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Blackberry Smoke, Delta Saints heat up Cleveland with southern rock jams

Blackberry Smoke and The Delta Saints conspired to heat up Cleveland on Saturday, February 8, 2014.
Blackberry Smoke and The Delta Saints conspired to heat up Cleveland on Saturday, February 8, 2014.
Pete Roche

Blackberry Smoke concert at House of Blues Cleveland 2-8-2014


Their prodigious beards, denim, and leather may scream “motorcycle gang,” but the boys in Blackberry Smoke ride with Zac Brown’s seal of approval on their current Fire in the Hole Tour.

Blackberry Smoke sizzles at House of Blues Cleveland.
Peter M. Roche

The Atlanta-based quintet returned to an over-packed House of Blues Saturday night, warming the sold-out club with a two-hour set that was equal parts rock, soul, country—and all revival.

Fronted by the sliver-slim Charlie Starr (who resembles a long-haired Funky Winkerbean), the Smokers tore through some twenty cuts hailing primarily from their 2009 release—A Little Piece of Dixie—and last year’s The Whippoorwill, issued on Brown’s Southern Ground label.

The band’s been active for over a decade, having provided tour support for other hirsute Southern ensembles like ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd and performed at charity events with those rabble-rousers from TV’s Sons of Anarchy. The quintet still fly under mainstream radar but have cultivated an impressive—and fiercely loyal—cult following. The folks crammed shoulder-to-shoulder on the HOB floor clearly walked through the doors knowing something most Ohioans don’t, and they demonstrated their familiarity by singing along the entire evening.

Watch the official video for “Pretty Little Lie” here:

The boys practically ignored their 2004 debut Bad Luck Ain’t No Crime early on, opting to cherry-pick from their latest two albums. “Leave a Scar” and “Like I Am” saw leather-vested lead guitarist Paul Jackson and blue-shirted bassist Richard Turner contribute backing vocals while bushy-headed, bandanna-clad Brit Turner pummeled away on drums. Brandon Still layered the mix from the back of the stage, tinkling away on electric piano and organ.

The volume was deafening, but the rhythm was tight and the melodies relaxed. Starr must’ve heard something he didn’t like, however. The singer paused after the third or fourth tune to let a technician make some quick adjustments.

“We’ll get these gremlins worked out, slowly but surely!” Starr said. “This is why you buy U.S.A!”

If there was a problem, it wasn’t apparent to anyone on our side of the monitors.

Starr favored a battered black guitar whose significant body damage lent visual character. Jackson plucked searing leads on a Gibson Les Paul, and Turner thumped away on a patriot red, white, and blue four-string. Fans of countrified jam bands like Allman Brothers and southern rock acts such as .38 Special would appreciate the uproarious, twangy, fricasseed guitar sounds blasting from the speakers. But Blackberry Smoke rocks a tad harder (and louder), as if powered by the same hi-fidelity fuel charging those muscle-bound head-bangers in Clutch and Black Label Society.

Imagine what might’ve transpired had Led Zeppelin had fraternized with the Doobie Brothers back in the mid-seventies, mingling acoustic finger-style guitar and bluegrass melodies with distorted, cudgel-heavy slabs of guitar rock. Now picture the resulting hybrid band onstage at The Boar’s Nest at the end of an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard.

That’s Blackberry Smoke.

The band also honors its sub-Mississippian musical roots without sounding trite or cliché, with Starr’s lyrics skewing toward the cheeky (dysfunctional relationships abound) and contemplative rather than mimicking your usual bar ballads and three-chord party bacchanals (no red solo cups here). And they do the unplugged thing like nobody’s business.

Fans were treated to two burning new Blackberry singles—“Pretty Little Lie” and “Ain’t Much Left of Me”—and got a dose of Dixie in “Prayer for the Little Man.” The band raised the roof with Bad Luck offering “Scare the Devil.” Other highlights included “Good One Comin’ On” and “She’s Mine.”

Nashville’s Delta Saints opened with forty minutes of swampy guitar rock from last year’s full-length debut Death Letter Jubilee. Spearheaded by resonator-plucking vocalist Ben Ringel, the young Tennesseans did themselves proud on the raucous “Liar,” ornery “Cigarette,” and blistering B-Side “Bad for You.”

Check out The Delta Saints promotional video here:

Dapper-dressed guitarist Dylan Fitch scorched on a floral-engraved SG. Drummer Ben Azzi pounded skins and splashed Istanbul cymbals as dreadlocked bassist David Supica pinned the low end on his five-string. Nate Kramer’s synth and organ pastiches gave depth to the standard-length songs—but also lent a hippie /psychedelic vibe to the extended jams.

Along with its indie LP, the Saints boast a handful of EPs, including Pray On, A Bird Called Angola, and the new Drink It Slow—which is available for free download right here:

You’re welcome.

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