Blackberry Smoke rises from the South, plays Reno

Blackberry Smoke
Blackberry Smoke if you got ’em? The Southern rockers from Atlanta play in the nonsmoking Cargo at the Whitney Peak Hotel on Saturday, April 9.

Perhaps the only quiet time at a Blackberry Smoke concert comes after an audience member shouts “Freebird!”

The joke ran its course decades ago.

“I ignore it at this point because it’s a pretty regular occurrence,” lamented Charlie Starr, the lead singer and guitarist of Blackberry Smoke, which undeniably is carrying the torch for Lynyrd Skynyrd and the other progenitors of Southern rock. If you don’t believe us, ask the surviving co-founder of the quintessential Southern Rock band, the Allman Brothers.

“That band is gonna put Southern Rock back on the map,” Gregg Allman said.

Blackberry Smoke has been on the map since late 2000 when Starr teamed up with the rhythm section brother tandem of Richard (bass) and Brit (drums) Turner. Paul Jackson (guitar and vocals) joined the band soon thereafter. Keyboardist Brandon Still came aboard about “six or seven years ago,” Starr said.

While no band wants to be categorized, the label Southern Rock is a natural for a rock band from Atlanta. Starr, who writes Blackberry Smokes songs, is well versed at the genre’s history.

“It evolved around the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd and then a later Marshall Tucker Band and Charlie Daniels Band, and then even much later Blackfoot, Molly Hatchet and Grinderswitch and bands like that,” Starr said. “The funny thing is, none of those bands sounded alike. I think with people back then, especially with the (Allman) Brothers and then with Skynyrd, it was these bands from the Southeast who were really free musically, especially the (Allman) Brothers.

“Their music encompassed so many genres. They played blues, jazz, gospel and country. It was all a mishmash and it was a laid back kind of vibe, too. It was a slow, Southern way of doing things. Then you take a band like Blackfoot, and it was a band like AC/DC.

“So as long as people keep that in mind, as long as they are putting a tag on us (it’s OK).  We’re not going to make the same type of record over and over again. Every band, whether they come from Georgia or L.A., just wants to grow. At the same time, we didn’t plan it either. It’s just the way that we sound. When we first started playing, I thought we sounded like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers more than we did Skynyrd, but that’s just what I thought. And I also thought we’d sound silly if we tried to be a punk band.”

Presciently named, Blackberry Smoke has made a steady ascent in the music business.

“We cut our teeth playing honky-tonks and bars all across the world where it a was always these smoky little dives,” Starr said. “It adds a leathery quality to your vocal chords and maybe toughens you up for marathon-type performances.”

With that in mind, Starr appreciates the opportunity to return to Reno and play in a smoke-free venue. The band plays Cargo in the Whitney Peak Hotel for the first time on Saturday, April 9. Charlie Overbey & the Broken Arrows will open the show at 9 p.m.

The band has four solid studio albums that reached rock, independent, Heatseeker and country charts.

“The Whippoorwill” released in 2012 was produced by Clay Cook, Matt Mangano and Southern Grounds label owner Zac Brown along with each Blackberry Smoke member.

“There’s more producers in this record than there are people in the band,” Starr laughed. “It was like somebody gave teenagers the keys to the laboratory. They just went in and said, ‘Yeah, we’re doing it.’ ”

Last year, Brendan O’Brien, who also produced for Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Aerosmith, produced “Holding All The Roses,” which mixed gospel, blues and rock and country. The album was the band’s first on Rounder Records.

“Brendan O’Brien probably lended some weight to the record but our fan base has grown slowly but surely over the years and this record did really well,” Star said “The fans made it No. 1. It wasn’t our label or our producer. It was a great team. We have never been in a situation where the situation itself caused any windfall of success,” Starr said.

A fifth album has been recorded and is now being mixed. Starr estimates it will be released in September.

“This one is perhaps the nastiest sounding one,” Starr said. “It may be even more diverse than the last two. We have a couple of songs which may be the nastiest, heaviest things we’ve done. It seems like I say the same shit every time. I always say the newest is my favorite, but it just shows more growth in the band and the way that we play together.”

Some of the songs from the new album will first be heard live by fans during a busy spring and summer of shows. After Blackberry Smoke’s two-week run out West, it will tour the Southeast before heading to Europe for a long string of shows. In August it will play 11 shows with Gov’t Mule.

“We’ve played with Mule a few times over the years and to finally tour together is going to be great,” Starr said. “They are very dear friends and like-minded individuals. It’s a good time.”

Like Blackberry Smoke, Gov’t Mule, which features former Allman Brothers guitarist Warren Haynes, is called Southern rock by its fans and the press. The group also probably get calls from the crowd for “Freebird.”

“It might be funny if you yelled it at an Elton John concert but not anywhere else,” said Starr, who revealed an appropriate retort. “Somebody in the band, I can’t remember who it was, when somebody would yell ‘Freebird,’ they would shoot that person the bird and say, ‘No charge.’ ”

  • Blackberry Smoke
    Opener: Charlie Overbey & the Broken Arrows
    Where: Cargo in the Whitney Peak Hotel, Reno
    When: 9 p.m. Saturday, April 9
    Tickets: $17 in advance or $20 at the door
  • Blackberry Smoke Spring Western Tour
    April 6             Mesa, Arizona @ Arizona Bike Week
    April 7             Santa Ynez, California @ Chumash Casino
    April 8             Jackson, California @ Jackson Rancheria Casino
    April 9             Reno, Nevada @ Cargo
    April 12           Anaheim, California @ House of Blues
    April 14           Solano Beach, California @ Belly Up
    April 15           Santa Cruz @ The Catalyst
    April 16           San Francisco @ The Fillmore
  • Festivals
    May 1              Beal Street Music Festival, Memphis
    May 6              Jimmie Rodgers Music Festival, Meridian, Mississippi
    June 15         Riverbend Festival, Chattanooga, Tennessee
    June 17          Azkena Rock Festival, Bilbao, Spain
    June 18        Stone Free Festival, London
    July 1               Rock Werchter Festival, Werchter, Belgium
    July 2               Roots in the Park Festival, Utrecht, Netherlands
    July 15             Forecastle Festival, Louisville, Kentuckey
    July 16             Laidback Festival, Chicago
    July 29             Peacemaker Music & Arts Festival, Fort Smith, Arkansas
  • Smokin’ Mule Summer Tour
    August 11                      Portland, ME @ Maine State Pier
    August 12                      Asbury Park, NJ @ Stone Pony Summerstage
    August 16                      Utica, NY @ Saranac Brewery
    August 17                      Philadelphia, PA @ River Stage at Penn’s Landing
    August 18                      Pittsburgh, PA @ Stage AE Outdoors
    August 19                      Rochester Hills, MI @ Meadow Brook Amphitheatre
    August 20                      Huber Heights, OH @ Music Center at the Heights
    August 22                      Peoria, IL @ CEFCU Center Stage
    August 23                      Des Moines, IA @ Simon Estes Amphitheater
    August 25                      Morrison, CO @ Red Rocks Amphitheater


ABOUT Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons
Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.


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