Crossroads Rockpalast 2018. Every concert is now live-streamed. Band and set-lists are online too, and there’s an interview from each band to click on. Why go down to the Harmonie at all for the shows? Well, of course, that neon-blue sign is reason enough. It says ‘Rockpalast’, and squeezing in amongst 400 fellow ticket-holders in an airless room, catching brief glimpses of the bands between video-camera wielding men and woman is a part of the magic. Yep, seems crazy, but hey, that’s rock ‘n’ Roll. Actually, tonight is a rather special day of said Rock ‘n’Roll – the 250th Crossroads Rockpalast broadcast. Upcoming Aussie Stoner Rockers Child are kicking off the evening, but tickets sold out 6 months ago after the headliners, Southern rockers from Georgia Blackberry Smoke, were announced. There’s a rack of guitars in the corner that would give the local music shop a run for its money – grab a hold onto that last bit of barrier between us and the cameras – it’s showtime!
I’m not exactly sure what Stoner Rock is. When Melbourne based trio Child step into the darkness (what happened to the stagelights Rockpalast?) they look a lot like what we would have called a ‘power trio’ back in the day. The guitarist even has a long mane of hair, blowing gently in the ventilation fan disturbed air. After two numbers I’m wondering if Rory Gallagher’s Taste were Stoner Rock? Or Cream even? I’m also wondering how Child’s bassist Danny Smith can connect with drummer Michael Lowe since a large Marshal amp stack is towering between them and blocking the two from each others sight.
It only takes a few minutes before Smith appraises his chances and forsakes his place completely stage left to seek out a visual plane with his fellow rhythm man. It’s pretty important for this band too, because there’s something Jazz-style about the way they interact. Smith, I also notice, plays bass for the most part with a clawhammer finger style, and with such force that makes me wonder if he will be able to feel his fingers in an hours time. Vocal and lead guitar are handled by Matthias Northway. He’s a talented guitarist for sure where creating soundscapes go, but every time I tried to follow him, in either his song or between-song announcements, I missed words or entire sentences. It was as if the words, like the music, came and went in waves.
There was homage paid to one of Child’s favourite bands ‘Spirit’ in the form of ‘The Other Song‘, and if you’re familiar with that number then you will have a good idea of where Child themselves come from musically. Certainly, I couldn’t fault the band’s enthusiasm or musical chemistry, it’s just that the set didn’t seem to go anywhere – a lack of dynamics – whereby nothing was entirely up-tempo but then again, nothing very slow, only a middle ground that, well, ground on to the end. Good music if you’re ‘on’ something (medicinal or otherwise) I venture to suggest, but I wasn’t, and by sets end, was praying for a break when the doors would open and free oxygen would be provided courtesy of the outside breeze.
My first thought as roadies stripped down the stage, and gear began arriving for the band due in part two, was this: If they take a new guitar from the rack for every song we could be here until Christmas. As it transpired, I would happily have remained listening to this band UNTIL 25th December. Were all those people who bought tickets within a month of the show being announced justified? Was this hype? Yes, and no (sort of) in that order. Are Blackberry Smoke the future of Southern Rock? Too many questions? Some answers…
Yes, this band was very much worth grabbing a ticket for early, in a venue that has space for around 400 bodies. I’m not sure that they’re Festival Headliner size yet, and how is it that a band that has been unchanged since its formation eighteen years ago and released several albums is only now getting real recognition abroad? Another question? sorry about that. The hype thing though, of course, stems to some extent from the death of Gregg Allman. The King is dead… perhaps also to the death of Tom Petty. Happily, Blackberry Smoke are well able to keep the Southern Rock torch flaming into a new generation.
They are musically very much a band, and those eighteen years together result in an immediate musical rapport. Where other band members are regularly looking at each other for signs of a solo or bringing a song to its close, these guys only ever look at each other to smile (which they do a lot I’m pleased to say). Telepathy? whatever it is, Blackberry Smoke has it. Richard Turner stands almost in meditation over on bass, rarely moving a foot in any direction all night, but always on the groove with drummer Brit Turner. They could have had that Marshall stack from Child’s set between them all night and it would not have made them drop a beat. Both Brandon Still, on keys, and guitarist Paul Jackson, are clearly having as good a time listening to the music they are playing as we are. There is no denying though that the man on lead guitar and vocals is the centre of the Blackberry Smoke Universe.
Charlie Starr doesn’t on first sight seem to fit his surname. Slightly built, and with an amiable expression that doesn’t betray the look of a stressed frontman, he is nonetheless the cog from which all other wheels turn in the band. Great songs and great melodies. More mainstream rock maybe than the likes of the Allman’s or Lynyrd Skynyrd and less heavy on the southern accent of Tom Petty. Of my favourites this evening ‘Medicate My Mind’ immediately jumps out through its title alone, it’s also a fine southern style pop song that Willie Nelson could have written. Which also applies to ‘Ain’t Much Left of Me‘. The set is never less than ear-catching, with an acoustic change of pace even (something missing from Child’s set earlier) that brought another highlight in the excellent ‘Ain’t got the Blues’ – and who can’t raise a smile at a Blues song with lyrics like:
“I’m gonna shine, best sparkle and shine
Everybody that I meet is gonna be a good friend of mine
I’m feeling fine, just fine as wine
I can’t frown for grinning, I can’t lose for winning
I ain’t got the blues anymore”
The guitar tech must wear out a pair of shows every week on this band. I’m not convinced that they (particularly Starr) really needed so many changes, but photographically it made for some variation. For me though, camera back in its bag, Blackberry Smoke were at their considerable best when there was a bit of extra grit and grind to the music. I loved the sabre-rattle beat of their take on ‘Come Together’ and the equally gritty self-penned ‘Flesh & Bone’. Really an excellent band to celebrate 250 Rockpalast Crossroads with. It’s a show that takes risks with its choice of bands at times, but on this occasion showed that both Southern Rock and Rockpalast are in safe hands.
As already pointed out, the concert itself was live-streamed and there’s a link to ‘The Whippoorwill’ on video under this review. Highlights of this year’s Festival go out on 5th November – WDR television.