"Everything is as it should be."

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Blackberry Smoke - Fonda Theatre : A Review

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BLACKBERRY SMOKE - FONDA THEATER - THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 6, 2019

There is nothing quite so exhilarating as seeing great music performed live, so this year I made a resolution to venture out and see more music. And since I am going to be seeing more music I thought I would expand my writing to encompass not just cultural criticism and film criticism but occasionally music criticism too. So sit back, relax and enjoy my first foray into that genre.

I stumbled upon the first concert on my 2019 agenda in a round about way. Nearly four years ago I saw The Waterboys at the Fonda Theater here in Los Angeles. Mike Scott and the gang put on a terrific show that was accentuated by the exquisite surroundings of the Fonda. With quality acoustics, general admission and terrific sight lines, the Fonda is a fantastic music venue. So in searching for music to go see, instead of searching for bands I like, I went and searched the Fonda’s schedule to see if anything intrigued me. Two shows did, the first of which was last Thursday February 6, when the southern/country rock band Blackberry Smoke came to town to promote their album Find a Light.

I am not a Blackberry Smoke “fan”, I own none of their music and really didn’t know much about them prior to seeing them. But my good friend and walking music encyclopedia, the inimitable Fire Thorn, highly recommended them to me. So, since the tickets were $40, the venue is great and Fire Thorn rarely misses the mark musically, I pulled the trigger and got tickets.

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I listened to some Blackberry Smoke’s albums in the weeks leading up to the show and found the Atlanta natives to be a solid, throwback band with a surprisingly deep catalogue of well crafted and accessible songs. The Whippoorwill (2012) is a particularly strong record, and its follow ups, Holding All the Roses(2015) and Like an Arrow(2016) revealed a palpable musical and creative momentum.

Find a Light, which came out April 6, 2018 is their newest release and while I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as their earlier work, I still found enough gems on it to be a worthwhile listen, and have found that it grows on you, for I have grown to like it more and more the more I listen to it.

After my two-week crash course in the Blackberry Smoke’s discography, I braved Los Angeles rush hour traffic and an hour and a half later was outside the Fonda ready to rock and roll. With a growling belly and a little time to kill, I made my way across the street to the Shake Shack restaurant, my virgin voyage into the much discussed Shake Shack universe. After devouring a double SmokeShack burger (double cheeseburger with bacon), I was officially baptized into the religion of Shake Shack and am now a devout true believer.

Joyful and bloated from my feast I stumbled back across the street to the Fonda, thinking my sumptuous all-American meal had precluded me from catching the opening act, of whom I had never heard. As I walked into the Fonda I realized I was wrong…and boy am I ever glad I was.

Country rocker Nikki Lane was early into her set when I arrived and she instantly mesmerized me. If Taylor Swift and a rattlesnake had a baby, and weened it exclusively on whiskey, it would be the raven-haired Lane. Lane has a beguiling and confident stage presence and an effortlessly powerful and gloriously weathered voice that drips of character that heightens and accentuates her storytelling songs.

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My date, the irrepressible Dr. Lady Pumpernickle Dusseldorf III, a trained singer and music afficionado in her own right, was even more enamored of Ms. Lane than I, as we both fell deeply under her hypnotic spell. While I did not know any of Nikki Lane’s songs, it didn’t matter, she sold them to us with an undeniable verve that was impossible to refuse. It also helped that her band, made up of guitar, keyboard, bass, drums and steel guitar, were impeccable.

After my delectable Shake Shack experience and Nikki Lane’s intoxicating set, this night was already a stirring success chock full of newfound favorites…and then Blackberry Smoke hit the stage. The band, made up of the Turner brothers Richard and Brit on bass and drums respectively, Brandon Still on keyboards, Paul Jackson on rhythm guitar and backing vocals, and Charlie Starr on lead vocals and lead guitar, hit the ground running with the song “Nobody Gives a Damn” and never looked back.

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I was positioned in the second row right in front of rhythm guitarist Paul Jackson, and what I noticed right away was that Jackson was beaming. I have never seen a musician, or anyone else for that matter have so much fun in my entire life. This guy’s exuberance and sheer pleasure at playing was infectious and impossible to deny. The band are road warriors and true professionals and what was most apparent was not only how proficient and cohesive they are musically, but how much they love what they do, which is contagious and makes them a joy to behold.

