One of the main problems of jam-band albums, especially of those that are essentially collections of live performances extracted from various concerts, is the difficulty to create an overall cohesive work; which is ironic considering that the most exciting element in the style, the magic of jam-based music, is the idea that every take is completely different from the next, therefore making every show a must-document.
Betty’s Blends, Vol. 3, the new installment in the Chris Robinson Brotherhood chronology, is not exempt from it. Sourced from the November 2015 Southeastern run in Atlanta, Georgia, Raleigh, North Carolina and Charleston, South Carolina, the 13-track, two-CD/3-LP record feels spotty at times, particularly in the quieter, more sparse moments, but when it’s most consistent, the results are absolutely brilliant.
The first protagonist in this story is the titular character, sound engineer Betty Cantor-Jackson, of Grateful Dead fame (particularly as the source for that band’s hallowed May 8, 1977 Barton Hall concert). With the notable exceptions of Fania All-Stars and Frank Zappa — and only because Zappa was a post-production freak who overdubbed everything –, only the Dead had managed to create a fully cohesive multi-concert jam-band body of work. In this album, Betty establishes the entire tone and flow of the recording from the soundboard, creating a warm sonic palette for the instrumentation — the sound of those keyboards is an accomplishment in itself — and leaving enough aural space for the band’s dynamics to stand out.
As for the performances themselves, the Brotherhood confidently put the scrutiny and the doubts about their recent personnel change to rest. The interplay between guitarist Neal Casal and keyboardist Adam MacDougall, halfway between early Electric Blues and 70’s Fusion, is impeccable as always, but it’s the addition of drummer Tony Leone and his economic playing style what makes these interactions so effective. The only considerable objection i have is the overuse of synths in some of the tracks; at times they feel like unwelcome guests and undermine the organic feeling of these songs. However, these slight intrusions never feel overwhelming, thanks to Betty’s expert, balanced mixing.
But the most important attribute to this album is the band’s interesting selection of cover songs. Their original material is generally strong — with superb performances of “Honeysuckle Interlude” and “Tulsa Yesterday” –, but the Brotherhood’s interpretation of these standards ranks among the best stuff they’ve ever recorded. Mr. Robinson gives us a gripping version of Slim Harpo’s “The Music’s Hot”, and the band’s relaxed take on “Big River” and Jerry Garcia’s “Catfish John” showcases the depth of their Dead connection. Nuggets like the Leiber/Stoller classic “I’m a Hog For You” and the Disco-heavy flip on The Black Crowes’ “I Ain’t Hiding” come off as gratifying little surprises, an adequate show of versatility from the group. The crown jewel of the bunch, though, is their astonishing offering of Allen Toussaint’s “Get Out of My Life Woman”. From their treatment of the structure the incredible chemistry in the musicianship, the Brotherhood have created the sharpest version of the song since the original.
Betty’s Blends, Vol. 3 may be a daunting experience for some — it’s a 5-disc set, so it’s definitely for the initiated in the Jam-band world — but the Brotherhood’s strengths as a live act, and the smooth sequencing, make it a very rewarding one. Above all, Cantor-Jackson has created a powerful sonic identity for CRB; no wonder she’s regarded as such a legend.