Music News & Reviews

Known for electric rock, Blackberry Smoke finds new success leaning into a different sound

Blackberry Smoke, from left Paul Jackson, Brit Turner, Charlie Starr, Brandon Still and Richard Turner, will perform at the Lexington Opera House March 14-15.
Blackberry Smoke, from left Paul Jackson, Brit Turner, Charlie Starr, Brandon Still and Richard Turner, will perform at the Lexington Opera House March 14-15.

Sometimes you can’t help stumbling into a great idea.

Take the instance last year when Blackberry Smoke, the Atlanta rock troupe that has practically grown up in front of Lexington audiences, took to jamming at Southern Ground Nashville. Originally a Presbyterian church when built in 1903, the building was reborn as a recording studio before receiving a state-of-the-art facelift in 2012 by country music megastar Zac Brown.

The occasion centered on filming the band performing songs from its then-new studio album “Find a Light” not in their electric, rockish glory but in a simpler, predominantly acoustic setting with all five members – lead vocalist/guitarist Charlie Starr, bassist/vocalist Richard Turner, guitarist/vocalist Paul Jackson, keyboardist Brandon Still and drummer Brit Turner - sitting in the same room with a few high profile pals – including Amanda Shires and Oliver Wood (of the Wood Brothers) helping out.

That’s when the idea struck. Why not cut a record in this stripped down format? That, in turn, set up an accompanying project – namely, touring, at least in the short term - the same way.

“We definitely didn’t go in to try and capture a process,” confessed Starr. “But what happened sounded great and it looked great. It’s funny. That kind of thing can happen when you’re not overthinking things.

“Over the past several years, we’ve played a few acoustic shows and our fans have let us know that they like this kind of setting. People say, ‘Hey, you should do an acoustic tour’ or ‘You should do an acoustic record.’ So we thought, ‘Yeah. ‘Let’s do all that and see how it goes.’”

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The initial fruits of the mostly unplugged Blackberry Smoke surfaced last October by way of an EP disc called “The Southern Ground Sessions,” which retooled five songs from “Find a Light” along with a lean reinvention of Tom Petty’s originally synthesized 1982 hit “You Got Lucky.” But the band’s new acoustic arrangements still bear strong kinship to their electric blueprints. Much of the connection stems from the plentiful roots music inspirations – specifically, an organic mix of folk, soul, country and elemental rock references – that come through in the band’s sound regardless of the voltage.

“None of these influences are foreign to us,” Starr said. “They’re all in the same wheelhouse. It’s just that some are great big rock ‘n’ roll songs that you have to come at from a different angle, I guess.”

Different angles, it seems, became the point of “The Southern Ground Sessions.” Starr explained that Blackberry Smoke has never fallen into a rut with its sound. As with any great rock ‘n’ roll band, songs might be revised or elongated (mostly through a hearty love of jamming) onstage. Playing them acoustically is just an extension of that thinking.

“A lot of our songs would be failures if we tried to present them exactly the same way because acoustic instruments don’t react like electric instruments, obviously. It’s a whole different vibe. If you go into it with that mindset - and we’re an open-minded band, anyway - it’s amazing what can happen in some of these hushed moments. There are no rules in our shows, anyway. If we feel like jamming, we’ll jam for 10 minutes. We enjoy the freedom. Fortunately for us, our fans will let us do that.”

Fans won’t have a prolonged look at the unplugged Blackberry Smoke, though. The band’s two-night engagement at the Opera House this week will kick off an 18-show run dubbed the Break It Down Tour. Then it will be back to electric basics, including summer duties as part of Tedeschi Trucks Band’s annual Wheels of Soul Tour (which plays the PNC Pavilion in Cincinnati on July 19.)

Opening the brief Break It Down tour in Lexington reflects a friendship between band and city that extends back to a 2001 debut at the long-since demolished A1A club opening local band Supafuzz. The alliance continued through to a 2012 date at Rupp Arena with Eric Church and Brantley Gilbert as well as more recent sellouts at Manchester Music Hall.

“It’s been a slow, steady rise,” Starr said. “We’ve never had an incredible windfall of success or popularity or money. We started with nothing and began stepping up slowly on whatever ladder we’re on. We make a living thanks to the people who come out to the shows and buy our records. We get to make a living playing music. That’s success in my book.”

If you go: Blackberry Smoke/Ida Mae

When: 7:30 p.m. March 14, 15

Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short

Admission: $48.50-$58.50

Call: 859-233-3535, 800-745-3000

Online: lexingtonoperahouse.com, blackberrysmoke.com

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