Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Blackberry Smoke - The Whippoorwill Sails Smoothly

Blackberry Smoke plays upwards of 250 shows a year - where they find the time to stop and make a great record, I'm not sure, but they've done it. The Whippoorwill is the band's first album for Zac Brown's Southern Ground label, and it should be the record to send them to country-rock superstardom.
“I remember not being able to sleep well at night when we were making this new album,” singer/guitarist Charlie Starr recalls. “I was so excited about which songs we were going to cut the next day. After it’s done and we can hold it in our hands and be proud of it we know that there’s another one that will have to be made in the not too distant future, but it feels really good to have this one finished; we’re all really proud of it.”
Lucky for Charlie, all that road work renders a band rather tight, and Blackberry Smoke knocked out this 13 song masterwork in just over four days of recording.
“For all the planning ahead, we still had to get it done in four-and-a-half days, so it’s not like we had time to stretch out and find the most comfortable chair in the studio,” Charlie says. “In a perfect world, I’d like to take a little bit more time to record, but it’s not possible until they add more hours in the day and more days in the week. We’re used to doing it that way anyway.”
The Whippoorwill is one of those records that just kind of fell into my lap - a friend sent me a video of the title song being played live, and I was instantly hooked. Blackberry Smoke is well steeped in country music, but they sweeten it up with some serious blue eyed rhythm & blues, and a healthy dollop of hard rocking guitars. It takes me straight back to when I first saw Lynyrd Skynyrd opening for The Who back in their early days, and being amazed at how much of Clapton's Cream I heard mixed in with their Southern pedigree.

However, in spite of all the splendid and tasty guitar work, harmonious vocals, and a steaming rhythm section, The Whippoorwill gets from good to great on the back of a keyboard player. Brandon Still sounds equally at home behind the piano, or the Hammond organ - his piano playing is a marvel to witness, whether he's pounding out honky tonk, barrelhouse rhythms, or supplying pretty arpeggios underneath Charlie Starr's smooth baritone.

Six Ways To Sunday starts the album off, and it is a great crash course in what you are about to hear. The song harkens back to the days when blue eyed southern soul was a staple of FM radio. This band is all about the songs - they sound like they are reproducing the great sounds that came out of Muscle Shoals in the '60s, but this isn't the house band or some hot session players, this is just the case of some seriously seasoned road dogs laying it down.

I don't have the luxury of liner notes in this day of streamed review copies of albums, but I'm assuming that's Charlie Starr's bluesy vocal that's cushioned so elegantly by perfect accompaniment on Pretty Little Lie. The pre-chorus of this tune melodically sneaks up and escorts you into the heavenly refrain of the title. Great harmonies, a howling Hammond organ, and a serious beat never allow the listener to get complacent, and that's one of the things that keeps Blackberry Smoke from becoming too slick, or too predictable - they're all great musicians, and they never mail it in. Every tune shows them displaying a rather encyclopedic knowledge of their past, and how it was played and sung.

Everybody Knows She's Mine suggests the musical marriage of Lynyrd Skynrd with The Band - echoes of Rick Danko's high howling harmonies abound, and Still's right hand antics on the piano are a joy. Guitarists Starr and Paul Jackson pass parts back and forth with seamless comfort and great taste.

In this day of auto-tuned vocals, and cut and paste production values, I've started to search for musical validity in a new record by comparing new product to classics from the past. In this case, I stuck The Whippoorwill between Skynrd's Second Helping, Little Feat's Dixie Chicken, and Bob Seger's Night Moves - I do this to compare things such as songwriting, singing, playing, arrangements and production values. Many is the record that fails to pass this test in a time whereby session players are used for speed more than their creativity, and sections of songs are put together with a sense of time closer to Seiko than Motown. Perfection means nothing without soul, and these guys have some serious soul. Blackberry Smoke passed with no problem - if released in any era, this record would sound great and pass the test of any time. You can almost hear every show they've played, every notch in their belt.

Ain't Much Left of Me reminds us that country boys have always done well when they crank up the amps, and sang their blues with a solid four-on-the-floor beat. Some nice slide guitar makes an all too brief appearance, and bassist Richard Turner turns in a powerhouse performance on this rocking cut.

The album's title track is a song that will still be played thirty years from now, and someone will be comparing whatever is new and fabulous to this instant classic. The Whippoorwill will be blasting out of jukeboxes from coast to coast for a long time to come. This is how country rock always sounded best, a mixture of black and white musical history, as piped over to England for a bit of sophistication, then filtered back through the states. This would have fit just fine on Clapton and Windwood's Blind Faith record.

Living somewhere between heavy guitar rock and southern fried blues, Crimson Moon goes from hard charging rock into softer verses without blinking an eye. In the age of everything must be louder than everything else, Blackberry Smoke has mastered the art of dynamics - it's nice to hear a drummer hitting his snare both softly and with power on the same track. In making this album, the band chose to keep it in-house and they've done a great job of delivering the goods.

Shakin' Hands with the Holy Ghost shows that when Blackberry Smoke rocks, fans of The Black Crowes and The Georgia Satellites will again have a hard rockin' champion out of the south to salute. I've gotta laugh - just as I wrote that last line, the vocal intoned, "...as the crow flies." A wicked wah-infused guitar solo is in and out, making me hope that they stretch this one out on the road.

The Whippoorwill is a stunning victory for Blackberry Smoke - this should be the record that allows them arenas instead of Harley-Davidson dealership gigs. Not that there's a thing wrong with that, and I'm guessing those are the best audiences in the world, it's just that these guys just deserve to be selling out arenas every night. And I'm sure they will.

Thanks to Blackberry Smoke, Southern Ground Records, and David McTiernan at Shore Fire Media.

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