Black Stone Cherry
Monday 5th December 2016
Shepherd's Bush Empire, London
Returning to Britain for the first time since headlining The Ramblin’ Man Fair back in July (see WRC review five months below!), Southern American Hard Rock band Black Stone Cherry are now bringing their ‘Experience Kentucky’ tour to 14 venues across the UK, before heading to Europe for a further 26 shows in 15 different countries. On Monday 6th December I headed out to west London to catch the tour at the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire.
For many bands, their sound doesn’t necessarily reflect or represent where they are from geographically. Not so with Black Stone Cherry, whose Southern Rock roots have shined through ever since the band was formed in 2001. Their recently released fifth album ‘Kentucky’ preserves those roots, and not just in its title. It was recorded in the same studio as their self-titled debut album, just a stone’s throw away from their homes in Glasgow - no, not that Glasgow - Glasgow, Kentucky, of course. A key factor in maintaining both the band’s recognizable sound, and its cohesiveness, is that the line-up has remained the same throughout its 15 years existence - quite an achievement in itself in these days of rolling personnel changes. Black Stone Cherry is, and always has been, Chris Robertson on lead vocals and lead guitar, Ben Wells providing rhythm guitar and backing vocals, Jon Lawhon bass and backing vocals, with even more backing vocals from drummer John Fred Young.
As its name implies, the current ‘Experience Kentucky’ tour is partly to promote ‘Kentucky’, the band’s critically acclaimed latest album. Released in the UK in April, ‘Kentucky’ follows the path of Black Stone Cherry’s previous albums, with plenty of Hard Rocking, Southern-fried songs, heavy riffs and memorable choruses. Not that these solid and successful foundations preclude progression and experimentation, far from it: Black Stone Cherry introduce brass on a couple of ‘Kentucky”s songs; the album also has occasional female backing vocals and, on the quieter, emotional ‘The Rambler’, added fiddle gives a Country flavour. The album’s songwriting demonstrates how Black Stone Cherry have matured, but they are still able to turn it loose and rock as hard as they always have. It’s an effective balance, and ‘Kentucky’ is a diverse and impactful album.
One of the problems bands have when touring to promote a new album, is deciding their set’s balance between established favourites, which the fans know and invariably prefer, and new songs, which the band hopes will become the established favourites of the future. In their ‘Experience Kentucky’ tour Black Stone Cherry ease this problem by dispensing with a support band, filling the slot with a fabulous acoustic set of their own, and then returning after a short break to deliver a traditional, full length electric set. The two sets include a total of 26 songs, enabling the band to fit in six songs from the new album, plus three covers, and still have room for more old favourites than normal. This two set approach has other advantages: the audience gets an extra hour of the band they’ve come to see, the venue is packed an hour earlier (presumably boosting bar takings) and the band has more opportunity to demonstrate its versatility. Maybe it will catch on.
Most unlike previous Black Stone Cherry tours, the stage for the opening acoustic set had a homely, personal feel, with the band members sitting on stools on Persian rugs in an unplugged setting. The set opened with ‘In our Dreams’ from the new album; this set the tone with its jangling acoustics and the soft-play wristy drumming of John Fred Young. A strumming war then ensued between Chris and Ben on fan favourite ‘Hell & High Water’ and a singalong between band and fans on ‘The Rambler’, another song from the new album, with beautiful guitar lines and bass interplay by Jon. However, the undoubted highlight in the acoustic set was the poignant ‘Things My Father Said’. It is now two years since Chris’s grandfather died, but the song’s raw, cracked emotion, enhanced by the audience’s sea of waving mobiles, was as strong as ever. Overall, the acoustic set demonstrated that Black Stone Cherry’s songs don’t necessarily need amps and electric for their power and intensity. It also enabled the deep Country and Bluegrass roots of the band’s Rock music to shine through: we may have been a million miles from Kentucky but on Monday Shepherd’s Bush became an extension of the Bluegrass state.
Starter over, it was time for the main course: Black Stone Cherry at their loud, bright and electric best. The homely feel was ripped out of the stage, which was laid bare, leaving ample space for Ben’s leaping acrobatics as he bounced and strode from one side of the stage to the other. The band hit the stage as they meant to continue, in full Rock and Roll mode, firing up the crowd and raising the temperature in the auditorium. From the very start of the electric set, opened with the barnstorming but rarely played ‘Devil’s Queen’, the band embarked on a frenzied mixture of riffs and melodies, storming through show-stoppng cuts from their five classic rock albums. After a crunching version of George Thorogood’s ‘Bad to the Bone’ the pace accelerated still further for the singalongs ‘Soulcreek’ and ‘White Trash Millionaire’. New songs ‘Darkest Secret’ and ‘Shakin' My Cage’ were real crowd pleasers, allowing no let up in the brutal rock riffs. A cover of Willie Dixon’s ‘Built for Comfort’ included a mid section jam with guitar solos, allowing Ben and Jon to demonstrate what accomplished guitarists they are. Three songs later, a drum solo let John Fred take control of the stage with an electric performance that gave the rest of the band a breather before returning for the evening’s compelling close. This comprised ‘Shakin’ My Cage’, another new song, and a couple of well known anthems, ‘Blame It On The Boom Boom’ and ‘Lonely Train’, before a rousing cover of ‘Voodoo Child’ ended the evening on yet another high.
With the same line-up for 15 years, Black Stone Cherry’s chemistry should be impeccable and it is: their interplay seems effortless and they obviously derive real enjoyment from playing together. Miraculously, they have maintained both their initial enthusiasm and the flavour of the American South that gives their rock a unique edge. Long may it continue.