Blackberry Smoke wears its influences on its sleeves yet combines them into a hybrid that sounds both familiar and fresh. I hear the Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the slight pop edge of Molly Hatchet. The Rolling Stones sneak in during a chord progression or two, and I detect the combination of current and vintage country that makes Chris Stapleton’s albums so enjoyable.
“I’ve Got This Song” would be a powerful addition to a film about the lives of working-class Southerners. “Nobody Gives a Damn” could serve as good background music for an action movie in which the bad guy gets his comeuppance. The lyrics to “Till the Wheels Fall Off” could function as the basis for a story about an aging, tough-minded hero who runs up against his limitations.
Southern influences course through Blackberry Smoke’s music. Continuing a winning streak that effectively began on 2015’s Holding All the Roses, the group takes command of such idioms and seamlessly ties them together into compelling original creations on Find a Light.
The opening “Flesh and Bone” comes across as a slice of 70s hard rock, with enough slide guitar to evoke the Allman Brothers’ debut—if the latter possessed a heavy-metal edge. Richard Turner’s thumping bass line gives the tune an air of menace. You could also be forgiven for mistaking the start of “Run Away from It All” for a tune from the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., yet its honky-tonk swagger soon sends it on its own path via terrific harmony vocals from guitarists Charlie Starr and Paul Jackson. “I’ll Keep Ramblin’,” which Starr co-wrote with pedal-steel player Robert Randolph, takes you to church by way of gospel backing from the Black Bettys, Sherie and Sherita Murphy.
Starr and Jackson prove strong guitarists throughout, but Blackberry Smoke is a songwriter’s band. Fiddler Amanda Shires joins in on “Let Me Down Easy,” a medium-tempo acoustic number replete with a fine dobro solo that reinforces the mood. The Wood Brothers add sweet harmonies to “Mother Mountain,” and while guitars enrich the arrangement, they don’t occupy its center. The band’s reach stretches far. It embraces garage-rock toughness (“The Crooked Kind”) as well as traditional acoustic country (“I’ve Got This Song”). For all the instrumental prowess, the Atlanta-based quintet knows how to let songs tell the story.
To wit, Brandon Still masterfully adds keyboard lines that pull arrangements together without calling ever attention to himself. Drummer Brit Turner remains solidly in the pocket and plays a key role in steering the material’s rhythmic flow. Starr and Jackson can be flashy, but never go over the top. The band’s downhome solidity keeps the pair well-grounded. Not to mention Starr’s varied and memorable songs.
Cameron Henry’s vinyl cut of Find a Light sounds lively and warm, and gives the voices as much room as the occasionally dense recording allows. Brit Turner’s snare drum snaps, and Richard Turner’s bass resonates with a fullness even if it could benefit from a more detailed attack. Guitars really jump during solos and, on the harder-rocking fare, the rhythm guitars kick hard. Softer acoustic tunes enjoy a more spacious production.
My red vinyl pressing from Hand Drawn Pressing features a detail of the cover art etched into the fourth side of the 2LP set. Relatively quiet, the LPs are flat and cleanly finished along the edges. The gatefold cover displays a pleasant watercolor painting printed directly on its medium-weight cardboard. Lyrics are found on an insert.
Blackberry Smoke may initially seem like a throwback to the glory days of southern rock, but Find a Light demonstrates blues- and country-based rock remains relevant, vital, and entirely in step with the modern era.
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