It’s always a little awkward when big mainstream country acts get their enormous 12-piece touring bands to “rock out.” It feels artificial, perhaps because they are usually still in complete control.
How comforting, then, to see Blackberry Smoke at the Neptune Theatre on Friday. A down-and-dirty, five-piece band from Atlanta, Ga., that easily recalls Lynyrd Skynyrd and AC/DC, Blackberry Smoke has a pretty big reputation to live up to as a live band after 14 years of relentless touring, and it was impressive to see how easily they wore that burden.
After an energetic set by the youthful Delta Saints, Blackberry Smoke started off with the the rolling thunder of “Like I Am.” Lead singer Charlie Starr’s voice came through a little reedy at first, but that was more a balance issue and it quickly got worked out. Anyway, Starr can be forgiven for getting a little drowned out, as his dual-guitar attack with rhythm guitarist Paul Jackson was overwhelming at first.
Guitars figured to be a huge part of the show, with Starr getting a new axe every song or two and Jackson changing out just slightly less regularly. It might have given the show a weird rhythm, with the house lights dropping constantly during changes, but there was too much good music happening to notice.
One change led directly to the band’s single “Six Ways to Sunday,” which is one of Blackberry Smoke’s most effective vehicles for their particular brand of country rock. Off 2012’s “The Whippoorwill,” the meaty hook made it an easy song to like and the crowd happily sang the chorus, “I’m going to love you six ways to Sunday,” with abandon.
Another standout song from “The Whippoorwill,” “Sleeping Dogs” gave Starr a chance to unleash another soaring guitar solo and also featured a nifty keyboard solo from Brandon Still. The band proved it wasn’t all guitar-driven snarl with the bluesy atmosphere of “The Whippoorwill” before returning to its rock roots on the wild hillbilly celebration “Up In Smoke,” from the band’s 2009 offering “A Little Piece of Dixie.”
One of the few missteps was a cover of The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Even though Starr has the perfect voice for the song, it didn’t really have much of a place in the show and took the focus away from the band’s own material, which is plenty strong enough to stand on its own.
Fortunately things got right back on track and Blackberry Smoke offered one of their best songs of the night, the thoughtful small-town lament “One Horse Town,” and the bright, triumphant anthem “Ain’t Much Left of Me” to close out the show. They came back out for a couple more songs, including a little blues rock in the form of “Freedom Song,” but it was hard to top the climax of their regular set closer.
-Owen R. Smith, on Twitter @inanedetails