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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Nobody Gives a Damn
Fire in the Hole
Feel a Good One Coming On
Waiting for the Thunder
Let it Burn
Medicate My Mind
Payback’s a Bitch
Ain’t Got the Blues
Flesh and Bone
In Memory of Elizabeth Reed
One Horse Town
I’ll Keep Ramblin
Ain’t Much Left of Me