The signs outside say Camden Town, but Atlanta is in the house tonight. Two bands from below the Mason-Dixon line with different approaches to this thing called rock’n’roll. In the red, white’n’blue corner: Blackberry Smoke, the only heirs-apparent to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s southern rock crown worth their weight in bourbon. In the ink-black corner: Biters, the bastard offspring of Cheap Trick and Joan Jett, with the battered leathers and bubblegum choruses to prove it.
Actually, there’s no Deep South throwdown here. Geography, Georgia twangs and a shared love of Tom Petty aren’t the only thing these two bands have in common. As with so many guitar – or in Blackberry Smoke’s case, geetar – bands today, it feels like they’re fighting a rearguard action against the pop masses. And if tonight’s show at this 3,500-capacity old North London train shed isn’t necessarily a decisive victory in that particular cultural war, then it at least shows there’s plenty of stubborn pugnacity left in rock’n’roll.
Not that you’d know it by the Roundhouse’s backstage area a couple of hours before the show. The long corridor that curves around the perimeter of the building has a Sunday morning hush, even though it’s a Tuesday afternoon. This is no surprise. Nothing eventful has happened backstage at any show since at least 1988. At least Biters are paying lip service to the rock’n’roll lifestyle. A bottle of Cloven Hoof spiced rum stands on a table in their cramped dressing room. This is the quartet’s tipple of choice on this tour, mainly because they’re getting paid by the people who make it to have it on stage with them every night.
The rum has nearly landed the band in a spot of trouble already. Last night in Oxford, frontman and Noel Fielding lookalike Tuk Smith poured booze down the throat of one audience member, who promptly passed out and ended up needing medical treatment. “Man, I thought I was gonna get arrested,” he says. If it had happened, it wouldn’t be the first time on this tour – he spent a few hours in jail in Helsinki after trying to break up a fight.
The notion of this kind of not-really-corporate sponsorship sits easily enough with Smith, mainly because a band of Biters’ stature have to claw in every cent they can to survive.
“Rock’n’roll is harder than it’s ever been,” he says. “I’m making zero money on this tour. I’m on five bucks per diem. And I’ve never slept less in my life on this tour. I’m really grateful to be here, but if you don’t sleep for a couple of days, watch how negative you get.”
We’re chatting over coffee – paid for, out of something approaching pity, by Classic Rock – in the Roundhouse’s downstairs café. The stillness has just been broken by the repetitive thump of a drumbeat as Blackberry Smoke soundcheck above our heads.
Coffee is Smith’s drug of choice these days. He gave up narcotics nearly 10 years ago. The tipping point came when his pre-Biters band, Poison Arrows, were touring with US punk bands The Queers and The Cute Lepers. After one night of hard partying, he woke up to find Cute Lepers guitarist Travis Criscola dead next to him and Poison Arrows/future Biters drummer Joey O’Brien foaming at the mouth.
“My buddy was dead, Joey was in the hospital,” he says sadly. “I’ve had friends overdose, but waking up next to somebody you’ve been on tour with who is dead… I don’t think that whole lifestyle is glamorous now. If people knew how much the opposite of a rock’n’roll cliché I am. Man, I do fucking yoga.”
It might be down to the caffeine, but Smith is a livewire off stage and on. Growing up in rural Georgia, he was drawn to Atlanta’s punk scene after being kicked out of school. He paid his musical and physical dues there, “getting the shit kicked out of me by skinheads”. These days, he’s more in tune with 70s glam rock. He cites Sweet, Slade, T.Rex as influences, while the lapels of his black leather jacket are adorned with a trio of pin badges: obscure Dutch band Hector, would-be teen idols Hello and an old Tyrannosaurus Rex badge. You can hear it on the band’s new album, The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be, and its predecessor, Electric Blood.
“I want to bring the old grooves back,” he says. “I want to make people dance. Having an image is fine, but I want to be known for killer tunes.”
Biters have the killer tunes for sure, but getting people to dance is a harder task. Tonight, despite such high-calibre glam-punk tunes as Restless Hearts, Hallucination Definition and the Bolan-esque Stone Cold Love, they find themselves staring down the barrel of an audience steadfastly refusing to groove.
The thing is, Biters have everything going for them. They sound terrific, they look great, and in Smith they have one of the most charismatic frontmen out there right now. As the show progresses, the audience slowly warms up, but it’s perplexing why they don’t get it right from the start. Maybe it’s because they’re here for some good, old-fashioned southern rock and Biters are just the wrong kind of old-fashioned. Whatever the reason, you can suddenly see why Smith thinks rock’n’roll is harder than ever. Let’s hope that it doesn’t finish them off. They’re too good to lose.
Blackberry Smoke have no such problems. The five-piece find themselves in the enviable position of being the standard-bearers for southern rock in the 21st century.
“It’s been slow but uphill,” says drummer Brit Turner, whose abundant facial hair and cowboy hat makes him look more like an extra from the original TV version of The Dukes Of Hazzard than a man who used to be in a death metal band called Nihilist. “It’s not like we’ve woke up overnight and our bank account is full of money.”
