Rock, Ribs & Ridges – Blackberry Smoke, Outlaws & Larkin Poe

Rock, Ribs & Ridges Festival – Blackberry Smoke, Outlaws, Larkin Poe
Sussex County Fairgrounds – Augusta, NJ – June 29, 30 2024

Review & Photos – Rebecca Wolf

The Sussex County Fairgrounds was the host to the 14th Annual Ribs and Ridges Festival in Sussex County, NJ from June 28-30, 2024. The festival boasted a weekend of great Southern Rock, combined with mouth-watering barbecue and rockin’ good times for all. Neither the oppressive heat nor the thunderstorms that moved in and out of the area on Saturday and Sunday deterred fans or musicians from passionately singing, dancing and partying the days and evenings away. Each year the festival draws thousands of fans, some who come for a day or a single performance and others who immerse themselves in the all the festivities, camping on the grounds or booking a local hotel and attending most if not all of the performances. The festival began with two shows on Friday evening, and continued with a full afternoon and evening of performances on Saturday and Sunday. Performers included well-known NY/NJ tribute bands, comprised of veteran musicians from the NJ musical scene, Sugar Mountain, celebrating the music of Neil Young, Sharp Dressed Band, paying homage to ZZ Top, and Six Gun Sally honoring the greatest southern and classic rock bands of the 70s. There were also nationally known recording artists, including NJ’s own Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, Molly Hatchet, Blackberry Smoke, the Artimus Pyle Band,  Outlaws and Larkin Poe.

Of the 11 bands this year I attended for a mere three shows, but was lucky enough to be there for Blackberry Smoke,  Outlaws and Larkin Poe. Blackberry Smoke was Saturday’s final evening performance. Even at 7:30 the overwhelming heat and humidity had not eased. However, this did not lessen the size or energy of the enthused crowd of Blackberry Smoke fans who packed the ticketed section in front of the stage, as well as the surrounding lawn area. While most of us were uncomfortable in the immense heat, Charlie Starr emerged onstage looking as cool as ever, sporting a brown suede jacket, matching cowboy boots, his requisite sunglasses and mutton chops, seemingly unfazed by the weather. Like every Blackberry Smoke performance, Starr lived up to his name, shining brightly like a star, with his beaming smile and glowing energy. The band member who consistently radiates an equally shimmering smile is guitarist Paul Jackson. From the moment Jackson arrived on the Rock, Ribs & Ridges stage he beamed at the audience, with a twinkle in his eye, as he acknowledged familiar fans in the crowd.

Jackson’s levity was in contrast to fellow guitarist Benji Shanks’ more stoic expression and demeanor. As the two jammed on their guitars Shanks appeared very focus and intense, an occasional grin peaking out from beneath his beard. In a seemingly more sober state was bass player Richard Turner. While Turner generally does not appear particularly upbeat or effusive, possibly the heat or the recent passing of his brother Brit Turner, the band’s former drummer, put a heavier weight on Turner that evening. While this was not my first time seeing the band since the passing of Brit, it remains disconcerting to not see him there, in all of his power and glory. Brit left behind a gaping hole no one can fill…they can just create their own space, which is what drummer Kent Aberle has been doing with his positive energy and dynamic percussion skills. Keyboardist Brandon Sills, equally displayed lightness and positivity, from his perch behind at the back of the stage, his long hair swinging as he jammed on the keys.

Blackberry Smoke consistently functions as a close knit team….a band of brothers. There’s a rhythm and flow to their musical energy and movements about the stage from their very first notes of their performance to their exit from the stage at the end of a show. The evening’s set opened with “Six Ways to Sunday,” from 2012’s The Whippoorwill, the perfect high-spirited number to instantly engage the crowd. From “Good One Comin’ On,” from 2009’s Little Piece of Dixie, to “Hammer and the Nail,” from 2024’s Be Right There, the band played a mix of numbers from their catalog over the past 20 years. It didn’t matter that a mere 30 minutes into the set the rain began to fall…and boy did it pour. While the band was protected by the covered stage, the fans were left to the elements. Some fans were able to head for cover under the VIP tents. However, the remainder, equipped with raincoats and ponchos, stuck it out, singing and dancing with an abundance of energy and passion for the remainder of the show. Both the band and the fans kept that positivity going through the 21 song set. Somehow that’s not surprising for those who know the impressive dedication of Blackberry Smoke fans and the immense motivation of the band. Additional songs in the set included “Azalea,” “Dig a Hole,” “Little Bit Crazy” and “Whatcha Know Good,” from Be Right There, “Hey Delilah” and “Old Scarecrow,” from 2021’s You Hear Georgia, “Pretty Little Lie,” “One Horse Town,” Ain’t Got the Blues” and “Sleeping Dogs,” from The Whippoorwill.

