Long straggly hair, big bushy beards, ten gallon hats and – gasp – flares! Take one look at Blackberry Smoke and you know exactly what you’re going to get when you hear them – traditional Southern rock like it used to be and with more than a nod to, dare I say it, country. They’re no strangers to the country scene in their homeland, with latest album ‘Holding All The Roses’ topping the US country album chart in its first week of release. Nonetheless the band have a strong following among the hard rock crowd in the UK, frequently selling out Academy-size venues whenever they venture over the pond.
This date in Liverpool (their first time here to the best of my knowledge) was one of a short series of summer dates. The band have been championed for some time now by the DJ of a rock radio show which is broadcast in the Merseyside area; he has interviewed them in the past for his show and dropped the odd hint that they’d go down well in this neck of the woods. With a good turnout in the larger upstairs hall of the o2 Academy (although a fair few ‘walked up’ and got tickets on the night) his faith was justified.
The hall was already fairly full when I got in to find support Aaron Keylock on stage. He is one of many around at the moment who are playing old-style hard rock steeped heavily in blues, and like others such as Jared James Nichols (himself touring the UK this week) he plays guitar and sings, accompanied by just a bassist and a drummer. He is a very good player and a decent singer, and is well worth seeing but may find it tricky to stand out during a time when there are many others out there treading the same path.
I have to award Blackberry Smoke full marks for punctuality as they arrived on stage at precisely 9pm and kicked things off with ‘Fire In The Hole’. It’s been a long time since I have seen this sort of jamming band perform, probably not since the Black Crowes were around two decades ago. Some songs were indeed stretched out into jams; even with a bit of Zeppelin thrown in (a snippet of ‘Your Time is Gonna Come’ was delivered during ‘Sleeping Dogs’). However shorter stuff such as their radio hits ‘Rock n Roll Again’ and ‘Shakin Hands With The Holy Ghost’ were also delivered in the main set, so they did break it up into manageable chunks quite a lot.
The room was very hot with what I estimate to be over a thousand punters present, and midway through the set a few worrying drips came down from the rafters, probably condensation. ‘I hope that wasn’t from the toilet’, quipped frontman Charlie Starr when one got him! It didn’t throw them off, and I was astonished to see bassist Richard Turner keep his entire regalia of shades, hat, scarf, and double denim intact throughout. He gives off a pretty intimidating air in that hat, shades and beard while standing stock still playing bass, and by keeping all that gear on (in what amounted to a sauna) all through the set only underlined to me how he was prepared just to tough things out! Across the other side of the stage guitarist Paul Jackson was more animated, and drummer Brit Turner was another who kept the hat on all night while keeping a steady beat. Surprisingly they did more from previous album ‘The Whippoorwill’ than from ‘Holding All The Roses’, although it was a fairly long set so there were still seven tracks from the current album played.
The gig was one of those that put a big smile on your face, rather than one where you feel you’ve just had your face melted off. It was still loud, but with one of the better sound mixes I’ve heard in this venue of late. Definitely a feel-good sort of a night then, and one we could do with much more of at this end of the East Lancs Road. Let’s hope that’s the first of many visits to our city from this band, and I look forward to welcoming them to the arena in years to come!