In the last year or so there have been a batch of rock bands who for the last 10 to 20 years have been ploughing away and now find themselves at a level to notch their legendary Roundhouse venue debuts. All done in the good old traditional rock way of constant touring, building up critically acclaimed reputations whilst releasing strong albums. These bands – Rival Sons, Clutch, Drive By Truckers – and now Atlanta Southern rockers Blackberry Smoke, who a few years ago were playing across the road at the considerably smaller Barfly venue, have defied the odds with limited radio play to carve out their own nuanced idiosyncratic sound along with building a growing loyal fan base.
Aiming to add more followers to their cause is support band and fellow Atlanta, Georgians, Biters. On record their far too polished sound brings nightmare déjà vu visions of early 1980’s hair metal, especially Poison, for the liking of this reviewer. However, live they are a grittier proposition and combined with their look they are a closer relation to the rock ‘n’ roll sleaze family of Hanoi Rocks than their records would suggest. If they can transfer some of the live rougher edges into their studio output then that would be the first important step in the right direction.
As one of Blackberry Smoke’s t-shirts proudly boasts ‘Too Rock for Country, Too Country for Rock’, simultaneously betrays how successful they have merged country and rock together as latest album Like an Arrow proves by topping both the US rock and country charts. While country rock isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a new coming together of genres, the Smoke however, incorporate a vast amount of other influences – delta blues, gospel, classic rock, bluegrass – into a sound which they have cultivated to create their own distinctive Blackberry Smoke sound.
What emerges as they masterfully ease through their set from the opening rousing rockers of ‘Fire in the Hole’, ‘Six Ways to Sunday’ to the wider opening of fields including the delta blues/country shindig of ‘Ain’t Got the Blues’, the country stroll of ‘One Horse Town’, is that what makes this band tick is it’s all about the feeling. This flows through every song whichever kind of style they incorporate you know it is written, recorded, and in their live set because it feels right to the band. So, when they embed Led Zeppelin’s ‘Your Time is Gonna Come’ in a medley of ‘Sleeping Dogs’, ‘Mountain Jam’ and ‘Starship Trooper’, and return for encore opener of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Street Fighting Man’ they are all delivered with the Blackberry Smoke stamp.
They tip their Stetson hats by acknowledging their debt to those they adore with a tribute to the passing of Chuck Berry, ‘Let it Burn’, dedicating ‘Free on the Wing’ to hero Greg Allman (he did indeed sing on the recorded version on latest album) to starting with an intro of The Faces’ ‘Gasoline Alley’ before it proceeds into their very own self-penned ‘Like an Arrow’. Again, it all boils down to it all feeling and sounding right.
And when the band abruptly stop half way through ‘Up in Smoke’, led by Charlie Starr, who spotted a lady had collapsed by the front barrier he instantly takes charge and asks the audience to make a gap so she can be led out for medical help. They don’t resume until she has been attended to and applauds the Roundhouse staff for their response.
Charlie is not only on form with his striking vocals, but also when a lady calls out ‘I love you Charlie’ his response is immediate and, yes, it sounds straight from the heart, ‘We love you too’.
What is staggering are the amount of great songs which don’t get an airing tonight. But this doesn’t cloud the listening pleasure, in fact, it confirms they are masters of their craft boasting deep depth and quality. I have gratefully witnessed one of the most comfortable being on stage bands I think I may have seen. Long may they continue doing it their way.