It seems surreal to be writing a concert review during a pandemic and even weirder to think that this might the last time I write one for a long time. It was only three days ago and YET it seems like a bygone era. A time where fun still existed, and musicians and artists weren’t financially and emotionally decimated by the Corona Virus. Frontman Charlie Starr of Blackberry Smoke even made jokes about the name of the concert hall and gave us all an ‘air elbow’ instead of an ‘air five.’ We laughed naively unaware that tomorrow was going to be a shitstorm where people in attendance would be battling each other over fucking toilet paper. I’m sure we would have enjoyed the show even more if we had known. That said if there was one show to see before all the social distancing and the mass hysteria, I’m happy it was this one.
I’m flabbergasted that Cory James Mitchell Band is a fairly new outfit and hadn’t played outside of Ontario, Canada until this show. They sounded like they should be playing festivals! Not only did they set the tone perfectly for Blackberry Smoke, but for sure picked up tons of brand-new fans. Frontman Cory James Mitchell had all the flannel-wearing miscreants before him tapping their leather boots and hooting and hollering after every song. Blessed with a powerhouse voice and a slight country-blues twang, Mitchell is the kind of singer where I’m afraid his heart may burst out of his chest and blood soak the entire front row. I wish him and his band had more set time, but they certainly made the best of it.
To say that Blackberry Smoke put on a big, old R-O-C-K show would be a grand understatement. To some, it may have been predictable and downright corny because it just checked all the boxes. I could tell that like me, the crowd (young and old) didn’t care and the kind of people that unabashedly love this kind of stuff. You know, the kind of people who unironically blast CHOM from their open car windows. I’ll admit there is such a thing as TOO many pentatonic guitar solos, but Charlie Starr struck the right balance. What it comes down is they had the right charm and were a shit ton of fun. It’s okay to be an old geezer throwback act just as long as you embrace it and commit 100%, which Blackberry Smoke did.
Sometimes the crowd we’re too drunk and rowdy though! One obnoxious tool kept slurring and yelling “CHARLIE STAR BRO,” or possibly “SLING THAT GUITAR BRO” at the top of his lungs. It was like he was giving the frontman a motivation speech a la Chris Farley’s Matt Foley. At first, it made everyone laugh but by song number eight, we avoided him like COVD-19. Everyone else were appropriately giddy and for good reason. The band was a hardy gumbo of southern warmth and rock n roll grit. They could shred and howl and then next second politely thank everyone for coming. I wouldn’t call Blackberry Smoke the most innovative band I’ve ever seen, as they are in essence a conglomeration of Aerosmith, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and The Allman Brothers Band, but they are required concert viewing in the same way The Sheepdogs and The Damn Truth are.
My favourite moments were the band got loose and improvisational. “Sleeping Dogs” weaved in and out of solos and inspired versions of “Dear Prudence,” “Come Together,” and “Chameleon,” and “Ain’t Much Left of Me” featured a mid-section blues jam that unlike MANY blues jams never overstayed its welcome. Even the obligatory band member introductions were inspired and free form. Each band member was given their own theme song, which they admitted to making up on the spot. Some worked better than others, but it was more humanizing and authentic than any flashy demonstration of virtuosity. The fan favourites were Charlie Starr with his effortless charisma and bassist Richard Turner, whose sunglasses, ZZ Top beard, and his too cool for school attitude towards unnecessary stage gymnastics.
All in all, I, and I’m sure most of the audience, couldn’t have asked for a better way to say goodbye to our concert-going lives as we commence this unbearable hiatus. Blackberry Smoke played for a whopping 2 hours and 15 minutes, almost as if they knew of our unfortunate future. It’s a cliché that music brings people together because it’s profoundly true. Just watch these videos of Italians singing on their balconies as they live in quarantine for further proof. Even if we can’t physically gather in unison, keep listening and supporting artists like Blackberry Smoke and Cory James Mitchell Band. It’s more important now than ever before.
Written by Shawn Thicke
*edited by Danielle Kenedy