While Jackson’s bliss was charming, it is lead singer and guitarist Charlie Starr that is the straw that stirs the drink of this band. Starr carries the show and his, at times, blistering guitar work is very impressive. Starr’s vocals are strong and seamless amidst the tight band even though his range is a bit limited. Starr is not a wannabe rock star, as there is no posing or preening, just good old fashioned, grind it out, blue collar musicianship.

The train of the Turner brothers rhythm section was never late to the station and always left on time, and lay a reliably healthy foundation upon which Starr and Jackson’s guitars and Still’s keyboard juked and jived with sweet Georgia abandon.

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The band played a plethora of songs off of their new album, Find a Liight, and mixed in with it a healthy dose of their strongest material from earlier records, along with some covers that were aided by special guests. One of the joys of seeing a show in Los Angeles is that because it is such a Mecca of the music industry, the streets are flowing with talent who are always there to lend a helping hand to whatever tour comes to town. On this night, guitarist and founder of Buckcherry, Keith Nelson (who also co-wrote some of the songs on Find a Light) hopped on stage for a song. Second generation legend Duane Betts (Dickie Betts’ son and the namesake of Duane Allman) also jumped on stage to cover his birthright material from The Allman Brothers, a scintillating version of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”. And finally, in the encore Butch Walker joined the band for a rousing cover of Tom Petty’s “American Girl”.

The highlights of the show for me were The Cult/Billy Duffy inspired raw guitar power of “Waiting for the Thunder”, the crisp perfection of “Crimson Moon”, the soulful melancholy of “Whippoorwill”, Bett’s virtuosity on “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”, the Springsteen-esque desperate country soul of “One Horse Town” and the radio-friendly infectiousness of “Ain’t Much Left of Me” which morphed into a bluesy cover of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks”, which itself was a cover of a song by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie.

The audience at the Fonda were an older crowd, mostly made up of middle aged music connoisseurs well read in classic rock and country who definitely admired the craftsmanship of Blackberry Smoke. The show was not sold out and was probably 75% capacity but the audience was exuberant without being unruly or dangerous. (Blackberry Smoke is a most definitely a “safe” show to attend…no worries about fights or anything like that.

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Blackberry Smoke are road warriors, playing over 200 shows a year, because they have to be, this is how they make their living. Radio has devolved to the point where a band like Blackberry Smoke, which isn’t pure enough country for country radio and isn’t old enough to be classic rock, can’t find an outlet for audiences to discover them.

Blackberry Smoke is one of those bands stuck in the wrong time. If this band came along 40 years ago they’d be staples of classic rock right now and we’d all have heard of them. They are sort of like Lynyrd Skynyrd and sort of like The Black Crowes, but really not exactly like either one of those bands. I would classify Blackberry Smoke as a southern rock band with a country sensibility. The difficulty in defining their concise genre and to clearly label them may also contribute to their relative obscurity with the wider public.

The music business conundrum that Blackberry Smoke finds themselves in where they are limited in ways of finding an audience, is bad for them as it puts a ceiling on their success, but good for people like me who are lucky enough to catch them at a great, small venue like the Fonda for $40, as opposed to paying $150 for shitty seats to see them at the Staples Center if they were a bigger, more successful band.

In conclusion, Blackberry Smoke is a cohesive and solid southern/country rock band with visceral chemistry that shine in live performance. While the band are not a transcendent act, they most certainly are an entertaining one. If you like live music and you have the opportunity, you should definitely go check them out as they give a great show and will be the best and most professional bar band you’ve ever witnessed in your life. And if Nikki Lane comes to your town, go out and grab some Shake Shack before hand and see her too, you will most definitely be glad that you did.

