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A Sharply Amusing New Record From One of New York’s Best Psychedelic Bands

For the better part of ten years, the Academy Blues Project were one of New York’s most consistently entertaining psychedelic bands. They got as far as the Rockwood, where they held down a long series of big-room residencies. Their annual Big Lebowski tribute was as much a giveaway to their sensibility as their sly, surreal live show. And unlike most rock acts in town before the lockdown, carefully scheduling gigs to maximize turnout and ensure future bookings at a handful of coveted, profit-strapped spots, these guys would take random dates at some pretty out-of-the-way venues just to keep the vibe fresh. It was always fun to catch them at an intimate space like Shrine, or Long Island City Bar, on an off night.

Although they’ve released a  handful of eps, their new album The Neon Grotto – streaming at Bandcamp – is their first full-length record. It’s like discovering your cool stoner uncle’s stash of artsy psychedelic records from the 70s. The obvious influences here are the Grateful Dead and Steely Dan, but there are also echoes of acts as diverse as Supertramp, P-Funk and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. The band recorded the basic tracks right before the lockdown. After their members were scattered to the winds by the summer of last year, they finished it over the web. The seductive surrealism and archetypes in Meera Dugal’s album cover art make a perfect visual companion.

The opening number, Athens to Corfu, could be the good-natured Hollywood Hills boudoir soul tune that never made it onto Steely Dan’s Aja record. Frontman/guitarist Mark Levy tremolo-picks feathery washes and sunbaked, echoey blues, keyboardist Ben Easton starting out with starry Rhodes piano and drifting into an oscillating swirl, bassist Trevor Brown and drummer Jim Bloom kicking up the waves at the end. There is nothing remotely Mediterranean about this song other than the lyrics’ clever wordplay.

Turbulence, the second cut, could pass for a late 70s track by the Who: the metaphors reach cruising altitude and the brief, celestial bass-and-guitar interlude midway through seems devised for much more extended jamming. The album’s instrumental title track opens with a sideways Grateful Dead reference and then hits a steady backbeat pulse, Levy spinning his catchy riffage through an icy vintage analog delay pedal.

The album’s big epic is Rock Song (Don’t Step in the Gooey Parts), an aptly dramatic, tongue-in-cheek musical history of geological formations, from lava to ossification. The big sunburst intro brings to mind early Santana; from there the band truck like the Dead to an uneasily jangly Nektar bridge and then rising and falling echoes of Pink Floyd.

Make Believe, a big concert favorite, is part Blackberry Smoke newschool southern rock, part White Album Beatles. Prevailing Winds has Genesis written all over it, from Easton’s elegant piano intro to Levy’s big vocal peak.

All Will Be Revealed begins as a deviously detailed account of what could be a stolen election, or some other massive fraud:

And the innocents forget who’s master and who’s slave
Packing peanuts in their trunks, they join in the fray, they join the parade

Then Easton’s gospel piano leads the band skyward to Levy’s savage guitar outro. Who knows, this song could be more prophetic than anyone ever could have imagined.

They close with the instrumental Little Island, Big Volcano, Levy adding amusingly balmy Hawaiian flavor with his slide. It’s still early in a year where there haven’t been many rock records released, but at this point this is top-ten-of-2021 material. What’s even better is that the band have two other albums planned for release this year.

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.