There are bands that work hard and keep coming back. And there’s Black Stone Cherry who take it to extremes. Tonight’s show at the Royal Concert Hall, a first appearance there for both the band and your reviewer, was their third appearance in the city this year and the second in a week. Following on from their charity appearance at the Cathouse last Friday (the first venue they ever played here, and their first ever sell out show back in the day), the band are back tour proper, and roughly halfway through their “Kentucky Experience” tour.
Following on from the likes of Machine Head (and I guess Metallica on the Black Album tour), Black Stone Cherry have sussed that they have enough material to do a whole evening sans support act, instead pitching us an hour-long acoustic set followed by ninety minutes with the volume cranked. Cue a ton of sell-out shows in mid-sized concert halls as the band try to collect all the venue-Pokémon.
It’s a lovely venue, it must be said, and we had a great view perched slap in the middle of the front row of the balcony. Showtime arrived, the lights dipped and our four Southern rock gurus strolled on stage; three mounted stools and John Fred placed himself behind a cut-down drumkit.
With little further ado, the band broke into “In Our Dreams” then “Hell & High Water”. Some of the songs they played in this set had been written as acoustic numbers, but never performed in that way. based on how good they sounded tonight, could I perhaps suggest an acoustic album to tide us over before the next original effort?
There was a tiny break while Ben (who we interviewed before the show) received a quick rendition of “Happy Birthday To You”, having reached the staggering age of 131. At least that’s what Chris told us. I still think he doesn’t look a day over twelve.
The set rocked as much as an acoustic one could, the audience singing along, clapping hand and cheering between songs. “All I’m Dreamin’ Of” gets its first ever live airing as part of this tour, and a brilliant way it is to end the first half of the show.
Half an hour is all it takes for the band to recharge before powering into a full ninety minutes of pounding, heavy material. I know Black Stone Cherry are billed as a “hard rock” band or thereabouts, but their albums generally come across quite radio friendly. But it’s when you see them live that you appreciate how crushing some of their material actually is. I can’t imagine headbanging madly to their albums, but there’s complete justification for Ben doing just that throughout half their set.
I don’t know if it’s just the volume, if they ramp up the tempo or what – but Black Stone Cherry live earn their metal credentials as much as Pantera or Maiden. They might chuck in some catchy choruses, but those grooves… neck-breakers. This is apparent from the off as Ben and Jon sprint back and forth, swapping positions, posing, banging their heads and producing a wonderfully heavy version of “Devil’s Queen”.
The three front-of-stagers group together to let our on-the-scene photographer get some great posed shots during “Soul Machine” before the first cover of the night, “Bad To The Bone” is given an airing with Chris’ gravelly vocals very much doing it justice. With the crowd on their feet from the opening bars of the first song, BSC pound through tracks from all five albums – “Soulcreek”, “Please Come In” (which could have been squeezed into the acoustic set), “Darkest Secret”, “Killing Floor”…
I’ll even forgive John Fred his brief drum solo. Battering the skins in a performance that would have done The Muppets’ Animal proud, it didn’t drag on too long and gave the guy at the back of the stage a chance to interact with the audience.
Probably their first big hit – definitely one of the first I remember – “Blind Man” made a welcome appearance towards the tail end, along with “White Trash Millionaire”, “Me & Mary Jane”, and new number “Shakin’ My Cage”. It’s credit to the band that even with two sets and two-and-a-half hours of music there were still songs it would have been nice to hear – “Rain Wizard”, for instance, was conspicuous by its absence.
The guys finished the performance with a balls-out version of “Ace of Spades”, a song which will always get a crowd going even if it’s right at the end of a gig.
All it took was a look around to prove that it wasn’t just the wife and I who’d enjoyed yet another superb performance from Black Stone Cherry. The whole venue was on its feet and applauding for an extended period as the band left the stage, came back on and gave a candle-covered birthday cake to Ben.
Ben had mentioned earlier (the interview will be up soon) that the band likely won’t be back for another year or so as they take a break to work on some new material. We’ve been spoiled this year, to be fair, and at least we know that they’ll be worth waiting for.
All photos by Lowrey Photography