As headliners, Blackberry Smoke have the luxury of two dressing rooms. In practice, this should mean double the fun. In reality, it just means double the quiet. At least singer and guitarist Charlie Starr has an excuse for the absence of rock’n’roll behaviour: he’s been sober for more than a decade.
“I used to put myself in the situation of feeling like shit, daily,” says Starr, a man whose luxuriant sideburns look like they need their own tourbus to get between gigs. “But it stops being fun, chasing girls, chasing drugs. My tipping point was getting into my 30s. We were a party band for years before that. Brit was the only adult in the band. He got us from point A to point B. I’m sure we took years off his life worrying about what we were doing.”
The bearlike Turner nods sagely. “The first person I wanted to hire for our band was somebody to knock their heads together and put them to sleep,” he says. “They were that bad.”
Distractions aside, working out that route from point A to point B was hardly rocket science: hit the road and stay there. Starting out, they would play motorcycle events to pull in enough money to allow them to play clubs further and further away from their base in Atlanta.
“They were terrifying,” says Starr.
“In so many ways,” adds Turner.
Starr: “Women with bikinis on that shouldn’t have bikinis on…”
Turner: “…Pregnant women asking if you can light their cigarette.”
And what’s a gentleman supposed to do when a pregnant women asks you to light her cigarette?
Turner laughs and then shrugs. “Give them what they want.”
Like all the best southern bands, Blackberry Smoke ride two horses, country and rock’n’roll. Across their five albums, they’ve shown they’re equally adept at cry-in-your-beer ballads as they are at arena-sized anthems. But Starr insists at heart they’re a rock band. He names the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street as his favourite album of all time (“There’s a song for every single mood on that record”) and cites the time Blackberry Smoke drove 1500 miles overnight to be Slash’s backing band at the South B Southwest festival in 2005 as evidence. And anyway, modern country audiences can be a tough nut to crack.
“A lot of the country audiences these days are much younger,” says Starr. “Teenage girls, they don’t care for us. Whereas the older country fans love us. Those are the people who like Merle Haggard and Skynyrd.”
“That’s why southern rock has lasted so long,” says Turner. “People recognise it’s real. It’s not cooked up. Put the Allmans or Skynyrd next to some pop music today. People know that someone is feeling one of these things and someone else is making the other on their phone.”
“We’re always sitting around and bitching about the music the kids are listening to these days,” says Starr with a laugh. “We call it the Old Man Club.”
“We’re thinking of getting a patch with a pair of reading glasses with wings on ’em,” adds Turner. “And a pair of hands supporting the wings.”
These phantom aches and pains are parked in the dressing room as Blackberry Smoke busy themselves bringing a little bit of the Deep South to North London. It’s less than four years since they played their first show literally across the road, in the tiny upstairs room of the Barfly club. At most a handful of the people in attendance tonight were at that show, but spiritually everybody here has been with them all the way.
It’s not hard to work out why they’re flying right now. Southern rock is one of those rare genres that remain impervious to passing trends, and Blackberry Smoke are instinctive enough to know that to succeed is less about reinventing the wheel and more about doing it really, really well.
Right now, there isn’t anyone doing it as well as Blackberry Smoke. The opening one-two of Fire In The Hole and Six Ways To Sunday are lean and punchy, maybe not as streetwise as Skynyrd but certainly as instant. Sometimes, as on the loose-limbed Pretty Little Lie, they evoke memories of fellow Georgians The Black Crowes before they turned into the Grateful Dead Jr (they share a penchant for onstage carpets too).
It doesn’t hurt that they have the kind of southern charm you just can’t manufacture. Up In Smoke has barely sparked into life when Starr halts the song to help an audience member who is being crushed against the barriers in front of the stage. Later, the singer grabs the camera from a Facetiming audience member and pans it across the crowd. “You’re missing out,” he says to whoever is on the other end. “Everybody here is getting drunk and stoned.” It’s not quite true, but it’s the sentiment that counts.
Zeppelin’s Your Time Is Gonna Come, the Stones’ Street Fighting Man and, most bizarrely, a section of Yes’s Starship Trooper (there’s also a burst of Bob Marley’s eternal student favourite Three Little Birds, which unnecessarily ups the cheese factor tenfold).
But even without those covers as props, Blackberry Smoke’s own songs are strong enough to support a two hour-plus set. They end, inevitably, with a rampant Ain’t Much Left Of Me. It’s their best song and one that, more than any, calls back to southern rock’s 70s glory days. Sure, they’re standing on the shoulders of giants, but then nobody’s doing it quite so well as Blackberry Smoke, as three-and-a-half thousand people could vouch tonight.
“I think we sometimes feel like a band out of time,” Brit Turner had said a few hours earlier. “It might make things harder for us. People are, like, ‘If you’d been together in 1975, you’d have been huge.’ I’m, like, (plaintively) ‘Okay, we’re trying.’”
Charlie Starr has a different take on things. “I might think that until I go see Tom Petty in a stadium full of people. And then I’m, like, ‘OK, it’s 2017, I don’t feel like we’re out of time.’”
Old Man Club or not, southern rock is safe for the foreseeable future.