When Classic Rock steps into Black Stone Cherry’s dressing room a few hours before their latest acoustic-then-electric double performance, the first thing we spot is a banjo. Wow, we think, sounds like these Kentucky boys really are going to move out of their musical comfort zone on this tour.
Enter John Fred Young, garrulous, hirsute drummer, greeting CR with warm handshakes and southern hospitality. So who’s the four-string fiend in the band?
“Ah,” grins John Fred, faux-modestly, “that’s me. I like to just play around a little bit. I’ll be doing a banjo solo later tonight. One of the highlights of the show.”
Wow, could you give us a quick preview?
“Ahhh, my fingers are… a little stiff right now. Too much drumming.”
“Sorry boys, he’s shittin’ ya!” booms a voice from the doorway. We don’t have to look round to know that BSC singer Chris Robertson has entered the room.
By this time, John Fred is posing for pictures with his new toy (which is actually a gift from a fan).
“Alright! Classic Rock readers are gonna think I’m a banjo player!”
Chris: “That’s okay, they think I’m a singer and guitar player.“
John Fred: “Hey, wait a minute [plays a few bum notes], I can do this! I’ll fake the shit out of it. I’m the fake Dave Grohl!”
The drummer’s comments may be highly questionable, but Chris is surely guilty of one of the most blatant statements of false modesty ever recorded in these pages, as anyone who has seen the guy play, or indeed sing, can confirm. When we meet the frontman today, he’s just got back from giving a local guitar shop a one-man masterclass in southern rock axe-bothering, and it’s fair to say that much of the audience here tonight will consider his and Ben’s ‘nasty cop, nastier cop’ guitar tag team as one of the things they’re most looking forward to witnessing in full effect.
But first for something a little bit different. And it’s testament to their versatility that even if Black Stone Cherry stop short of alternative instrumentation, the country-tinged, stripped down and slowed up arrangements of “the best opening band we ever had” really bring home to you how classic songwriting qualities, emotional resonance and gutsy, soulful delivery are at the heart of Black Stone Cherry’s approach to rock’n’roll, and they don’t necessarily need to bring the noise to prove that.
Ben Wells’s ringing high-capo guitar makes The Rambler resonate into the highest reaches of this Georgian concert hall, and although that song and All I’m Dreamin’ Of were always acoustic numbers, the dynamics, harmonies and high notes seem significantly enhanced by powerful live arrangements.
Other times they take big fat rockers and take them down gently, as with the lushly strummed, laid-back lilt applied to Like I Roll.
But it’s not all plain sailing. Chris’s attempts at a solo during Hell And High Water, for instance, sound pretty cool to us, but he’s less than impressed.
”Guitar solos were the one thing I didn’t think about,” he rants afterwards. “Damn! They suck on acoustic!”
“You gotta play soft,” offers Ben from stage left.
“If you think that’s playing soft,” Chris replies, gesturing at Ben’s robust strumming, “Damn, I don’t know what you’d call playing hard!”
As their own support act, they’re ideal to warm us up, not least because of the genuine warmth that seems to flow between these four lifelong friends, and the natural banter that effortlessly pings back and forth between songs.
The setlist is carefully curated too – BSC have always had a pretty hardcore fanbase over here, which may be why 2007 EP track Big City Lights gets the singalong treatment.
Then after an eight-song unplugged set, with roars for more ringing in his ears, Chris Robertson walks to the edge of the stage. Maybe he’s about to explain to the uninitiated that hey, in case you didn’t read the ticket for ‘An Evening With…’, that was just the first part of the show, and they’ll be returning in half an hour ready to rock the house to its foundations.
But he doesn’t say that. Instead, he picks up the mike, leaves his guitar on its stand and takes a deep breath. “I woke up this morning… I did not want to be here.” He’s not singing, he’s talking.
“I just wanted to be back in Kentucky with my wife and boy.”
But he goes on to tell Brighton that the healing power of music has once again lifted his spirits, reflects on the importance of opening up about such struggles, and implores the crowd, “Promise me to talk about shit in your life.”
Chris’s sentiments are warmly applauded, and as he wanders out through the stage door for a pensive cigarette before preparing for the second half of the set, we’re left wondering where this unplanned new addition to the set came from.
We find him outside by the tour bus gazing into the near-freezing Sussex evening, and rudely interrupt his private moment.
“I’ve been the guy walking out of his house with a gun in his hand ready to blow his head off,” he admits. “For some reason the last two nights at the end of the show I’ve just felt the need to go out stage front and say something.”
There’s a hint of darkness about Chris sometimes that makes you worry about him. For a moment you wonder, how much secret sincerity lay inside that ‘singer and guitar player’ comment? If you’re feeling shitty about yourself you might just really think you don’t deserve all the acclaim you’re getting. And evidently, Chris has been through some challenging times, battling depression since his teens. Then back before the major label release of 2011’s Devil And The Deep Blue Sea, for which 75 songs were written (and co-written with hired songwriters in some case, in search of that elusive big hit), Chris admits, “I nearly had a nervous breakdown making that record.”
Things would get worse for the big man, as anxiety and depression began to take hold on an increasingly scary scale, allied with a debilitating addiction to prescription drugs, which was partly what forced the band to take time off before releasing their next album, Magic Mountain.
