New York City may rank as one of the least “country” metropolises on earth, but the beauty of the place is the diversity of its inhabitants. Thus, you have the thicket of bearded, denim-adorned, cowboy hat-wearing good old boys and girls that turned out for Blackberry Smoke at the Beacon Theatre on a brisk Autumn Friday.
To describe Smoke as a country band, though, is an incredibly reductive assessment (as is the description of their fan base as good old boys and girls in cowboy hats, I acknowledge). Though undeniably indebted to the genre, they fit more naturally into the Southern rock tradition of bands like The Allman Brothers Band, Molly Hatchet, and, more recently, pioneers like The Black Crowes and Chris Stapleton.
The band is a wardrobe change away from physically resembling a heavy metal outfit, but it’s their music that really blurs the lines between genres. Tunes like ’Waiting for the Thunder,’ ‘Up In Smoke,’ and ‘Leave a Scar’ started off with thousand-pound riffs that sound like the best AC/DC songs you never heard before the rhythmic swing and vocal twang that most obviously distinguish the groups set in.
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Naturally, the Atlanta, Georgia-hailing band indulged in some good time country boogieing also, albeit with the harder edge characteristic of their forebears. They opened the show with some familiar tunes from their previous few albums and the one-two punch of ‘Rock and Roll Again’ and the newer ‘Let It Burn’ turned the glitzy Beacon into a Southern honky-tonk, with fans dancing out of their seats.
Shortly afterwards, though, the greatest hard rock moment of the night came in the form of a surprise guest spot from Leslie West, singer, guitarist, and founding member of Mountain. Every fan knew what was coming when the cowbell started, but lead guitarist Charlie Starr and West traded licks over the primal groove, delaying gratification. When it finally came in the form of the iconic opening notes of ‘Mississippi Queen,’ the foundations of the theatre were rattled. The extended version of the tune rocked everybody involved senseless and set a high bar for all the show that was left (this wasn’t even halfway through the set). Smoke proved themselves up to the challenge.
As the evening carried on, the band put more of their impressive range on display. Some loose, free form soloing heralded the lightly funky rocker ‘Sleeping Dog’ from 2012’s ‘The Whippoorwill’ but the song eventually melted into a series of spacy, feedback-heavy interludes, with the band gliding between relaxed, jazzy grooves and huge riffs with ease. A verse and chorus of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Your Time Is Gonna Come’ that emerged from the musical ether sent the crowd into hysterics. The title track from ‘The Whippoorwill’ was the night’s other great country-psych odyssey, featuring stunning harmonized guitar leads and a hazy rhythm that evoked Pink Floyd and further evidenced the breadth of the melting pot of sound that Blackberry Smoke draws from.
Lead vocalist and guitarist Charlie Starr stunned throughout the evening with his impassioned vocals and taut, smoking leads that put him in league with the genre’s greats like Billy Gibbons and Toy Caldwell. Though Starr did a lot of the heavy lifting, second guitarist and backup vocalist Paul Jackson proved himself as capable a player when he took the spotlight, most notably on ‘Up in Smoke.’ Keyboardist Brandon Still perhaps best represented the eclecticism of Smoke’s sound as he deftly maneuvered between styles that evoked Ray Manzarek, Gregg Allman, Chuck Leavell and more, all while maintaining a tasteful, distinctive voice that heightened each song. Anchoring Smoke’s sound is the monster rhythm section of bassist Richard Turner and drummer Brit Turner, nailing all of the varied grooves the band conjured with equal parts force and precision.
Starr introduced each band member as “brother” and invited the audience to share in the genial atmosphere they share. He playfully criticized the crowd for clapping out of time and fudging the lyrics to the acoustic sing-along ‘Ain’t Got the Blues,’ but later graciously thanked devoted fans for “throwing the suits for a loop” and getting their latest album, ‘Like An Arrow,’ to the top of the US Billboard Country and Americana/Folk charts, humbly minimizing the band’s role in their success. As they close in on the end of a huge year, the gratitude is understandable. But make no mistake – this band has earned everything they’ve got.
They ended the night with a fiery encore that paid tribute to Leon Russell with a performance of the recently deceased artist’s ‘Stranger In a Strange Land’ before hitting their own ‘Ain’t Much Left Of Me.’ The band didn’t lose any energy or miss a single beat all night, and the explosive conclusion to an explosive show guaranteed that more bright days are ahead.