By Roger Sharman
Returning to the UK for the first time since 2017’s ‘Waiting for the Thunder’ tour, Blackberry Smoke hit the road with Quaker City Nighthawks to tour Europe 6 weeks ago, culminating in two nights at Shepherd’s Bush Empire & a night O2 Apollo Manchester.
An unseasonably warm evening in West London, with an eerie mist reminiscent of Jack the Ripper, Victorian London, awaited the Southern Rockers from Atlanta, Georgia.
The crowd were suitably entertained by Fort Worth’s Quaker City Nighthawks, playing a mixture of their blend of psychedelic Blues & Southern Rock from their album ‘QCNH’ and their previous two albums, 2011’s ‘Torquila Torquila’ and 2016’s ‘El Astronauta’. The new tracks are outstanding, particularly the new release ‘Suit in the Back’ and ‘Colorado’. I highly recommend checking them out if you ever get the chance.
Charlie and the boys waste no time in getting the party started, throwing down the Rolling Stonesesque ‘Nobody Gives a Damn’, ‘Good One Comin’ On’ & crowd favourite ‘Six Ways to Sunday’. The near capacity crowd are getting their groove on.
One of the great things about a Blackberry Smoke show is that they will play a totally different set one night to the next, spanning their entire back catalogue. They also always throw in an Easter egg or two, and they’ll play for as long as the venue will allow them too, giving real value for money to their fans.
As one of their new Tee-Shirt designs says ‘Too Country for Rock, Too Rock for Country’ they continue on with that blend, ‘Waiting for the Thunder’, laden with heavy riffs and a booming bass takes us into another sing-a-long favourite, ‘Let it Burn’ (with a Status Quo ‘Sweet Caroline’ into). Whilst I’m on the subject of merchandise, Blackberry Smoke have some of the finest merch you will ever see. I could have spent a fortune at that stand!
‘Best seat in the House’ & ‘Medicate My Mind’ from the latest album, sound absolutely spectacular, further showcasing their talent. They are probably the best Southern Rock band around right now.
The first Easter egg of the night comes up next an epic, ten minute plus version of ‘Sleeping Dogs, encapsulating a perfect rendition of The Beatles ‘Come Together’, the heavy Allman Brothers influence is crystal clear. There is positive energy flowing through the veins of every person in the arena like there is some kind of celestial body present. Rather aptly ‘Shakin’ Hands with the Holy Ghost’ comes next. Keeping the momentum rolling on, the crowd bouncing and singing at the top of its collective voice into ‘Restless’, the guys are clearly having as much of a blast on stage as their disciples are down in the pit.
The opening riffs of ‘til the Wheels Fall off’ ring out into the air. From the ‘Find a Light’ album, this is the first time I’ve heard this live, and it’s became a favourite of mine in that instant.
‘Up the Road’ gives us all a chance to cool down a little before the next onslaught, which arrives in the shape of ‘Run Away from It All’, this was one of the many highlights of the night for me.
‘Ain’t Gonna Wait’ meanders perfectly like a low running river in the mid-summer sunshine, rolling into the invitation to sing ‘Ain’t Got the Blues’, the crowd duly participates as if their lives depended on it, a rendition of ‘Dirty Old Town’ in the middle keeps the crowd whipped up, well into the roars that greeted ‘Free on the Wing’, one of the last recordings that Gregg Allman made before he so sadly passed away. Indeed, Charlie gave a small tribute to Gregg at the start of the song & continued that during with a small excerpt of ‘Jessica’.
The next recipients of a cap doff were Peter Green & Fleetwood Mac with a storming version of ‘Oh Well’. These guys can play Blues, Country, Folk, Rock or Funk, these guys can do anything they goddamn like right now, they are THAT good!
Another big crowd sing-a-long ensues with ‘One Horse Town’. Right about now, I can remember thinking never has a band sounded so ‘together’. Having spent 19 years together without line-up change, except adding Brandon on Keyboards, is a testimony to that. They clearly love each other, love what they do and love their audiences.
‘Like an Arrow’ with its heavy bass line and intricate guitar interludes and harmonies is a suitable finish to an incredible set. But that’s not the way it ends. ‘Flesh and Bone’ with its Glam Rock feel fade out into an absolutely incredible finale ‘Ain’t Much Left of Me’ during which we were treated to snippets of ‘Amazing Grace’ & The Stones ‘Stop Breaking Down’.
Heading out into the misty London night, the buzz continued long into the night, with many returning the following night to experience the whole thing over again. If you ever get the chance to see these guys, you really must.