Blackberry Smoke elevates its musicianly credibility with An Evening At TRI. If the band has proven anything with the rise in their public profile over the last year or so, it’s that the group relishes a good jam and this collaboration with the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir is a natural extension of that improvisational approach. The Southern quintet commune within the cozy confines of the latter’s state of the art venue and studio in California, offering sturdy performances worthy of preserving for posterity with the impeccable audio and video clarity of this DVD.
“Columbus Stockade Blues,” written by modern bluegrass legend Doc Watson, resides squarely in the cowboy cum campfire mindset of Weir’s most recent solo record, Blue Mountain, which, in itself is only one step removed from the seminal Americana forged by the Grateful Dead with Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, In the hands of Blackberry Smoke, similarly conceived songs by the iconic San Francisco band, such as “Ramble On Rose,” are of a piece with the honky-tonk likes of “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleoo,” both versions of which director Justin Kreutzmann artfully introduces via interview intervals. Woven in and out of the main content, other such footage is both insightful and entertaining, especially the anecdotes of Dead/JGB roadie Steve Parish on the latter front.
In lieu of a formal live album, An Evening at TRI presents a more low key side of Blackberry Smoke than presented on last year’s studio record Like An Arrow. On the traditional “Deep Elem Blues,” for instance, the Georgia natives certify themselves equally fluent in both acoustic & electric realms: long interpreted by the Dead (and more recently by the North Mississippi Allstars), the selection further ratifies the broad affirmation of roots depicted in this near feature length video. And the collective self-awareness the members of Blackberry Smoke exhibit during the spoken word interludes in which they appear is enough in itself to dispel past comparisons to Lynyrd Skynyrd, despite the precise tandem guitar harmonies Charley Starr and Paul Jackson execute so often.
The colorful packaging of this title unfortunately belies its stripped down design. There’s not much printed in the way of song or musician credits on the inside or outside of the cover, relegating those details to the video itself. Such formatting is somewhat understandable, but the DVD menu itself leaves something to be desired as well: there are no audio selection options. In addition, the listing of the Band’s “Ophelia,” is a bit misleading as only scant seconds of that number are played before Weir discusses the arrangement with the group, after which the expanded ensemble goes straight into another cover of that iconic group’s “The Weight.”
If Blackberry Smoke can continue to aspire to that lofty level of the influences they acknowledge so earnestly on An Evening At TRI—including homage to Little Feat’s Lowell George, whose “Willin’” concludes the main song sequence in an appropriate generosity of spirit–then the band will serve itself well in both the short term and long.