They’re the keepers of the flame. For those like me, who basked in the glory days of Southern Rock music, who gobbled up as many southern rock jams as possible and maybe chased them with a little Southern Comfort, who consider the classic southern rock bands to be as much a part of our essential musical bedrock as Led Zeppelin and The Who, Blackberry Smoke are the ones. Some 40 years since its heyday, they’re the heirs, the carriers of the modern southern rock torch.
Now, it’s manifestly unfair to directly compare Blackberry Smoke to the select grouping of groups who gave birth to the ‘70’s southern rock movement – a list that in my book is headed by The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Marshall Tucker Band, The Charlie Daniels Band, and (my personal all-time favorite) The Outlaws, with next tier status granted to Molly Hatchet, New Riders of the Purple Sage, and Pure Prairie League. Blackberry Smoke are not those bands. And they’re not trying to be. Their southern stew has a little more taste of traditional shit-kicking country, is seasoned with a bit of funky soul, even hints of gospel and blues. But they’re the closest thing going to those classic standard bearers, the next generation to them, foremost with their musical style, of course, but also with their look and their attitude: Hairy as hell, proud of their twang and drawl, thrashing loud guitars while spreading simple southern wisdom, kicking some ass, and moving on down the road to the next town to do it again.
And they have been at it for quite a while now. Since starting out in Atlanta, GA. in 2001, the blue-collar work ethic of this same five-member crew – Charlie Starr (vocalist, lead guitar, and principal songwriter), Paul Jackson (guitar), Brandon Still (keyboards), and the Turner brothers rhythm section of Richard (bass) and Brit (drums) – has had them touring incessantly (averaging nearly 250 shows a year) while releasing six studio albums, the latest being the potent and progressive Find A Light, out earlier this year.
I’ve now seen these guys live a bunch of times, all with different co-attendees, each like-minded one eager to hear a killer present-day band that also brings them back to their past, not to mention to enjoy the company of some good-time, hell-raising dirtbags. I went with my former co-worker and fellow big-time fan Joel D. at Webster Hall; took my friend Kap to see them at The Beacon Theater; visited the historic Stone Pony for a show with the Zing brothers and Danny; caught them at an outdoor festival with Chin; watched their artistry awe my friend Art at Irving Plaza (on an incredible double-bill with The Texas Gentlemen); and next month I’ll be arriving for a concert at the Capitol Theater with my friend Ike, a complete Smoke novice going entirely on my endorsement. I’m pretty confident they will, as always, deliver the greasy southern goods.
When the band’s 5th album dropped, 2016’s Like An Arrow, it undeniably demonstrated the newly broadened appeal of Blackberry Smoke, proclaiming that the band’s alchemy of updates on a seemingly bygone style had truly arrived in the modern music world: it flew to the number one slots on both the Country and Americana charts, while also rising to number three on the Rock albums chart. Yet, predictably, they also remained close to their southern rock roots. Closing out the album is the slow and sultry “Free on the Wing,” which enlisted the impeccable Georgian vocals of the godfather of the genre, Gregg Allman (for Gregg, might I say unimpeachable vocals?). “It’s a very Macon, Ga., type of song,” said Starr, “It’s got that feel” (Macon, the former Allmans headquarters, being just 80 miles from Smoke’s own origins). Nevertheless, our featured song here is no bluesy ballad, it’s one that I thought might best represent to potential new listeners their deep-fried, rip-roaring southern sound – particularly approximating that live sound – this rousing, balls-to-the-wall boogie called ‘Let It Burn.’ And as you give it a listen, I hope you’ll recall those sage words of Charlie Daniels, another esteemed ancestor of Blackberry Smoke’s resplendent recent rise: “The South’s Gonna Do It Again.”