BLACKBERRY SMOKE - Leave A Scar: Live North Carolina (2014) & Like An Arrow (2016)
Building on the Lynyrd Skynyrd Southern rock template with a good dose of outlaw honky tonk country and a little bit of bluegrass, gospel, and R&B mixed in, Blackberry Smoke (singer/guitarist Charlie Starr, guitarist/singer Paul Jackson, bassist/singer Richard Turner, keyboardist Brandon Still, and drummer Brit Turner) formed in Atlanta, Georgia in 2000 and quickly built a loyal fan base on the Southern tour circuit, opening for top-tier acts as Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top, the Zac Brown Band, George Jones, and others. The group released a debut album, Bad Luck Ain't No Crime, in 2004 on Cock of the Walk Records, then followed it with the self-released EP New Honky Tonk Bootlegs in 2008. A second EP, Little Piece of Dixie, appeared from Big Karma Records that same year. A full-length album, this one also called Little Piece of Dixie, was released in 2009 by BamaJam Records. The band then signed with Zac Brown's Southern Ground Records, which released The Whippoorwill in 2012. The Whippoorwill was picked up by Earache, who formally signed the band in 2013. A deluxe live audio and video package entitled Leave a Scar: Live North Carolina was issued in the summer of 2014. Later that year, BS left Brown's label and signed a deal with Rounder in the U.S. (Earache remained their European label). Taking a short break from touring, they entered the studio with producer Brendan O'Brien and emerged less than two weeks later with Holding All the Roses, then went straight back to working on the road. The album was released in February of 2015, debuting at number one on the Billboard Country charts. Blackberry Smoke returned in the autumn of 2016 with Like an Arrow, their second album for Rounder.
It's hard to call the Georgia quartet Blackberry Smoke Southern Rock revivalists. Rather, they work in a tradition carved out by Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band back in the '70s. Gregg Allman sings on "Free on the Wing," the closing track on Like an Arrow, the band's first album for Thirty Tigers, and Skynyrd is often used as a comparison point for the band, but Like an Arrow makes it plain that Blackberry Smoke is a close cousin of the Black Crowes -- a band that sifts through the past to pick its favorite rock, not necessarily pledging allegiance to sounds made south of the Mason-Dixie line. Often what impresses on Like an Arrow are the songs and passages that don't sound strictly Southern - dexterous, wah-wah-fueled breakdowns, lean three-chord rockers, and sun-kissed ballads designed for a Sunday afternoon. The latter reveals one of the tricks in Blackberry Smoke's quiver: whether they're writing a brawny rocker or a delicate ballad, they're good songwriters, sculpting sturdy songs that can withstand both the road and the years. That's why Like an Arrow doesn't quite feel fresh, despite a few funky flairs: it's a record that's deliberately part of a tradition, so it seems like it could've been released at any point in the past four decades. That is also its strength - from the songs to the slyly sinewy performances, Like an Arrow doesn't simply feel like it's built to last, it feels like it's been kicked around the block a few times and has emerged all the stronger for it.
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