Cover photo by Jason Thrasher
By Max Stewart
In my humble yet Georgia-raised opinion, a true ‘Southern Rock’ band combines the distorted, Delta blues boogie coming out of the Bible Belt in the Seventies with some of the twanginess and accessible lyrical themes of country music. Now, imagine the ultimate, home-cooked Southern Rock casserole: part Lynyrd Skynyrd, part Allman Brothers, part Hank Williams Jr. and a hint of Waylon Jennings. With sides of collard greens and gravy, of course. This is the full serving of Dixie-dosed vittles that you should expect when you catch Blackberry Smoke on tour. Coming fresh off of a run of shows with Gov’t Mule (which include a few more dates in late September), Atlanta’s own Blackberry Smoke is the kick in the ass that American rock music needs right now. I reckon we need to Make America Rock Again, what ya think?
To fully appreciate the allure and dexterity of this band, you need to see these road warriors live. That is not to discount the achievements of their studio releases, which have all been impressive and each an improvement upon the last. After this show, however, you will want to hop behind the wheel of a ‘69 Camaro and rip it down Highway I-85 while blasting some of their deep-fried tunage till the speakers blow out.
The band lit the fuse for the evening at The Fillmore in Silver Spring, MD with the snarly “Fire In The Hole” off of 2015’s Holding All The Roses: “Show me something real, let me hold it in the palm of my hand”. The audience certainly had their hands full with the sweltering dual guitar chops from Charlie Starr and Paul Jackson, coupled with a vocal-layered chorus that soared like a bottle rocket on the Fourth of July. The bridge provided the first of many jams that showcased the talent of the BBS musical force, with keyboardist Brandon Still navigating smoothly through some ambient guitar fills. One thing that immediately stands out is that the band members all have “the look”: vintage rock garb with some even sporting ZZ Top-esque beards. It definitely isn’t contrived or the vision of some money-grubbing record exec; these longhaired rockers are the real deal.
“Six Ways to Sunday”, from The Whipoorwill, is in many ways the perfect first course for unfamiliar listeners that may toe the line of country-rock music fanhood; this boot scooter is equal parts Outlaws and Steve Earle. The pace down-shifted a bit during the country ballad “Pretty Little Lie”, complete with Telecaster-bending twang and a relatable account of being the overlooked guy in a love triangle. “Rock And Roll Again” transitioned from a honky-tonk shuffle before a sludgy guitar riff drawled us into the chorus. Guitarist / Singer Charlie Starr is a remarkable talent and one hell of a frontman, y’all. Thanks to a fully-formed vocal range that combines grit and melody with a batch of top-notch songs, he manages to add a unique spin to the music live through extended guitar improvisations and impromptu vocal touches (even something as simple as a perfectly placed “Alright!” or “Yeah, baby!” during a peak moment of a song has a way of kicking the energy into high gear). The best singers and frontmen are well aware of this and the resulting captivation of a crowd, and Starr is certainly no different.
It was a downright party once the first lick of “Good One Comin’ On” blared from the amps, with the majority of the audience singing along to this workingman’s tribute that celebrates kicking back with some good folks and enjoying a few cold ones… or 8 (“no chance of staying sober”). The good-time party anthem has an amusing nod to the homeland, when Starr recalls “skinny dipping in the Chattahoochee” with “three blondes in a rag top Mustang”. These guys are talented, but they know that rock music at its core is fun and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Brothers Richard Turner (bass) and Brit Turner (drums) hold down the rhythm section with some sort of telepathic sibling connection that keeps the songs afloat with a steady groove. Brit Turner was actually sporting a shirt for the foul-mouthed, anti-Bro Country comedy hero Wheeler Walker Jr. If you ain’t familiar, you best be fixin’ to change that.
“Living In The Song” is a self-deprecating heartbreak tune (“All I know is how to be gone”) that catapulted during an infectious chorus thanks to Richard Turner’s bass line. There are many things about the boys from down south that make them stand out amongst other bands in 2016, including their ability to write one hell of a chorus. Their choruses have the fullness and multi-layered catchiness that reminds me of all the epic masterpieces written in the heyday of Rock ‘N’ Roll. Think Joe Cocker’s version of “With A Little Help From My Friends”, Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken”, The Band’s “The Weight”, or even ZZ Top’s “Gimme All Your Lovin”. Although tongue-in-cheek, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have stated that their motto is “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus”; the Smoke manage to bring the heat during so many choruses in their catalogue while avoiding filler verses.
The musical prowess and adaptability of the unit was reaffirmed during the ferocious “Sleeping Dog”, which included a section from Led Zeppelin’s “Your Time Is Gonna Come” and a tease of the signature riff from Grateful Dead’s “Scarlet Begonias”. While paying tribute to musical giants, the band jammed with a precise yet distinctly human touch for a beautifully bright moment of the set that shined like fireflies on a North Carolina summer night. Jackson and Richard Turner provide a solid vocal backbone to Starr’s lead vocals, with harmonies that intertwine in a similar vein to a Bill Monroe or Stanley Brothers bluegrass number.
