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.