The Chris Robinson Brotherhood and longtime Grateful Dead archivist Betty Cantor-Jackson have been fast friends and kindred spirits since Robinson and the recording engineer met at Wavy Gravy’s 70th birthday party a dozen years ago. The relationship has spawned four live Betty’s Blends albums for the band, with the new Betty’s Midwestern Magick Blends — whose cover of Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” is premiering exclusively below — coming out Nov. 16.
“We’ve had a friendship for many years now,” Robinson tells Billboard. “She basically said, ‘I’m gonna record your band’ — I mean, you can’t really stop her, y’know? I was like, ‘OK, lady…’ and it kinda went from there.” And the results have been to the sonic satisfaction of all concerned parties.
“The thing with Betty is, and I told her when we started, I’m not doing anything,” Robinson explains. “If it says Betty’s Blends, it’s her thing. We’ll play the music. I’ll facilitate the logistics and all that. But I said, ‘You set up the mics, you do what you want to do. You pick the songs. It’s all yours.’ The only thing I kind of have dictated is, ‘OK, let’s do one from the South, let’s do one from the Midwest.’ She’s coming up to the Pacific Northwest in a couple of weeks. It’s really just our friendship and just letting Betty have the freedom to do what she wants to do.”
Betty’s Midwestern Magick Blends was recorded at shows in Chicago, Madison and Milwaukee during the CRB’s October 2016 run. The 12-song set is spread over three LPs in a limited, 3,500-copy set and via digital outlets, blending original material with covers — in addition to “Magic Carpet Ride,” versions of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” and the Rolling Stones’ “Let It Bleed” and “Down Home Girl.” “It’s really whatever Betty wants (to include),” Robinson says of the track list. “We play hundreds of covers that feel right or we think would fit or be fun. As long as we can, in a sense, make it our own thing. We’re not a cover band, but we’re open to doing something that’s entertaining in that moment, like, wow, they played ‘Magic Carpet Ride!’
“And as time moves on, those songs are older. Young people don’t listen to them. People don’t listen to oldies stations anymore. So it’s also about celebrating rad rock music that’s still alive, I think.”
As Betty’s Midwestern Magick Blends rolls out, the CRB is on the road, touring through a mid-December three-night stand at the Fillmore in San Francisco. The group’s 2019 schedule gets under way Jan. 25-26 in Chicago, and the CRB is finishing work on its new studio album, Servants of the Sun, which is targeted for a mid-2019 release. Robinson notes that the follow-up to 2017’s Barefoot in the Head marks the first time the quintet has recorded during the summer, which made a marked impact on how it sounds.
“I think it’s really uptempo,” Robinson says. “The last few records had a lot of acoustic overdubs and acoustic flavors on things. On this record my only rule was no acoustic instruments — no piano, no guitars, no mandolin, only electric. Everything on this is kind of built for the stage, if you will. And it’s really good, man. It’s going to sound really good when we play these songs live.”