My first encounter with Atlanta’s Blackberry Smoke – Charlie Starr on Lead Vocals, Guitar, Richard Turner on Bass, Vocals, Brit Turner on Drums, Paul Jackson on Guitar, Vocals and Brandon Still on Keyboards – was seeing them open two shows for ZZ Top at the Beacon theater. The neo-Grecian Beacon was originally a deluxe movie place designed Chicago architect Walter W. Ahlschlager of Chicago and , since 1989, most famously the home for the Allman Brothers yearly New York City spring residency.
Both shows were great,as a Texan I am obligated to see all ZZ Top shows in a 50 mile radius, and Blackberry Smoke easily won over a crowd in the unenviable spot opening for a legendary band. The band won the crowd by performing their no-frills brand of Southern rock, that rowdier sibling to the Progressive Country movement. The blend of blues, country rock, r&b, rock, southern soul and gospel forged by pioneers like The Allmans, ZZ Top, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Black Oak Arkansas and others provided a rich terrain for the band to work.
Newly released The Whippoorwill, their third studio album and first for Zac Brown’s independent label Southern Ground, proves the quintet has 12 years of road-honed musical contributions to the cause. This is made clear by the brash opener “Six Ways To Sunday” continues that tradition. Fueled by a Still ‘s barrell house piano, and fuzz guitar boogie and blue-collar come-ons like “I’m chasing my tail, and a couple other ones too” cements the song as a staple of their live performance from years to come.
“Pretty Little Lie” and “Everybody Knows She’s Mine” are excellent romps on romantic denial and celebration respectfully. Both songs deftly fuse country and rock so organically and soulfully that they stand, not only as great songs, but as sharp contrasts to Music City’s recent pathetic attempts to create the same sound.
“One Horse Town” leans toward folk before kicking into a rock groove detailing the isolation of rural living. The same quiet opening lures you into Ain’t Much Left Of Me” as the big rock sound sweeps you up. The title cut is a choice slice of Southern soul that stretches out like a country road baking in the Summer sun.
“Leave A Scar” is a pure piss. vinegar and whiskey rave-up offering a less than PC refrain of “When I die put my bones in the Dixie dirt” and “I may not change the word but I’m gonna leave a scar.” Kinder and gentler this aint’.
Southern rock continues to be maligned in the current genteel musical landscape. More for, I feel, cultural baggage rather than musical merit. The celebration of Southern history, culture celebrated sincerely without a a wink and a smirk pitiable strikes some as fodder for knuckle-draggers. In the end Blackberry Smoke makes great, well played, music loyal to tradition, to to thier fans. They’d sure prefer you to enjoy it, but if you don’t I’m sure they give a good goddamn.
While other contemporary bands, Like the Drive-By Truckers, use Southern rock as an element of expression; at the first whiff of commercial acceptance they jettison the style like an old pair of overalls to court their new-found demographic thus losing their soul and much of their base.
It’s great to hear this level of love and joy Blackberry Smoke brings to their music, a style that is obviously not a marketing contrivance. The album has just been officially released but has been available at their live shows for some time as a reward to their long-time fans. As Starr says “There is no way on God’s green earth that we are not going to put this in the hands of people who have spent their money night in and night out when we’re out doing shows. If we’ve got it, they are going to get it. I’d give them away, I don’t care. I didn’t want to make them wait another six months. They’ve been there for us, and we wanted them to have the music first.”
This, ladies and gentleman, is the real deal.