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Jamband Legends Blackberry Smoke Tackle the Stones Just in Time For 4/20

Beyond the band at your local bar butchering Honky Tonk Women or Brown Sugar, consider how few Rolling Stones covers there really are. That’s because it’s not as easy to play them as it might seem.

Seriously – if you’re going to cover some other band’s song, you either have to do it better than the original, or completely differently…or pretty much note for note. That last approach is the one that Blackberry Smoke take on their brand-new vinyl album Stoned, streaming at Spotify just in time for 4/20.

Interestingly, the band focus mostly on one specific period in Stones history, with tracks from Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street. Most of this stuff is iconic. How does it come off? Pretty damn well.

The level of craft here is meticulous but not stuffy and reverential: these guys nail the simmering tube amp atmosphere but also the pervasive, doomed cynicism of the originals. Guitarists Charlie Starr and Paul Jackson latch onto the slide-driven swagger of the first track, All Down the Line – and Starr enunciates way better than Mick Jagger. Bassist Richard Turner and drummer Brit Turner are a little more four-on-the-floor than Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts; Brandon Still’s spare, Nashville-inspired piano is an improvement on the Exile version.

“It’s just that demon lie that got you in its sway” – how cool is it to actually hear the lyrics to that one? The guitar sonics are an eerie approximation of the opiated original, Still’s echoey electric piano enhancing the vibe.

As Still’s organ rises in the mix in Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, the band switch out the lowrider soul for a more psychedelic approach. Tumbling Dice is more chill and focused than the original – and Jagger’s endless gambling metaphors are actually pretty clever! Who knew!

The band move forward in time a few albums for a second-gen cover, Just My Imagination – arguably the best one the Stones themselves ever did. This one doesn’t have the unleashed roar of the Some Girls version. Good song, solidly played.

Likewise, I Got the Blues – the real gem among the deep cuts on Sticky Fingers – is sketchier than the original. The band close with a ripsnorting take of Street Fighting Man, a great choice: they do to it what the Stones did to Just My Imagination.

How good does all this sound if you’re stoned? You be the judge. It takes a lot of memory to run a music blog, in every sense of the word. Blackberry Smoke’s next stop on their latest tour is tomorrow night, April 21 at around 8:30 PM at the Norva, 317 Monticello Ave. in Norfolk, Virginia. Another solid southern-fried band, Anthony Rosano and the Conqueroos open the night at 7:30; cover is $27.50.

Blackberry Smoke Kick Out the Jams on Their Latest Epic Tour

The high point of Blackberry Smoke’s Manhattan show this past evening happened about midway through, a twisted, surreal kaleidoscope of sunbaked Georgia clay refracted upward into grim, grey Pink Floyd atmospherics, anchored by drummer Brit Turner’s steady sway. As frontman/guitarist Charlie Starr pulled away from the center with a sudden, Gilmouresque howl, Paul Jackson stayed steady, plucking icy chordlets from his hollow-body Gretsch to light up the somber mist. Keyboardist Brandon Still, who up to this point had switched effortlessly from funky, echoey Fender Rhodes to some spot-on honkytonk piano, built a black swirl of organ beneath the ominous skies above.

By the time the jam was over, Starr had referenced Hendrix, the Grateful Dead (several times) and maybe Neil Young before leading the band into a dirtbag verse or two of the Beatles’ Come Together. Bassist Richard Turner’s graceful, boomy McCartney licks were almost comical, in contrast with the grimy detour the band had suddenly taken. Maybe it wasn’t as cartoonishly funny as the Aerosmith cover, but it worked as comic relief. And it was one of umpteen moments during the show reaffirming the eternal popularity of jambands – and why Blackberry Smoke are one of the best in the business.

Obviously, most jambands don’t have the songs, or the snide lyrical impact that Blackberry Smoke’s most recent material has. They had the crowd singing along practically from the first chorus of Fire in the Hole, the outlaw redneck rock anthem they used to open the show. Just like the last time these guys passed through town, the audience was fistpumping and raising devil’s horns to Waiting for the Thunder, Starr’s ripsnorting, fryolator-guitar fueled diatribe about the divergence between the rich and the underclasses. The song is a lot more vivid than that statement – and it was awfully validating to see a bunch of out-of-towners getting down with a protest anthem. Even if Lynyrd Skynyrd could have written a song like this one, they never would have gotten away with it.

