LEAVE A SCAR - LIVE IN NORTH CAROLINA
Right up front, Blackberry Smoke is not a metal band. They are a southern-rock band, in the classic, original sense. These days, the term "southern rock" has been applied to everybody from Black Stone Cherry to Nashville Pussy to Crowbar, all sounds that would be alien and extreme in the days of Skynyrd and Molly Hatchet. Atlanta's Blackberry Smoke, on the other hand, would have fit comfortably in that era. In fact, in 2014, their music sound more like hard, modern country music than anything you would hear on rock radio. The band seems to know this, and in the years since their 2003 debut, Bad Luck Ain't No Crime--produced by Jackyl's Jesse Dupree, who more or less discovered them--they seem to have steered their music in that direction. To that end, they've worked with hot Nashville producer Dann Huff (a reinvented rocker himself, formerly the lead singer and guitarist for the band Giant), and sanding away the rough edges of their music and lyrics.
You want to know the hell of it, though? They are super-talented musicians and songwriters. If you like classic southern rock, or even stuff like the Black Crowes without the sophistication or irony, it's impossible not to root for Blackberry Smoke. They've done it the hard way, by relentless touring and toiling in relative obscurity for over a decade, before being signed to Zac Brown's Southern Ground label and enjoying a modicum of success.
Now it's time for their live double CD and DVD package, Lave A Scar: Live In North Carolina. You get twenty-two songs, spanning the band's three and a half albums so far (eighteen songs on the DVD). The band plays every song from its 2012 release, The Whippoorwill, but still has plenty of time for older (and often harder-rocking) favorites like "Sanctified Woman," "Up In Smoke" and 'Shake Your Magnolia." The band is tight like only a band that plays constantly can be. The musicianship is excellent, the songs are catchy and fun, and the crowd is fired up.
So why am I underwhelmed? The answer, I think, likes more in the overall feeling of the show, rather than any faults of the musicians. For starters, most live albums feature more energized, fiery performances than what you hear on studio releases. On the other hand, Blackberry Smoke sound very laid-back after the first couple songs. Many of the tunes actually seem a bit SLOWER than their original versions. Then there's the guitar sound. It's like both lead singer Charlie Starr and guitarist Paul Jackson are playing on the neck pickups of their instruments, pretty much the whole time, and there just isn't very much bite to their sound. It lends the music a muffled quality. Maybe it's just that I, as a metalhead, am used to a sharp, cutting guitar tone on modern live albums, but I found myself constantly repositioning my headphones and fiddling with the equalizer on my stereo, trying to get the sound dialed in right. Even songs that sound like they should really roll, like "Leave A Scar" or "Shake Your Magnolia," sound flat and mild. Adding to the nagging boredom is the fact that so many of the songs from The Whippoorwill are on the slow side. Not ballads, exactly, but they just kind of mosey along, and the band is occasionally given to meandering jams that really get the mind wandering. Then there's that keyboard player, tinkling along on the piano or warbling along on the organ, further blunting the band's sound.
When it works, though, it works well. Muddy sound notwithstanding, the opening uptempo one-two punch of "Shakin' Hands With The Holy Ghost" and "Sanctified Woman" get things off to a head-bobbing start. The two songs from the band's pure-country EP, New Honky Tonk Bootlegs--"Son Of The Bourbon' and "Lesson In A Bottle"--are really nice, and work better than some of the middle-of-the-road country rock of more recent material. Charlie Starr sounds exactly like somebody named Charlie should sound--a little rough and raspy, but capable of pulling off some stunningly clear harmonies with Jackson when you don't expect it. Not a silky-voiced country crooner, even when he tries to be.
I also give the band points for still occasionally steering clear of the skull-hammering lyrical cliches of current country music. On their first album, they sang about running off with bad women, and a girl who dumps you to peddle her ass in New Orleans, but on later releases, they seemed to consciously sanitize things a bit. That gave us songs about wanting to drink a beer after work before listening to the wife's litany of complaints, letting off steam by driving around and going fishing, and the like. Even so, they refuse to sing about how wonderful small-town life is. "One Horse Town" portrays Charlie as "an old married man at twenty-three, with two little boys on the baseball team, 'cuz that might be their only ticket out." Their bittersweet songs are often tinged more heavily with bitterness and regret in this way. Their fun songs tend to be a bit raunchier than your typical country fare as well. "Shake Your Magnolia" is clearly a strip-club anthem, while "Up In Smoke" hints at on-the-road debauchery. Even the requisite country checklist/backwoods party song, "Good One Comin' On," gets a bit naughty. Onstage, Charlie swaps in a new line, "Skinny-dippin' in the Chattahoochee ..." to which the audience gleefully responds, "Got my finger in your sister's coochie."
PITRIFF RATING - 68/100 - I wanted to give Leave A Scar a higher rating. I swear I did. Blackberry Smoke are great at what they do, and I'm glad for the success they're finally starting to achieve. I can't even really blame them for selling out somewhat to Nashville; clearly, they would never be welcome in today's rock environment. They're too good a band not to be popular. I would've rated this CD higher if they had done something about that toothless guitar sound, and maybe cut out some of the more boring, easygoing songs that just sap the energy of the set.
And lose that fuckin' keyboard player!