If the rain wasn’t enough on Saturday, a deluge returned on Sunday, briefly delaying the performance of the Artimus Pyle Band. With the show running late, I arrived at Rock, Ribs & Ridges in time to see the end of the performance, the band’s iconic Lynyrd Skynyrd numbers, “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Free Bird.” It’s not surprising that these songs had the crowd pumped up, on their feet and passionately singing along to the powerful energy emanating from the stage. These Southern rock anthems were the perfect segue to the onstage arrival of the Outlaws, a Southern rock band now in its fifth decade. While singer-songwriter, musician Henry Paul is the only original recording member in the band, that has not diminished fans’ incredible passion for the Outlaws. Fifty years since joining the Outlaws, and more than a half century in the music industry, Paul remains vocally and musically a force to be reckoned with, and has surrounded himself with equally powerful, dynamic musicians.

Seats were sold out in the ticketed area in front of the Rock, Ribs & Ridges stage. Enthused fans stood along the front railing, wanting to be as close to the music and infectious energy as possible. Viewing the crowd, audience members ranged in age from diehard fans from the band’s early years, to young children, who’d come by way of the Outlaws music via the good musical taste of their parents. And, infectious energy the Outlaws provided from the moment they arrived, rocking the stage from start to finish. You don’t have to know every Outlaws song or be lifelong fans to be enthralled by an Outlaws performance. Their dynamic energy and spirit, paired with phenomenal musical skills readily draws you in.

Whether watching the expression on guitarist Jeff Aulich’s face as he passionately jammed on his guitar, or bassist Randy Threet’s hair fly, as he flipped it in the air, or Aulich, Threet, Paul, and guitarist Jimmy Dormire standing across the stage front, shredding their guitars in unison….it’s was all eye and ear catching. Songs in the hour and 20 minute set included, “There Goes Another Love Song,” “Hurry Sundown,” “Freeborn Man,” “Stick Around for Rock and Roll,” “So Long,” “Grey Ghost,” “It’s About Pride,” “Riders in the Sky,” and “Green Grass & High Tides.” There wasn’t a number that evening that wasn’t filled with fiery musical energy from the musicians and reflected back with intense adoration from the Outlaws fans. The set came to a close just as the skies opened up to another bout of pouring rain.

As luck would have it, this episode of rain was short-lived and did not delay the arrival of the festival’s last musical act….Larkin Poe. While it was Sunday evening, after a stormy weekend, Larkin Poe’s devoted fan base was not going to miss a performance by this dynamic duo, sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell. The Lovells formed their blues/roots rock band in 2010, with Rebecca on guitar and lead vocals and Megan on the lap steel guitar. Having seen the band perform in the past, Rebecca appeared slightly more subdued than the musician I’d previously seen energetically moving about the stage and jamming on her guitar. However, the rationale for this may have been answered when Rebecca expressed to the crowd that she was unable to hear herself and asked if she sounded “Ok.” While Rebecca might not have been able to hear herself, all in attendance were eager to assure her that she sounded “great.” Her vocals were rich, textured and powerful…even if she didn’t hear them. Though Rebecca seemed unsure, she stated she’d move on forward, regardless of feeling stressed. As the performance continued, the stress appeared to lessen, as Rebecca began to move about the stage with more lightness, and a broader smile.

Megan, generally the less effusive of the two, seemed more comfortable and relaxed, as she clapped her hands in the air, tilted back her head and passionately played her lap steel. Adding a dynamic rock beat was drummer Ben Satterlee who performed with boundless energy, his sticks rising high in the air before rhythmically crashing on the drum kit. While each sister has their individual role in the band, their powerful sibling connection, noted when Rebecca and Megan jam together centerstage, with a smile and a knowing look between them, has been a significant factor in the band’s success.

The hour and 15 minute set kept fans singing along as the band performed several numbers from their 2022 album Blood Harmony, including “Summertime Sunset,” “Kick the Blues,” “Southern Comfort,” “Might As Well Be Me” and “Strike Gold.” “This next number is autobiographical,” Rebecca shared with the crowd. “My sister and I wrote it together. It’s about the long game, staying the long road. That’s important to me. It’s called “Strike Gold.” Additional songs included “Back Down South,” from 2020’s Self Made Man, “Preachin’ Blues,” from 2017’s Peach and a song written by Megan’s husband, with the temporary name “Two Step.” The performance ended with Blood Harmony’s “Bolt Cutters & The Family Name,” a gritty, rocking, robust number, displaying the power of each girl’s guitar skills, as the crowd joined in on “Woo Woo Hey Hey Hey.”

Despite the searing heat and thunderstorms the 14th Annual Rock, Ribs and Ridges Festival in Sussex County NJ, packed in another weekend of rockin’ good times. Already looking forward to year 15!