, it comes and it goes, always knows I’m there…Sometimes a scoundrel, sometimes a thief, sometimes in public, sometimes discreet, sometimes ugly, sometimes there’s no reason why.”
In discussing the lyrical reflection of his rocky personal life of the last year and the stresses and sometimes full fractures of band life, CR says “…real life… emotional, divorce and the nature of change…it’s a cathartic thing to make music that’s about love…but you can never get away from the specter of reality, it’s over us all the time.”
The major themes of Servants are experienced in a constant swirl within the CRB sound. There’s the uptempo ramble and strut of rock ’n’ roll hay bale burner “Comin’ Round the Mountain” juxtaposed against the hallucination and the surreal on “Venus In Chrome.” There’s redemption through love; “The Chauffeur’s Daughter,” and the ominous poetry and kerosene-lamp-burning of the band on closer, “A Smiling Epitaph.” Beneath them all is the motion of the wheels on the asphalt; burning rubber from the score, bouncing on a rocky stretch of mountain pass or softly turning in the still night, but spinning, always spinning.
It is to the credit of the Brotherhood’s musical naturalism that such a Ferris wheel of themes, tones and characters can exist in the same fast moving air without Servants ever feeling scattershot or indeed anything but free-flowing to their essential expression. In the effortless stream of storylines, hornet-stung emotions, and Kodachrome snapshot images rushing by, we realize we haven’t just landed in CRB’s world and the joys and sorrows of their lives, we’ve also awakened in their dream…and “sometimes a dream is to be believed.”