Gig review: BLACKBERRY SMOKE – Shepherds Bush Empire, London, 19 October 2014

BLACKBERRY SMOKE - Shepherds Bush Empire, London,19 October 2014

Fellow GRTR! scribe Nikk Gunns posed a fascinating discussion question online recently – ‘if there were no new music from this point onwards, could you live with the music we have already had’?

Judging from the mixed response he received, for the generation that grew up in the heyday of what is now known as classic rock, the dilemma is all too real. Many prefer to stick to what they know and have loved for many years, which brings back memories of a younger time, and to leave the new bands to a younger generation.

Atlanta, Georgia rockers Blackberry Smoke however seem to buck this trend: only two albums into their career, their popularity is rapidly growing in the UK, with the Empire ten times the size of the London venue they made their debut at only 11 months ago.

BLACKBERRY SMOKE - Shepherds Bush Empire, London,19 October 2014

And judging by the greying and balding (and it has to be said mainly male) heads spotted from my balcony vantage point, they are a rare example of a new band building a following from a more mature crowd.

Proof of classic rock’s enduring appeal was a very impressive support slot from a sixteen year old, guitarist Aaron Keylock and his band. Playing a Gibson Firebird like a crazed demon his supercharged heavy blues rock called to mind Johnny Winter, Rory Gallagher and Foghat, even if his singing was somewhat rough and ready. His lank hair and ‘Lionel Blairs’ only added to the sense we were in a timewarp.

‘Medicine Man’, with some dervish blues harp playing opened the set and was probably the most impressive song on view, while the pace was briefly taken down in the middle for a tribute to Peter Green, ‘Take Me Home’.

BLACKBERRY SMOKE - Shepherds Bush Empire, London,19 October 2014

Blackberry Smoke came on to a much more elaborate stage set than on their spring UK tour, with a great light show and a huge, psychedelic-looking  band  logo backdrop.

There is a big caveat in my book to Blackberry Smoke as a live act which is that they rely very much on creating a ‘vibe’, but are a tad reserved and do not go in for the larger than life rabble rousing entertainment that many past and present southern bands incorporate into their show.

The music is left to speak for itself and, while smiling and affable, the three musicians up front barely moved an inch from their allotted positions, each standing on a very comfortable looking Persian rug.

BLACKBERRY SMOKE - Shepherds Bush Empire, London,19 October 2014

But the music really cannot be faulted, with the songs and playing lovingly constructed and expertly recreating the rock and country sounds of the south. Opener ‘Like I Am’ has the great sense of space of 1990’s cult band Cry of Love, also owing much to Free, while there was an early crowd pleasing duo of ‘Six Ways To Sunday’ which had a Dan Baird feel, ‘Good One Coming On’ , reminding me of Skynyrd both lyrically and in the down home lyrics.

They had fairly rattled off the opening few numbers, but southern bands love a good free form jam and ‘Sleeping Dogs’ had a long relaxed feel to it, the Allman comparisons only enhanced when it segues into ‘Midnight Rider’.

Current album The Whippoorwill now fills the lion’s share of the set and the result is that the emphasis has slightly shifted from southern fried rock to a more country-influenced sound, such as on the catchy ‘Pretty Little Lie’ and the dreamy title track, while ‘Everybody Knows She’s Mine’ had an insidiously swampy groove to it which the crowd picked up on.

It was the more straight ahead rockers that did it for me such as ‘Sanctified Woman’, ‘Restless’ and ‘Up In Smoke’, rapidly becoming their trademark song with everyone singing along.  There was also a teaser of a new song in ‘Rock n Roll Again’.

BLACKBERRY SMOKE - Shepherds Bush Empire, London,19 October 2014

They closed in fine style, brilliantly blending Zeppelin’s ‘When The Levee Breaks’ into a lengthy closer of ‘Ain’t Much Left Of Me’ before encoring with ‘Up The Road’ and ‘Shaking Hands With The Holy Ghost’.  Nevertheless I could have done with some harder rocking, boogie-style numbers and was surprised that the likes of ‘Leave A Scar’ and ‘Shake Your Magnolia’ were omitted from the set.

They may be lacking that extra sense of theatre that I look for in live performance, but judging from the rapturous reception and the favourable comments I overheard leaving the venue that the UK has taken these southern boys to their hearts and West London was turned into a little piece of Dixie for the night.

Review by Andy Nathan
Photos by Darran Scott

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