SETLIST

Nobody Gives a Damn

Fire in the Hole

Feel a Good One Coming On

Waiting for the Thunder

Crimson Moon

Let it Burn

Medicate My Mind

Sleeping Dogs

Holy Ghost

Whippoorwhill

Payback’s a Bitch

Ain’t Got the Blues

Run Away

Flesh and Bone

In Memory of Elizabeth Reed

One Horse Town

I’ll Keep Ramblin

ENCORE

American Girl

Ain’t Much Left of Me

©2019

Beating the Dead Horse of Grammy Award's Racism

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Estimated reading Time: 4 minutes 48 seconds

It is that time of year again, awards season! And with the Grammy Awards tonight (quickly followed in two weeks by the Oscars) comes with them the oh-so-predictable and tired charges of racism.

Every year at this time, both pre and post the awards, there are a cavalcade of articles in the media bemoaning the blatant racist snubs of the Recording Academy and blaming every Black artist’s loss on the vicious racism of Academy members. These articles, like the New York Times piece post-2017 awards that declared the Grammy had a “pernicious” race problem, are grounded in baseless assumptions and often play fast and loose with the facts in order to bolster their case.

What frustrates me the most about these “Grammys are Racist” stories is that they actually undermine and distract from genuine racial issues in America. Like American’s overuse of antibiotics leads to a dangerous diminishing of their power, crying racism at every turn, such as with perceived awards show snubs, makes that charge much less powerful when applied to life and death issues like criminal justice, health care and voting rights.

The underlying assumption fueling these articles is the idea that Black artists are under-represented at the Grammys. As I wrote in 2017 and 2018, this assumption is not based on fact. The elite media who bemoan racism at the Grammys never mention one very important statistic, namely the demographic reality of African-Americans in the United States, or the Black population in the Anglosphere (English speaking world - U.S., Canada, U.K., Ireland, Australia).

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The Black population in the U.S. is 12.6% which comes as a surprise to many people who only have a passing knowledge of demographics. The Black population in the Anglosphere is even smaller, coming in at 9%. When contrasting the 12.6% or 9% population figure against the percentage of Grammy nominees and winners who are Black, it becomes very obvious that Black performers aren’t under represented at all, but rather are over-represented.

For example, from 1987 to 2017, in the Best Album category 37% of the nominees and 13% of the winners were Black artists. In the Record of the Year category 36% of the nominees and 20% of the winners were Black artists. In the Song of the Year category 28% of the nominees and 23% of the winners were Black artists. In the Best New Artist category 32.6% of the nominees and 40% of the winners were Black artists. If you look closely at those numbers you will realize that all of them are larger than 12.6%, some more than twice as large.

The media never mentions Black over-representation when discussing Grammy racism, it is just accepted as fact that Black artists are being cheated out of awards because of race. A great example of this vacuous narrative in the media is found in the writing of John Vilanova, whose work has appeared in The Atlantic and The Los Angeles Times among other places. To further Vilanova’s establishment bona fides, he is also in the process of getting his PhD from the prestigious Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

In a recent article for The AtlanticWhat it Takes for Black Artists to Win Big at the Grammys”, Vilanova makes the same case he made a year ago in the LA Times (“Beyonce’s Grammy Snub and the Glass Ceiling on Black Art”), namely that Black “musicians” run into a glass ceiling when it comes to the Grammy awards. Vilanova’s assertions are standard, mainstream thought among the media and academic class in America…namely that racism is such a “pernicious” problem that it is baked into the cake even in the allegedly liberal bastions of the music and film industries.

Not surprisingly, Vilanova never mentions the demographics and statistics which I lay out in my articles on the subject and which decimate his thesis. In fact, in order to fit the facts around his virtue signaling story line, he blatantly distorts and contorts statistical reality to such a degree as to be duplicitous. For example he ignores the Best new Artist category entirely and only looks back as far as 1999 in regards to the other major categories.

Another example is when Vilanova compares Beyonce, the most nominated women in Grammy history with 62, to White country artist Alison Krauss, who has 40 nominations. Vilanova claims that Beyonce’s Grammy win percentage (22 awards out of 62 nominations - 37%) in relation to Alison Krauss’s 27 wins in 42 nominations, is “markedly low”, but never mentions the uncomfortable fact that obliterates his thesis of racism at the Grammys, namely that of the top four popular music Grammy awards winners in history, only one, Krauss, is White (the other three are Beyonce, Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder are Black). Vilanova also fails to mention another glaring difference between Krauss and Beyonce besides their race and Grammy win percentage, and that is that unlike Beyonce, Krauss, in addition to singing, plays an instrument (violin/piano).

