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.
Up the slopes of Mount Tamalpais, up winding roads that pass by groves of Bay Laurel trees and Manzanita scrub, one comes upon the million-dollar view that surrounds the Mountain Amphitheater — sweeping, panoramic visions of the surrounding Bay Area landscape. Music fans from all over Northern California have come to this magnificent amphitheater to witness the musical joy of Sound Summit. Now in its fourth year, Sound Summit boasts an amazing lineup of musical acts to help support and benefit Roots & Branches Conservancy, an organization benefiting music, arts, environmental and educational causes.
Opening the show was Mill Valley teen songwriter Meels (AKA Amelia Einhorn), who held her own amid the morning crowd. High-energy funk/soul band Con Brio got the crowd dancing under the blazing noontime heat with their positive grooves and their dynamic performance that included not only stellar music but also acrobatic antics from frontman Ziek McCarter. Country songstress Nikki Lane came forth with an endearing southern drawl and who told jokes and stories between her personal and rocking songs.
Sound Summit alumni Bob Weir held a laid back and shimmering acoustic set late in the afternoon with drummer Jay Lane and bassist Robin Sylvester, bringing the crowd of Deadheads into a singing tizzy as he busted out favorites such as "Paint My Masterpiece," "Friend Of The Devil," and "Easy To Slip." When pop-rock goddess Grace Potter took the stage, jaws dropped as she pranced, danced, sang, and headbanged with her amazing band. Her dynamo presence was defiantly a highlight as she plowed through her set, even having Bob Weir sit in for a few more well-loved Dead tunes. The sun was setting behind the mountain as the day ended in a mellow and cosmic manner with Herbie Hancock’s space-jam acid-jazz, which took flight in the dying light and helped our brains move to another level of joy.
Sound Summit is a gem of a festival, not only because of its location high up on the slopes of a beautiful mountain, but because of the intimacy one has with the performers and the music. Julie Andrews said it best: “The hills are alive with the sound of music.” The rolling hills and ridgelines of Mount Tamalpais were defiantly alive with music wafting through the trees for one glorious afternoon
When the Beatles released Abbey Road in 1969 the band was in great turmoil and on the verge of breaking up. Although the album did well in the UK, it came to the US under mixed criticism and it took many years after the fact for this amazing pile of songs to become truly appreciated.