Occasionally, a band or artist defies genre-based categorization by appearing on a multitude of different Billboard charts. And many — like Atlanta-based group Blackberry Smoke, which entertained a COVID-be-damned capacity audience at the Abacoa Ampitheatre in Jupiter on Feb. 25 — emerged from Georgia.
Late vocalist/keyboardist Ray Charles’ blend of gospel, blues, soul, R&B and jazz was confounding even before he crossed over onto the country charts in the 1960s. Singer James Brown (1933-2006) created a signature rhythmic, staccato, rapped vocal delivery in the ’60s that included those styles, plus influenced and predated hip-hop, which never could’ve surfaced without it two decades later.
Seminal Southern rockers the Allman Brothers Band ran away from imitators through the ’70s via blues and jazz nuances; the Dixie Dregs combined elements of rock, country and bluegrass with jazz training at the University of Miami to create an inimitable instrumental sound in the ’70s and ’80s. And late singer/guitarist Col. Bruce Hampton’s Aquarium Rescue Unit sounded like a cross between Frank Zappa’s dizzying rock, classical and jazz explorations and fusion flamethrowers the Mahavishnu Orchestra in the ’90s.
Blackberry Smoke formed in 2000, and initially consisted of vocalist/guitarist Charlie Starr, guitarist/vocalist Paul Jackson, bassist/vocalist Richard Turner and drummer and brother Brit Turner before, like another Georgia-spawned ’90s musical blender in the Black Crowes, the band added a keyboardist in Brandon Still to round out its sound in 2009.
Of the quintet’s dozen-plus studio and live releases during the 21st century, Holding All the Roses (2015) reached No. 1 on Billboard’s U.S. country chart; Like an Arrow (2016) topped both the American country and U.K. rock charts, and Homecoming: Live in Atlanta (2019) landed atop the U.S. Americana/folk chart.
The band played selections from all, plus its latest release, the brand-new You Hear Georgia, at the spacious outdoor venue. After Philadelphia-born singer/guitarist Nick Perri’s Underground Thieves trio entertained the growing crowd with a 45-minute set of originals, plus covers of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” and Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” Blackberry Smoke took the stage. Augmented by new touring members in guitarist/mandolinist Benji Shanks and percussionist Preston Holcomb, its seven-piece lineup then offered a prolonged test to the limits of Jupiter’s notorious noise ordinance restrictions.
Entering to the strains of the Rolling Stones’ “Slave,” that new lineup displayed its retro influences on its sleeve, and opening selections “Nobody Gives a Damn” (from the 2018 release Find a Light) and “Payback’s a Bitch” (Holding All the Roses) displayed the full spectrum of the hard-to-categorize jam band’s popularity.
Starr’s charismatic voice and presence are reminiscent of Black Crowes frontman Chris Robinson, and his guitar interplay with Shanks and Jackson (and vocal harmonies with the latter) echoed former Allman Brothers members from Gregg and Duane Allman to Dickey Betts, Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks. Yet both songs, like much of the band’s catalog, were similar mid-tempo stompers made to appeal to larger outdoor crowds.
As were the subsequent “Good One Comin’ On” (from the 2009 release Little Piece of Dixie) and “Pretty Little Lie” (the 2012 recording The Whipporwill), although they animated the crowd, which knew the lyrics and sang along. Less a country act than an Americana one with that genre’s additional nuances, Blackberry Smoke appeals to fans of those styles, plus rock and blues devotees, without getting labeled sellout pop artists masquerading as country stars.
Having formed as the music business started shifting from hard copy to online sales, the 20-year-old act has obviously made the right calculations. Many attendees’ attire sported the band’s logos and memorabilia, and those resolute fans belted out the song choruses throughout the show — all, for better or worse, without wearing masks or worrying about proximity to strangers doing so next to them.
The audio sameness was broken by the You Hear Georgia cut “Hey Delilah,” a funky, Little Feat-like number featuring a drum-and-percussion introduction by Brit Turner and Holcomb, strong rhythmic accompaniment by Richard Turner, and biting slide guitar playing by Shanks. “Sleeping Dogs,” from The Whipporwill, featured a spacious, acidic intro and midsection, plus a snippet of a cover by one of the group’s regional heroes in Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels.”
The homage continued with an acoustic reading of Petty’s “You Got Lucky,” plus a chorus of fellow Peach State act R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” that featured the versatile and valuable Shanks on mandolin. Two tracks from The Whipporwill, “Ain’t Got the Blues” and “One Horse Town,” then incited more sing-alongs and provided music to the ears of a band forced to cut its touring schedule over the past year because of COVID-19.
“Thank you for singing so beautifully tonight,” Starr said. “We haven’t heard that in a long time, and we’ve missed it oh so much.”
Encores during the two-hour show were “Ain’t Much Left of Me,” from The Whipporwill, and “Flesh and Bone,” from Find a Light, but the strongest material immediately preceded those as the crowd incrementally receded. Other Find a Light tracks like “Run Away From It All” and the set-closing “I’ll Keep Ramblin’” offered Blackberry Smoke at its most rocking and raucous; the latter finally breaking the evening’s mid-to-slow tempo flow. In-between, the Little Piece of Dixie chestnut “Freedom Song” showcased Starr’s own estimable solos and slide guitar playing, and the title track from You Hear Georgia saluted the musically underrated state directly to our north.
The evening’s overall highlight, though, was the Like an Arrow selection “Free On the Wing,” the studio recording of which featured a guest appearance by Gregg Allman (1947-2017). Still’s keyboards — and the three-pronged guitar interplay between Starr, Shanks, and the ever-smiling, Pensacola-born Jackson — showcased all the languid, mesmerizing, extended-play elements of classic jam bands from the Allmans and Grateful Dead to Phish and another Georgia product, Widespread Panic.
“God bless Gregg Allman,” Starr said as the lengthy jam simmered toward its coda. And yes, he got an amen.