The band walks onto the stage, humble and focused. They plug in and tune their instruments amid the murmurs of the crowd before them. There is a momentary stillness before the onslaught of sound, a calm before the storm as we say. And then the first chords are stuck, the first bass line released and the drumbeat leads in with its steady throb and pulse. Then it begins, a tsunami wave of sonic madness is brought forth, and Howlin’ Rain thunders and shakes within the power of their music.
Oakland’s Howlin’ Rain is pure SOUND! Big sound, loud and all encompassing sound, an epic presence of sound. They walk the line of psychedelic rock, Americana, blues and “thrasher” rock, keeping a balance within the mash-up of genres to produce some of the best current music ever to be smashed into your brain. The band is musically and professionally tight, and there is such an extraordinary dynamic between the players that can only be seen as prodigious. Front man, vocalist and guitarist Ethan Miller led the way at Howlin’ Rain’s recent show at Petaluma’s Mystic Theater, making space for bassist Jeff McElroy, guitarist Dan Cervantes and drummer Justin Smith to follow along with their own bionic powers to create music that flows smoothly yet rips you up on the inside in a good way.
The band tore through songs that were mighty and soulful, including the boisterous “Missouri”, the bluesy “Alligator Bride”, with those searing guitar licks, “Phantom Of The Valley” with it’s haunting lyrics and beautiful harmonies and the crunchy yet gentle groove of “Coming Down”.
I speak often of the gifts we acquire from hearing live music, on how the musicians we witness give us more than just songs. With Howlin’ Rain, they give us huge parts of themselves, they give us all they’ve got. The band makes no sacrifices with what they put forth, and that can be felt and heard with the immense sound that they produce.
The music of Chris Robinson Brotherhood has something to say. It tells us to shut the fuck up and listen; it tells us to forget our worries for a few hours; it tells us to smile at the people around us and sing as they sing; and lastly, it tells us to have fun and it encourages us to be buoyant and joyful. With the dueling guitars of Chris Robinson and Neal Casal, in addition to the thumping bass of Jeff Hill, the booming drums of Tony Leone and a constant waterfall of Adam MacDougall’s masterful keys, the Brotherhood takes us on a musical journey outside of ourselves. They allow us to have some time away from our regular reality as their music feeds our souls.
With the 3-night run at San Francisco’s famed Fillmore Auditorium, CRB was in epic form. Saturday night’s show was filled with treasured songs from CRB’s backstock of tunes. Opening with the epicness of “Comin’ Around The Mountain” and “Oak Apple Day”, CRB spoon fed us love and joy with each moment of the band’s amazing and deeply connected personal dynamic with each other and with the audience. The band specializes in long, psychedelic blues jams, with each member playing off the others like a giant game of sonic ping-pong. The 2 incredibly fun sets also included “She Shares My Blanket”, ”Try Rock and Roll”, “Let It Fall”, and Hoyt Axton’s “Never Been To Spain”. With “I Ain’t Hiding”, CRB tapped into a bit of The Black Crowes songbook and the night ended in an encore of the band’s first-time coverage of Free’s “Ride The Pony”.
For a few hours, the world as we know it ceased to exist. We relaxed, let go, danced and sang. To all of us present at this amazing CRB show, we were only aware of the throbbing notes and chords wrapping us in a sonic blanket that was asking us to simply be present with joy while we listened and felt with our whole being.