Whether Blackberry Smoke are doing that, or twangy party anthems – and there were plenty of those in the mix – they haven’t lost touch with their populist roots. Case in point: Best Seat in the House, from the band’s latest full-length album, Find a Light, a cynical, backbeat-driven anthem told from the defiant point of view of a working class kid whose ambition doesn’t go much further than that.

Likewise, the funniest point of the evening was when Starr introduced Run Away From It All, a muted, brooding would-be escapee’s tale to open a brief more-or-less acoustic segment. “We haven’t had much luck with radio,” he admitted. “Then I looked around the house and couldn’t remember if I owned a radio.” Over a long enough timeline, all technologies’ survival rates drop to zero.

In contrast with that stark cynicism, the band ran through plenty of sidewinding stomps, a simmering peach pie of southern twang and Stonesy snarl. And then they’d suddenly get serious with a gloomy, toweringly lingering, cinematic mini-epic like the death-obsessed Running Through Time.

The seemingly endless Blackberry Smoke tour continues; the next stop with anything approaching affordable tickets is at Sept 13 at 7:30 PM at the Capitol Center for the Arts, 44 S Main St. in Concord, New Hampshire where it will cost Granite Staters $35 to get in.

Blackberry Smoke Burns Through Hell’s Kitchen

The song that drew the most powerful response at Blackberry Smoke’s show last night was Waiting for the Thunder, the snidely apocalyptic anthem that opens their latest album Like an Arrow. “Why do we stand by and do nothing while they piss it all away?” drawled frontman/lead guitarist Charlie Starr.

He was referring to those “with the power and the glory” who “get more than they deserve.” A little later, he and guitarist Paul Jackson took a sarcastic twin solo that referenced a cheesy Aerosmith hit from the 70s as bass player Richard Turner made a slinky upward climb, and lead drummer (that’s what the band calls him) Brit Turner swung a tight metalfunk groove.

It was a typical moment in a night full of many different flavors. From the looks of a near sold-out crowd – an unpretentious, multi-generational bunch – Blackberry Smoke’s rise in popularity here doesn’t seem to mirror the waves of rich white southern suburbanites who’ve flooded the outer boroughs in recent years. People just dig this band’s sense of humor, Starr’s knack for a sardonically aphoristic turn of phrase, and the fact that they can jam like crazy when they want to. Which is what keeps the music fresh, night after night. They started out here at Irving Plaza. Last time around, they played the Beacon; yesterday evening they were at Terminal 5.

Much as the group’s roots are in southern rock, more often than not they came across as a louder southern version of the Grateful Dead. Most of the jamming took place in long, slowly rising intros or smolderingly suspenseful interludes midway through a song. The most epic one of them began Third Stone From the Sun and ended up a couple of stories into Franklin’s Tower.

Throughout the night, Starr played a museum’s worth of vintage guitars, starting with a longscale Les Paul Jr. model, later switching to a Guild hollowbody and eventually an acoustic, showing off some flashy bluegrass flatpicking in an offhandedly savage take of the workingman’s escape anthem One Horse Town – these guys are populist to the core. He saved his most searing slide work for a Telecaster and his most deep-fried southern licks for a gorgeous gold Les Paul. Jackson also played one of those for most of the night, eventually moving to acoustic and then a vintage white SG.

They opened with the aphoristic, heavy riff-rocking Testify, then got the night’s requisite big party song, Good One and its endless list of intoxicating substances out of the way early, fueled by Brandon Still’s glittering honkytonk piano. It took awhile before his organ or echoey, starry Wurly were audible in the mix. From there the band built momentum through some gritty outlaw C&W, the blazing, Stonesy Let It Burn, and a couple of midtempo numbers that rehashed old bluegrass riffs the Dead made famous.

The most rustic song of the night was the swaying I Ain’t Got the Blues; the loudest might have been a snarling, defiant take of What’s Left of Me. The new album’s title track was surprisingly muted, less Molly Hatchet than 80s heartland stadium rock.

There were also a couple of covers, something a band this good doesn’t need. A haphazard stab at dirtbag Aerosmith stench in the Beatles’ Come Together, and an attempt to make something substantial out of Tom Petty, only lowered the bar – then again, this group come from a part of the world where cover bands are the rule rather than the exception. Blackberry Smoke’s nonstop tour continues with a sold-out show tonight at the Wicomico Civic Center in Salisbury, Maryland.