Besides laying out a statistical argument in my previous articles, i also lay out a stylistic one, making the case that the Recording Academy is made up of musicians, engineers and producers, and that they appreciate musicianship above all else. This seems a rather self-evident claim to make, that musicians, who have dedicated their life to mastering their craft, would admire other musicians who have done the same. This is a major reason why rap gets short shrift at the Grammys, it isn’t because the Academy hates Blacks, it is because they love musicians, and rappers are not musicians.

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Vilanova unintentionally makes my point for me in his Atlantic piece when he bemoans the only Black artists to have won major Grammy awards (Album of the Year, Song of the year and Record of the Year) this century are artists whose “auterist bonafides…carry them to the podium”. The list includes Alicia Keys, Lauryn Hill, Ray Charles, Luther Vandross, Outkast, Herbie Hancock and Beyonce. You know what else these artists have in common besides being auteurs, Black and Grammy winners? They are all remarkable musicians. Beyonce, Luther Vandross and Lauryn Hill are master vocalists, Herbie Hancock, Alicia Keys and Ray Charles master pianists, and Outkast are masters of all trades including playing instruments.

If you look at non-Black winners of major Grammys you find the same type of artists as the group above. Bruno Mars, Adele, Taylor Swift, Mumford and Sons, Arcade Fire, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, they all have mastered an instrument (voice is an instrument) and/or play an instrument and write their own songs.

Vilanova’s self-righteous obtuseness doesn’t stop there as he makes an even more vapid and flaccid argument that these Black artists (Beyonce, Herbie Hancock, Alicia Keys, Outkast etc.) have broken the glass ceiling only because they aren’t making “Black” music, which apparently according to Vilanova must only be rap. Vilanova even goes so far as to claim that the Grammy for Best Urban Contemporary Album is in itself a racist award. Vilanova is basically saying that if a Black artist wins a major Grammy then by definition the music they are making is not “Black music”. This is madness.

The reality is that Black artists are over-represented at the Grammys. And on top of that, the statistical reality is that Rock music, which is still the most popular music in America in terms of consumption, album sales and concert ticket sales, is horrendously under-represented. In fact, only one rock band, Greta Van Fleet, is nominated in any of the major Grammy categories this year, and that is in Best new Artist. But you won’t read that story in any major media outlets and certainly not from the desk of John Vilanova.

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The question then becomes why do people like John Vilanova believe the things they do when it is very clear that they are factually incorrect? I cannot read minds, but maybe Vilanova is simply playing the game and telling his superiors and his audience what they want to hear. Or maybe he really does believe the things he writes and is simply an intellectual midget. Or maybe Vilanova is so ensconced in the elite media and academic universe that he inhabits that he is totally blind to his own establishment orthodoxy indoctrination and is inoculated against critical thinking. Who knows? But the truth is this, that it is obvious and provable through demographics, statistics and history, that John Vilanova’s thesis of a “ceiling for Black artists” is entirely fallacious. And yet, despite being so obtuse, intentionally or otherwise, Vilanova gets paid to write for the hallowed Atlantic magazine and the LA Times, and I write for RT, and he is getting a PhD from Penn and I have a sixth grade education. Maybe I should blame racism for my failings…it would be just as credible an excuse as it as for Black artists’ failures at the Grammys.

Besides watering down the power of the charge of racism, the Grammy awards have watered themselves down due to these scurrilous charges of racism. To combat this non-existent problem, the Grammys have made dramatic moves to alter their voting population in an effort to “diversify” their nominees and winners. The Grammys have also expanded their nominee numbers from 5 to 8, in order to appease calls for diversity and inclusivity. What these changes have really done though, is diminish the prestige and cache of being nominated for, or winning, a Grammy. In a sense, these Grammy elections are now rigged in order to give a “leg up” to Black artists who are already well outperforming their demographic reality.

In conclusion, as proven by Mr. Vilanova and the rest of the media’s relentlessly vacuous articles on the subject, no matter who wins at the Grammy Awards tonight, racism will be the excuse for why someone lost…which means Truth, as always, will be big loser once again.

©2019