Somehow, in the limited downtime on their respective dance cards, guitarists Rich Robinson of the Black Crowes and Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-Stars have managed to form a third band, Circle Sound, and work up a repertoire of quality rock and blues covers. In fact, Robinson and Dickinson took the January 19th debut of their quintet at New York's Bowery Ballroom seriously enough that they arrived with two-and-a-half-hours' worth of songs, opening with the chunky country-fuzz of Neil Young's "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere," closing with a feral encore of the Rolling Stones' "Stray Cat Blues" and passing through the Band, Ry Cooder and Chess-blues songbooks along the way. Robinson and Dickinson, who shared vocal duties, took plenty of solo-ing room for themselves too, spinning off on long individual breaks but also fencing with each other in close, heated exchanges that made fresh theater from an electric-blues warhorse like Willie Dixon's "Spoonful." In their regular jobs, both guitarists play a tangled-roots rock: the All-Stars like a Mississippi hill-country Cream; the Crowes with an acid-flavored heavy-Seventies flair. In Circle Sound, Robinson and Dickinson showed extra Catholic nerve, taking a rough, moving stab at the Band's "Rockin' Chair," extending Cooder's "Boomer's Story" with instrumental crossfire and sticking double-Southern-guitar dynamite under the already dirty gospel of the Stones' "I Just Want to See His Face" from Exile on Main Street.
Circle Sound's rhythm section -- drummer Bill Dobrow, organist-electric pianist Rob Clores and Black Crowes bassist Sven Pipien -- was both fluid and tough, a perfect mix for a band that took the stage after only a day's rehearsal. And Robinson and Dickinson showed that they know how to do more than fire hot licks, when Robinson introduced a surprise guest in mid-set: Patti Smith. While Smith sang and chanted about blackbirds and smoke signals with ascending-mantra force, the guitarists wrapped her in bright, delicate arpeggio and warm swirls of meditative blues.
Robinson hopes Circle Sound will play again in the spring, with more guests and a different set list. I'm glad they took their first bows in New York, but this is a show that deserves to go on the road -- when the guitarists can find the time.