Thursday, June 13, 2024

Review: Blackberry Smoke, "Be Right Here"

I consider Blackberry Smoke’s 2012 album The Whippoorwill to be one of the greatest Southern rock albums of all time, and yet I haven’t listened to it in years. It was a record that arrived in the darkest hour of my life and seemed written for me.

I identified with nearly every song on it, and I’m not being dramatic when I say that it played a huge role in helping me survive the turmoil and return to the land of the living again. And therein lies the problem. While I’ll still occasionally rock out to “Sleeping Dogs” or “Shakin’ Hands with the Holy Ghost,” some of my favorite songs from The Whippoorwill – like “Ain’t Much Left of Me” and the title track – are too tightly tied to that darkness for me to comfortably revisit. They hold emotions and feelings that are better left in the past.

For years now, I’ve wished that Blackberry Smoke could release another album that hit the way that The Whippoorwill did so I could enjoy it in better times. While I’ve liked most of what they’ve done, it’s never quite reached that pinnacle. But Be Right Here may be the record that I’ve been waiting for them to make.

The first thing that I noticed on hearing early singles like “Dig a Hole” and “Little Bit Crazy” was that they had that same earthy, grooving sound that made me love Blackberry Smoke’s 2012 album. Be Right Here is, I believe, the first time they’ve recaptured that. It just feels like The Whippoorwill. It also has the same variety from good-timing rockers to plaintive reflections on life and everything in between – and most of the songs have something to say directly to me and kind of reflect where I am in life right now.

Chief among those is the slinky groove of “Whatcha Know Good.” It’s a perfect reflection of how I feel about our current world that seems so full of anger and bad news. The song tells the tale of a guy who is trying to float along on the river of life and rise above the negativity around him as he tells us, “don’t bring me no bad news, the only thing that I ask of you, one time if you could, whatcha know good?” It doesn’t hurt that the song has an incredibly memorable chorus hook, and it’s hard not to fall into the laid back groove and join him on the riverbank even if, as Charlie Starr sings, the fish don’t bite.

It’s a similar thought to the one expressed in “Dig a Hole,” which features a big, funky guitar riff as its centerpiece as Starr asks us, “let’s all say what we came to say, ain’t enough time for the games we play.”

Fittingly, a couple of the songs on the album remind us that sometimes we have to travel through the bad times to find the good ones. “Azalea” offers up a strange mix of plaintive vocal and story with a surprisingly upbeat musical accompaniment. It’s a story of someone leaving home behind and searching for themselves with the reminder that “time will bring the rain, you can bloom again the same.” “Other Side of the Light” hits a little more on the nose of the message with lyrics from Starr about helping each other through dark times and reminding us that “darkness is just the other side of the light.”

Of course, it’s not all about the messages. It wouldn’t be a Blackberry Smoke album without some straight up good-timing Southern rockers, and Be Right Here is loaded with them.

The first one out of the gate was “Little Bit Crazy,” released a few months before the album hit. It’s a driving juke-joint strutter that reminds me quite a bit of “Six Ways to Sunday” from The Whippoorwill. It’s the kind of song that you can’t possibly listen to and not get a smile on your face. “Don’t Mind If I Do,” on the other hand, will make you want to take on the world. It brings an infectious swing, and it’s just another feel-good moment on a record that has plenty of them. I can easily see fans waving a beer in the air and singing along with the chorus in some dark and smoky bar room. There’s also a nice shift of gear mid-song that leads to a smoking guitar solo. Both tracks are Southern rock at its finest.

There’s a nice bit of dark humor that’s very relatable on “Hammer and the Nail,” a foot-stomping tune driven by Britt Turner’s bass drum. We meet a guy who has had some of the worst luck, but he’s made peace with it. When Starr sings “beating the odds and coming up roses ain’t my story to tell,” I feel it. I’m sure I won’t be the only one, either. The band veers into blues rock territory for “Like It Was Yesterday,” a head-bobbing celebration of living in the moment with another nice solo that blends screaming slide with tasty bends from the second guitar.

I talk a lot about the lyrics and messages of the songs because they are so relatable and most of them do speak to me. But make no mistake, the musicianship is on point as well. Nearly every song on Be Right Here has a memorable hook that will stick with you long after it’s over – whether that be a huge guitar riff or a unique vocal melody from Charlie Starr or a combination of both.

Like The Whippoorwill before it, Be Right Here is a musical celebration of life in all its phases, emotions and experiences, and almost anyone is likely to find something to connect with in both the themes and the grooves. It delivers exactly what I want … no, exactly what I need … from Blackberry Smoke. After a few albums that I felt had a little too much polish on them, this one feels very organic and natural. I hope there is a lot more to come from the band in this vein. I guarantee, I’ll be right here for it.

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