Throughout Blackberry Smoke’s two-decade career, playing live has been the lifeblood of the band. So being forced off the road by the pandemic wasn’t easy for the group.
“It’s a tough habit to kick, playing music in front of people,” says lead singer, guitarist and main songwriter Charlie Starr. “Before we even started to do those kinds of shows, my buddy Benji (Shanks, who is a touring guitarist with Blackberry Smoke) and I were playing for my neighbors in my backyard. OK, any port in the storm.”
In fact, when the Atlanta-based group formed in 2000, getting the chance to tour and play shows was the central goal, and it pretty much has remained the band’s focus ever since.
“We knew what we could control was taking our music on the road and playing for people, which was really the most important thing,” Starr says. “We’re playing this music and making these records to sell to these people. We’re not particularly product minded like that, but at the end of the day, that’s what it is. You’re making music to please yourself as a musician, and you’re hoping that these people will buy it so you can make a living. So that was sort of what we focused on. We didn’t set these goals like we want to get signed to a major label and we want to sell out stadiums. We just had maybe a more realistic view of it. ‘OK, here’s what we can do. Let’s do this.’”
Eventually Starr got to return to taking shows beyond his back yard, as Blackberry Smoke played some socially distanced and drive-in concerts last fall. The band spent much of the summer headlining an amphitheater tour and will continue doing shows right through the end of the year. And fans can expect some surprises in the setlist.
“We kind of just switch it up night to night,” Starr says. “There are songs that we sort of always play, favorites that I kind of figure, well, if we don’t play them, then we hear about it. But it’s OK. Personally, I love playing all of the songs. There really aren’t any that I go ‘Oh, man.’ And even if I did, even songs we’ve played thousands of times now, when you see people react, it kind of keeps it fresh. ‘Oh, I like this tune.’ But we will be adding new songs from the new record in, and that’s always exciting for the band because it’s the freshest, newest material.” (See sidebar.)
Starr feels the new album, like each successive Blackberry Smoke album, finds the band growing musically and crafting a set of songs that’s a bit more cohesive.
“The focus is a little clearer, I think, with each one,” Starr says. “I guess that’s bound to happen when a band’s been playing together for years and years. I hope the songwriting has grown. I feel like it has. It makes me feel good. I can go back to our first album and think, as a songwriter, think ‘Oh, well I wouldn’t have done that that way now’ or ‘I wouldn’t have said that exactly that way.’ But that’s just getting older, I guess. There are aspects of our first couple of records that I still love dearly, that, you know, youth and exuberance. But then I put on ‘You Hear Georgia’ and there are songs where I’m like we can still lay it down like we did when we were in our 20s.”