According to that cynical old showbiz adage, the key to success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made. Kentucky smalltown heavy southern rockers Black Stone Cherry require no such lessons. When frontman Chris Robertson tells a story about his struggle with depression, which almost led to suicide, and thanks a sold-out Colston Hall for supporting his band – who appear figuratively naked before us with “no bullshit tapes” – he sounds genuinely humbled. It’s also a rare display of vulnerability in a genre so often characterised by swagger.
But – hey – we’re here to rock. And, consciously or otherwise, the concept of this Experience Kentucky tour carries echoes of their fellow countrymen ZZ Top’s legendary World Wide Texas jaunt of 1976, for which the crazed bearded gents decided it would be a bright idea to hit the road with some rattlesnakes, a couple of vultures and a buffalo. So what would BSC bring us from the bluegrass state? A giant bottle of bourbon? A fried chicken? Er, no. Just some festive fairylights, which seemed to require their own fairylight roadie to wrangle them back into position each time they got dislodged by the sonic onslaught.
As promised, there are two sets, beginning with what’s billed as an acoustic one. This turns out to be a fairly broad interpretation of the term ‘acoustic’ with bass guitar and a full drum kit. Such an asset to their electric material, John Fred Young’s ferocious drumming almost drowns out the acoustic guitar interplay during opener In Our Dreams – an odd choice for the acoustic treatment, even with a new arrangement. Fan favourite Hell or High Water fares little better. But things improve markedly with a terrific Like I Roll. It’s the first of many songs from 2011’s Between the Devil & the Deep Blue Sea, which BSC revisit extensively tonight, perhaps surprisingly playing more from it than from new album Kentucky. (Interestingly, there’s just one song from 2014’s Magic Mountain, which hastened their change of record label.)
An unadorned The Rambler works particularly well, performed by Robertson and guitarist Ben Wells, with just a few embellishments from Young and bassist Jon Lawhon. Things My Father Said prompts the mandatory huge crowd singalong from a very much up-for-it Friday night audience, and there’s a welcome surprise in the form of early rarity Big City Lights. The mellow, seated set concludes with All I’m Dreamin’ Of, the final track from Between the Devil & the Deep Blue Sea which, Robertson reveals, they’ve never played live before this tour and is included by popular demand.
And now for something completely different. Suitably relaxed, we return from the bar to encounter BSC at their heaviest. Gone are the stools (but not the fairylights and carpets), the drum kit’s got bigger, the lights are more retina-scorching and Wells is now his familiar ball of headbanging energy, seemingly unable to keep still for a moment.
As before, there’s something of a sound mix problem at first, with Robertson’s vocals all but inaudible. This is particularly unfortunate given that his voice is deep, rich and powerful enough for him to follow Mark Lanegan on the unwise journey from rock to MOR crooning should he so choose.
That’s sorted in time for a cheeky partial cover of George Thorogood’s Bad to the Bone, which serves as an intro to Soulcreek, and an absolutely barnstorming White Trash Millionaire. Me and Mary Jane, Blind Man and new single Shakin’ My Cage get the strongest crowd response, while Wells has fun with a heckler (“What your name, buddy?” delivered with just a slightest hint of menace), challenging him to answer the ‘Star Trek or Star Wars?’ question correctly or they’ll stop the show.
Young gets ye olde dreaded drum solo, but at least this doesn’t outstay its welcome and, rather impressively, he manages to play the harmonica simultaneously. He’ll probably be juggling plates too by this time next year.
They finish off this firecracker of a show with a suitably raucous Voodoo Chile (Slight Return), played with their teeth and guitars behind heads (not simultaneously, obviously), which acts as both a tip of the cowboy hat to their musical forebears and a perhaps unwitting acknowledgement that it’s almost 50 years since Mr. Hendrix himself graced this history-steeped stage, supported by an up and coming combo named Pink Floyd.
All photos by Mike Evans
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Read more: Metal & Prog picks: December 2016