Brandon Still was comfortably holding it down on the black and whites a la Southern keys legend / current Stones touring member Chuck Leavell during the kudzu-covered, holy roller “Sanctified Woman”. Jackson certainly strutted some tasty licks on his Gibson Les Paul during “Up In Smoke”, a catchy song that draws from purist rock titans such as Aerosmith and AC/DC. The crowd involvement during the chorus is one of many live moments that bring the Blackberry Smoke faithful back. There is a true community of people that thirst for this real Rock ‘N’ Roll swing during this vapid musical era, and they keep showing up to support Blackberry Smoke’s authentic, heavy-hitting live endeavors. “The Whipoorwill” had elements that harkened back to the Black Crowes’ The Southern Harmony and the Musical Companion, which is coincidental given the song’s title. The song is actually a touching dedication to Starr’s grandmother, who taught him the Whipoorwill birdcall as a young boy. Another flying fun fact for ya: former Black Crowes singer Chris Robinson came up with the name ‘Blackberry Smoke’ for the band, and one can’t help but hear some influence of the fellow Atlantans in their sound.
The most atypical yet still definitively BBS tune of the evening was the new song “Believe You Me”, which incorporated almost a Seventies funk vibe. “If y’all wanna dance, now’s the time to do it,” declared Starr before the Bootsy Collins-y bass line kicked in with some wah-wah guitar fills. The gears changed when the acoustic guitar came out for the risqué, Exile on Main Street-sounding “Lay It All On Me”, which Starr acknowledged was written about a three-way cheating fiasco. Starr continued to play a beautifully-finished Gibson acoustic during the hunky dory, finger pickin’ “Ain’t Got the Blues”; the song really shines live, showcasing Starr’s slide guitar talents in a stripped down, non-distorted light. The band displayed southern hospitality throughout the night; Starr modestly recognized the audience (“thank ya kindly”) while expressing gratitude for being back in “the DMV” (the D.C., Maryland, Virginia area). We saddled up and continued the unplugged expedition during “One Horse Town”, a down-home tale about the limited life opportunities for those growing up in small towns. The relatable lyricism of this tune surely spoke to those in the crowd that travelled from areas beyond the metro DMV: “This little bitty town, it ain’t nothing new. We all stick around, cause they all tell us to. Swallow your pride, just to make your family proud. If I didn’t think that it would shut the whole place down, I’d ride my pony right out of this one horse town”. “Waiting For The Thunder” is the most powerful tidal wave of a rock single to be released this year, and the live version was a refreshing summer storm with Starr emphatically stating afterwards: “If you don’t like that, we don’t like you”. The whiskey-soaked “Shake Your Magnolia” wrapped up the main set, and the moneymakers were shakin’ at The Fillmore during this swampy tune that sounds like if Keith Richards sat in with Molly Hatchet at the now demo’d Omni in Atlanta, GA back in the glory days.
The band was welcomed back on stage by roars of applause before going into the newly-released “Sunrise in Texas”, a poignant journey from the lone star state that will no doubt continue to manifest itself during future encores thanks to a build-up that soars on the wings of Jackson’s full throttle solo as well as Starr’s finger-licking slide work. “Well my fall from grace was a sight to see, good turned to bad and bad turned to misery,” wailed Starr during the final song of the night, “Ain’t Much Left In Me”. Starr comments on their 2014 live release, Leave a Scar: Live in North Carolina (which you should listen to right now), that the tune is dedicated to the emotional duress endured by “divorced people”. The band inserted a section of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” into their performance of this final song of the night, certainly a glass-half-full moment of optimism in the wake of disaster: “Every little thing’s gonna be alright”. Furthermore, if Blackberry Smoke’s show was any indication, everything’s gonna be alright in the rock world, too.
After the show, I took a gander at the set list which included a Lebowski quote on the bottom of the page for all of you Urban Achievers out there: “New shit has come to light, man…”. They ain’t lying, dudes (or El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing): Blackberry Smoke will be releasing their new album, Like An Arrow, on October 14th and we can’t wait to hear it. One track from the record – “Free On The Wing” – will feature an appearance by the Founding Father of Southern Rock ‘N’ Roll music, Gregg Allman (not exactly a lightweight). If you catch ‘em on tour with the Mule, you might witness another all-star collaboration like the version of “Statesboro Blues” last month in Pittsburgh.
Although Blackberry Smoke definitely have an Outlaw Country undertone, in my opinion they kick far too much tail and draw elements from a wide-range of other musicians to be blanketed purely as a ‘Country Band’ (they did, however, manage a #1 Country album spot after Holding All The Roses was released in 2015, some well-deserved major success after grinding since 2001). You could debate the genre categorization of their music till the cows come home, but one thing’s for certain: Blackberry Smoke are one of the best modern Southern rock-inspired bands out there and they continue to hit the road in what may be the prime of their career with no signs of slowing down.
Make America Rock Again, go see Blackberry Smoke on tour, ya hear: http://www.blackberrysmoke.com/tour.html
9.9.16 – The Fillmore – Silver Spring, MD
Fire In The Hole
Pretty Little Lie
Rock And Roll Again
Good One Comin’ On
Living In the Song
Sleeping Dogs > Your Time Is Gonna Come (Led Zeppelin) > Sleeping Dogs (Grateful Dead’s “Scarlet Begonias” tease)
Up In Smoke
Believe You Me
Lay It All On Me
Ain’t Got The Blues
One Horse Town
Waiting For The Thunder
Shake Your Magnolia
Sunrise In Texas
Ain’t Much Left In Me (Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” jam)