By photojournalist Jeffrey Moellering
Americana and Southern Rock Georgia sons Blackberry Smoke brought a sizzling set of simmering songs to a sold-out crowd in St. Petersburg on steamy Saturday, November 11th.
And while the band still may not be a mainstream household name to some, since their formation in 2000, they have released 7 studio albums to great acclaim, and toured extensively with top acts such as The Allman Brothers, Zac Brown, ZZ Top, Guns N’ Roses, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Blackberry Smoke’s 2015 album, “”Holding All The Roses”, became the first small independent act to with an album to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Country Albums chart.
Principal songwriter, guitarist and vocalist Charlie Starr is the soul that powers Blackberry Smoke. His sincerity and earnestness shines through in his heartfelt homespun lyrics and warm approach. Starr is truly a natural entertainer, and recently performed with Daryl Hall in the newly revived “Daryl’s House” YouTube music series from Hall’s home studio in upstate New York. Blackberry Smoke stopped into legendary “rain or shine” outdoor venue Jannus Live in St. Pete during their ongoing national tour. They have several new songs recorded and are on the cusp of a new album release, after 2021’s “You Hear Georgia”, which was hailed as an instant classic.
Opening the evening was a classic era original rock act called Feel, that hails from the St. Louis area in the Midwest US. Given that I was born on the Mississippi River near St. Louis myself, I immediately held an interest and affinity for this young four-piece outfit. Drawing from the best elements of the California psychedelic scene of the early 70s, along with a distinctly Zeppelin-esque flair, Feel captures the spirit of a bygone era, while suggesting what may be possible and still left unsaid from that heady time. They possess the keen energy, magnetism, and showmanship of the great vintage era bands without devolving into predictable cliché. Feel provides a promising glimpse into the direction of emerging American rock. They are serious about their craft and left it all on the stage during their charismatic set. Feel could indeed evolve into a band for which you might reflect years later that, “I saw them open up for Blackberry Smoke”, energizing the crowd for the eagerly anticipated ensuing Blackberry Smoke set.
The evening was uncharacteristically steamy for a November night in St. Petersburg, and after the anticipation ignited during Feel’s performance, the full house at Jannus was charged for the main act. This led to a few skirmishes down front where they were densely packed in, as well as a few inadequately hydrated folks who succumbed to the heat and had to be carted away by local paramedics. Outside of that, the energy for Blackberry Smoke was electric. They are a band who routinely fills the house with their passionate live performances, and this Saturday in St. Pete proved to be no different. I was struck by the overall civility of their fans, who were teeming with excitement; there was indeed no other place in the universe where they would rather be at that moment.
As Blackberry Smoke strode across the catwalk above and onto the stage, a cacophony of a chorus erupted from fans at their emergence. The band wasted no time getting underway; with typically understated southern decorum, they let the music do the talking without pretense. The polished 7-piece live act know what they’ve got in store with their quality catalog of carefully crafted tunes, without a need to be over the top, and they dispense it with comfortable aplomb, like watching your favorite football team in a relaxing recliner.
As with many treadworn Southern rock “everyman” themes, Blackberry Smoke touches on making sense of a polarized world and having fun while doing it, breaking through stereotypes ascribed to folks living south of the Mason-Dixon line and providing an insight into their strong beliefs about pride in place, spirit and country without preaching separateness and “me against the world” defiance. They blend elements of country, folk, blues, hard rock, pop and Americana into a tapestry of tales their fans embrace as reflective of their life experience. The sellout crowd spent much of the evening singing along to the choruses of their favorite songs. The band also frequently covers others popular songs from the genre, including Florida’s native son Tom Petty, for whom they share a great affinity.
The show plowed forward through the night with one long, nearly two-hour set and by the end, both the crowd and band achieved a kind of performative epiphany that comes through the catharsis of a collective understanding. It became clear why Blackberry Smoke is a staple on the festival circuit tour, accompanying the biggest names in rock and country. They have earned that platform through their dedication to craft, the simple sincerity of songs to which everyone can relate, indeed transcending the traditions of the south towards a broader shared experience that we all can embrace. And to that, I say “Keep the flame of the Blackberry Smoke burning brightly!”