When we meet BSC this evening, though, there’s scant evidence of extra-curricular habits or psychological issues (not that they would necessarily be that obvious), and even if this is clearly not where the party’s at, the vibe is chilled and good-natured.
“A bit of bourbon on ice before the show that’s the extent of my poison these days,” Chris admits. “We FaceTime our kids – that’s about as wild as it gets!”
“It’s good to just unwind and loosen up,” admits Ben, ever the cool customer in a Dolly Parton T-shirt, rhinestone jacket and a Brian Setzer quiff, “But we’ve all made the mistake of having too much and you’re not doing yourself any justice, because the band is only as good as its weakest guy.”
And on too many occasions, Chris admits, that weak link was out front.
“I had a problem with medications for a while,” he says, “And I was out of my mind every day. Shows were either great or horrible. The rest of the band were waiting for me to wake up thinking, ‘Oh, I wonder what kinda mood Chris is in? Where’s he at, five minutes before a show?’ That shit’s no fun at all looking back on it – I’d rather remember all the shit we done rather than having to watch a video because I blacked it all out.”
In recent years, Chris has increasingly found sustenance from his Christian faith, which was a big factor in helping him shift the black dog of depression from his life, and now the whole band have quietly put their show in Jesus’s hands, even if you’re unlikely to hear BSC on Christian Rock radio any time soon.
“Do we pray before we go on stage?“ asks Chris. “Every night. I’m not an uber-religious person, I’m a spiritual person. I believe in the big man upstairs and it’s a huge deal for me, but I know it seems weird for a lot of people that someone playing this kind of music should be into that. But music is spiritual, right? You tell me watching Jimi Hendrix wasn’t a spiritual experience?”
Either way, don’t labour under the impression that they don’t still have the devil inside them, metaphorically at least. Once showtime rolls around. Come 9.15pm, Chris’s eyes narrow, the expression turns deadly serious, and the Stetson goes on, as if to literally tip his hat to southern rock forefather Ronnie Van Zant, but more as if to say: ‘Let’s go to work, boys’.
When the band launch into opening electric number Devil’s Queen, it brings Ben’s comments about lifestyle into sharper perspective, as they attack it with the kind of unbridled, jellybean energy that would be a serious challenge for anyone hungover or half-cut. Ben’s carefully constructed quiff lasts approximately one-and-a-half bars before it’s shaken back to a platinum mop, while John Fred’s assault on every snare, kick and crash resembles a malfunctioning car wash without the water. On bass, Jon Lawhon spins the kind of multiple pirouettes that would cause most sober people to keel over within seconds, before he and Ben leap onto risers stagefront as if preparing to lift off into the upper reaches of the dome.
Chris, meanwhile, remains on terra firma, tasked with filling this 1,700-capacity arena with that mighty bellow, and then mesmerising us with fret fireworks.
On the face of it, Chris is the least likely star of Black Stone Cherry. When you see pictures of this chunky southern dude in a plaid shirt and baseball cap as if just back from a shift at the lumber yard, alongside his more conventionally sleek, photogenic bandmates, you guess he’s the drummer, and possibly a recent promotion from the road crew. But while off stage he seems to be the shyest, most self-conscious and sensitive of the quartet, once on stage he quickly transforms into the official centre of attention, a bear of a man with a booming soul-stirrer of a voice and the kind of guitar chops that would shame a thousand prettier, skinnier pretenders.
His wah-wah-addled solo on Killing Floor and superbly emotive blues licks on Built For Comfort particularly stand out, but just as impactful is the thunderous gut-punch of the bands riffs, underpinned by a mighty rhythm section, which immediately announce that the time for acoustic subtlety has now passed, and later crank up the intensity further with the lurching crunch of Me And Mary Jane.
Finally, Blame It On The Boom Boom seems to bring all BSC’s aces into play – Chris’s power-tonsils and guitar duelling with Ben; Jon and John Fred’s bottom-end rumble; an anthem that takes country rock and puts 10-tonne boots on it; and a crowd more than willing to chant along to make it sound more like a festival than a genteel concert venue with numbered seats.
This second show ends after more than 90 minutes of barely relenting rock’n’roll with Chris playing a medley including Voodoo Chile with his teeth à la Hendrix, and Ben, Chris and Jon playing guitar behind their shoulders. Now that’s just showing off.
There’ll be no after-show tonight, nor any Jacuzzis full of willing groupies. But every band must have its vices, and Black Stone Cherry are no different. So after the show, in the privacy of their dressing room, laid out before them, smokin’ hot, oiled up and waiting for the band to have their wicked way with them, are three large Domino’s Pizzas. Oh, and a Subway wrap for Ben, who’s “just not a pizza guy”.
Before we go, Chris repeats what he told the crowd tonight, and something echoed by his bandmates. “This is honestly the most enjoyable tour we’ve ever done.” If music and faith, and his faith in music, are fighting an ongoing battle with the demons in his head, at times like these they seem to be winning handsomely.
And on that bombshell, John Fred picks up the banjo, towel still around his head, for some more experimental plucking. Who knows, by the time Black Stone Cherry next grace these shores, there might be an exciting new addition to their instrumental arsenal. Actually, on second thoughts, they’re doing just fine without it.