I was already a fan of this band’s eclectic mix of blues, hard rock, boogie and country before seeing one of their gigs. Afterwards, I was ready to declare them my new favourite live act. Excellent show.
That said, the start was a little inauspicious. A low key, shuffling arrival on stage was a precursor to some poor sound for ‘Fire In The Hole’. The guitars had gone awol and bass-heavy vibrations conspired to drown out one of Charlie Starr’s best studio vocal performances.
Clearly the mixing desk team were on their mettle because the caking mud began to fall away to reveal a vibrant ‘Six Ways To Sunday’ and the easy, Lynyrd Skynyrd-inspired charms of ‘Good One Comin’ On’, replete with now audible Hammond organ flourishes.
The Roundhouse is a wonderful venue, particularly on a night like this when it is humming and packed to the rafters. Nevertheless, those rafters, not to mention the cast iron pillars and exposed gantry from the building’s engine shed days, can’t make sound-checking too easy.
Barely pausing for breath, ‘Waiting For The Thunder’ was a gem in this early part of the show, packed with muscular powerchords, big vocal hooks and a thrilling organ/guitar interchange. The band ripped straight into ‘Rock n Roll Again’, immediately changing the mood with a dose of swaggering, goodtime, southern boogie.
This ability to comfortably change up and down, switch codes and flip dynamics was a hallmark of the gig. A T-shirt on the merch stall declared the band to be ‘Too country for rock. Too rock for country.’ That’s a neat summary and pretty much puts this reviewer out of business…
The headlong cavalry charge of tunes had created quite an atmosphere in the venue. ‘Pretty Little Lies’ and ‘Let It Burn’ saw hoe-ing down aplenty amongst the crowd; thumbs stuck in belt loops and animated folksy jigging in this otherwise sophisticated corner of London town. Charlie Starr dedicated the latter track to Chuck Berry which went down very well.
Starr is the driving force of the band and a natural focus on stage. Blackberry Smoke don’t have a reputation for wild or excessive stage shows. Yet there were a good few raps with the crowd. At one point Starr spotted someone on their phone down the front. “Are you face-timin’?” he drawled in incredulous mid-Atlantan. “Pass it on up here!” So the phone made its way up to the singer/guitarist who had a chat with the woman on the other end of the video link, showed her the crowd and said how sorry he was that she couldn’t be there to enjoy the show. A little home spun audience participation.
The rest of the band may not interact with the crowd much, but they are far from bystanders when it comes to the music. The absolute zenith of this special gig was the mid-set medley that booted up the playing by several notches. ‘Sleeping Dogs’ and its warning tale of back-road bust ups kicked on from Starr’s languorous blues guitar solo into a crunching, chopped-up cover of Zep’s ‘Your Time is Gonna Come’. Massive riffs. Not an obvious segue, but it worked beautifully.
Just as we were revelling in the moment, the stage was plunged into a world of low green and blue spotlights picking out the band hunched over their kit. They conjured up a rich brew of guitar lines, organ licks and drum fills that became a version of the Allman Brothers’ ‘Mountain Jam’. Starr and fellow guitarist Paul Jackson traded sublime six-string blows, before Brandon Still joined the act when the mash up dallied with the unexpected and embraced Yes’s ‘Starship Trooper’. I loved this band’s songs before I came to the gig, but I had massively under-estimated the quality of their individual and collective musicianship.
The second half of the set drew on a few more southern rockers like the driving ‘Shaking Hands With The Holy Ghost’ where the Turner brothers in the rhythm engine room excelled; and a fan-favourite, ‘Up In Smoke’. They had two cracks at the latter. First time around, Starr suddenly stopped the show because a woman at the front had collapsed. The band leader wasn’t content to restart the song until medics had attended to her. He rightly received an appreciative round of applause for this.
Again, the shades of light and dark in the set were obvious as the acoustic, country-infused ballad ‘Ain’t Got The Blues’ was linked to the caustic ‘Payback’s A Bitch’ with Starr’s phrase “That was the happy song. This is our angry song”.
Other highlights included the dirty, infectious ‘Restless’ where the extended slide guitar split the night wide open; and set closer ‘Like an Arrow’ saw more sing-along moments on the fat, soaring chorus.
The first encore was a cover of the Stones’ ‘Street Fighting Man’ that found a rollicking and rolling groove, less edgy than the original. The band closed out with an extended ‘Ain’t Much Left Of Me’ introduced by a snatch of ‘Amazing Grace’ wrung out on a tremulous guitar and a mid-section ‘Three Little Birds’ with an audience sing-a-long that got the thumbs up from Jackson, stage right.
The genius of this band is to create an uplifting vibe through sheer force of musicality. Every set is different and it feels like they could chuck in any song and make it work. The crowd responded with naked enthusiasm tonight and I for one didn’t want any of it to end. Soul affirming.
Review by Dave Atkinson
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Pete Feenstra celebrated his 300th show in October 2019. Pete heads up a five-hour blues rock marathon when “Tuesday is Bluesday” from 19:00 GMT. Listen out also for his interview-based Feature show on Sundays (20:00 GMT)
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