Few things are dearer to a band than playing before their engaged, loyal following in their hometown. Southern rockers Blackberry Smoke make a practice of this annually in their “Brothers and Sisters Holiday Homecoming” show at Atlanta’s Tabernacle, held over Thanksgiving Weekend. This extensive project spanning two CDs, three LPs and a DVD was recorded last year. There are a generous 18 tracks (some will get the three bonus tracks as well) that span the band’s career from their inception in 2004, having gone on to make six studio albums and a recent EP. Seven of the tunes are culled from their most recent, highly successful full-length Find A Light. Several also come from 2015’s Like an Arrow.
This band grew up on Southern rock, internalized it, and are bound and determined to be its torch bearers while keeping it fresh. They tour constantly and were part of The Tedeschi Trucks Band’s “Wheels of Soul” tour this past summer. Across their discography and certainly herein you’ll hear echoes of Skynyrd (“I’ll Keep Ramblin’”), The Allman Brothers as they quote Duane and Dickey’s lines from “Mountain Jam” in their own “Free on the Wing” and of course, Petty, Cowboy, and even the Drive-by Truckers don’t seem far removed. This is a fiery band with a dual (and sometimes three) guitar attack that can rage with the best but dial it down for ballads too. Frontman and principal songwriter Charlie Starr’s sturdy songs hold up well. He has an animated stage presence to boot. The other members are Richard Turner (bass, vocals), Brit Turner (drums), Paul Jackson (guitar, vocals) and Brandon Still (keyboards). They are joined by frequent collaborators Benji Shanks (guitars, mandolin), Preston Holcomb (percussion), and The Black Betty’s (vocals) as they typically invite close friends to guest for this event. Beyond the sheer joy of a reunion is the worthy cause of raising funds to benefit children’s cancer research. It’s one of several events dedicated to this cause as will be this year’s seventh annual.
The Blackberry Smoke audience is the epitome of a loyal following, singing the choruses together with the band or, in some cases, every lyric. Perhaps the best example of this is when Starr begins “One Horse Town” originally found on the 2012 studio album The Whippoorwill. The audience sings the yearning opening lines: “In the tiny town where I come from/you grew up doing what your daddy does/And you don’t ask questions/ you do it just because.” It comes 14 tracks in, so you’re well acquainted with the special energy and palpable audience rapport long before this but it’s unavoidably prominent here.
The album opens and stays rocking and stomping until about midway through when we begin to hear ballads like “Running Through Time” and “Mother Mountain.” The band even goes acoustic on a few of them like “Ain’t Got the Blues.” Conversely, some of the best electric guitar work is in the epic thirteen plus minute “Sleeping Dogs” where you’ll also hear them break into the Beatles “Come Together” in the midsection followed by an audience call and response sequence. Also recommended are the ABB-infused “Free on the Wing,” and a stellar rave-up take on the chestnut, Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.” Throughout Starr sings soulfully in lead with vocal harmony support from his bandmates.
The magic of Blackberry Smoke is their ability to stay close to tradition while still sounding relevant. A good time was certainly had by all in this show. It will rock you, bring out some smiles, and have you attending their next live gig in your area.