Spirit of the South Tour

Spirit of the South Tour – The Rooftop at Pier 17, NYC – 8/25/2021

Blackberry Smoke

Allman Betts Band

The Wild Feathers

Although it was a year later than planned, the Southern Rock band, Blackberry Smoke, was determined that the Spirit of the South Tour would take place in 2021, despite Covid-19 continuing to wreak havoc across parts of the US. While some bands began dipping their toes into the performance waters early in the summer, many more artists put their whole foot in as the summer progressed. From small indoor establishments, to large outdoor venues, musicians have been gracing stages across the US, and thrilling audience members hungry for the excitement and passion that live music inspires. Whether the music is classical, jazz, blues, rock, metal, or any genre in between or beyond, if you feel a strong connection to the music, a live performance draws you in, heightens that emotional connection, and leaves you feeling energized and exhilarated.

It was that energy and passion that spilled across NYC’s Rooftop at Pier 17, on August 25th, for a celebration of good ole “Southern Rock and Roll,” for the Spirit of the South Tour. The tour was slated to include, The Wild Feathers, the Allman Betts Band, Blackberry Smoke, and some “special guests” each evening. Southern rock is described as a sub genre of rock music that incorporates rock and roll, blues and country.  It has been part of the musical landscape in the US since the early 1970s, and its roots can be traced back to the legendary Allman Brothers Band, hailing from Macon, Georgia. Throughout the 1970s, there was a flourish of Southern rock groups emerging throughout the South. While these bands originated in the South, their sound and vibe didn’t remain in a Southern bubble. It made its way from South to North and East to West, and caught the attention of fans throughout America.

By the 80s and 90s, and into the new millennium, there was a shift in musical interests and focus in the US. As new artists emerged, Southern rock continued to play a part in the foundation of many bands, but there was often the additional influence of punk, metal and alternative sounds. Although Southern rock was not at the forefront of the national scene, many of the originators of Southern rock never left the musical arena.  Their songs continued to be played on select radio stations, and they toured in pockets of the US with a strong fan base.

It was in Atlanta, Georgia, with that ongoing audience for Southern rock, where Blackberry Smoke was formed in 2000, and released their debut album in 2003. Over the past 20 years, Blackberry Smoke has performed across the US as a headliner, and supporting act for an impressive range of Southern rock and Country bands. They’ve released 7 studio albums, 2 live albums and 5 EPs. Their albums have seen success on Billboard Country and Americana/Folk charts, as well as the UK Rock and Independent Album charts. As a sign that the band has no intention of slowing down, nor allowing the pandemic to stop them from creating music, their most recent studio album, You Hear Georgia, was released on May 28, 2021.

There was no better time than the Spirit of the South Tour for Blackberry Smoke to showcase their new album, and share the night (and Southern rock energy and spirit), with bands who’ve emerged on the scene over the past decade.  In an era where much of rock music is looked at or listened to from a rearview mirror, these bands are looking straight ahead and stepping on the engine, and their fans are happy to go along for the ride.  During these past 2 decades, new music has frequently leaned away from instruments, and bands, relying heavily on computers and electronics. I believe this partially contributed to an increased interest in country music (with musicians continuing to play instruments), and connecting with the audience. However, for those who lean towards a more rock and roll sound and feel, with the energy, pace, instruments, and rock vibe, Southern rock does provides many with a rock sound they’ve been missing, but with a dose of good ole Southern charm.

The Spirit of the South Tour was opened up by The Wild Feathers, a Southern rock band, with a mix of Americana, blues and folk, hailing from Nashville, Tennessee. The band originally formed in 2010, and has released 4 studio albums and 1 live record. The 3 guitar players/singers shared lead vocals, and beautiful harmonizing, while their drummer played with passion equal to the word “wild” in the band’s name. Their collective energy and spirit was infectious, and made clear that The Wild Feathers were as thrilled to be on the Spirit of the South Tour, as were their fans to have them there. From soulful, passionate numbers “Hard Times” and “Left My Woman,” to the pulsating drums of “Side Street Shakedown,” to the twangy country rock sound of “Ain’t Looking,” the band’s music and stage presence was infectious.

While the Allman Betts Band is new to the music scene as a cohesive group, each member was an established musician before joining forces in late 2018, and hitting the road in early 2019 to tour their newly recorded debut album, “Down to the River.” With 3 band members direct descendants of the originators of Southern rock, it’s no coincidence that Southern rock is in their blood. However, the members of the Allman Betts Band have taken their roots and nurtured them into their own blooming orchard. Their music is original, passionate, energetic and energizing. No two songs sound the same and each has an individual feel. The same can be said for every musician in the band. Each one has his own skills, sound, and style, and is an integral part of the band. Devon Allman, with his rich, smooth, soulful voice, is the “rocker” in the band, while Duane Betts, showcasing incredible guitar skills, showcases a bit of country feel. Berry Duane Oakley brings a sense of centeredness, and depth, both with the rhythm of his bass guitar and his glowing grin on stage. The band wouldn’t be complete without the amazing musical talents of the remaining 4 band members, Johnny Stachela, playing a mead slide guitar, John Ginty, superb on keyboards, and John Lum, and R Scott Bryan on drums and percussion, adding the layers of beat and texture to every song. While the Allman Betts Band is less than 3 years old, the music they have created, and the fans they’ve amassed in that short period is amazing 

From ABB’s 12-minute opening number, the Duane Betts penned “Savannah’s Dream,” the crowd at Pier 17 was fully energized.  Despite the 93 degree heat, throughout the hour-long set audience members cheered, sang along, and were as enthused as fans who’d been connected to a band for decades. Yes, Allman Brothers fans do adore the legacy the Allman Betts Band brings with them. They love that Duane appears to be a carbon copy of his father, and that Devon is obviously an “Allman.” However, that’s not what has kept fans coming to see the Allman Betts Band. They purchase Allman Betts albums, learn the words to all the songs, and repeatedly return to the hear the band play live because the music and the musicians are just that good.  The set included a mix of Allman Brothers covers, including “Midnight Rider” and “Blue Sky,” a tribute to Charlie Watts, with the Stone’s “Dead Flowers,” and a combination of Allman Betts songs that showcased the lead vocals of Devon Allman and Duane Betts. As thrilled as the audience was to be there, the band members appeared to be  equally enjoying themselves on stage…..an hour was just too short.

As the headliner of the Spirit of the South Tour, Blackberry Smoke was the final act of the night.  Before the band even made its way onto the stage, it was obvious that the rooftop crowd was filled with massive Blackberry Smoke fans. There was an excitement in the air as the fans eagerly talked amongst themselves and awaited the band’s arrival. The moment the band entered the stage the cheers from hundreds of eager fans filled the evening sky. Having never personally seen Blackberry Smoke in concert, nor even heard their music, I was completely enthralled by the scene and the experience. The Blackberry Smoke fans were an eclectic mix of ages, backgrounds, and styles. However, what everyone had in common was a passion for the band and their music. 

From the moment the band members stepped onto the stage, opening their set with “You Hear Georgia” and “Live it Down,” from their most recent album,  the crowd was completely engaged. Each song brought cheers, hoots, shouts for “Charlie” (the band’s lead vocalist/guitar player) and clusters of fans singing and dancing to the high energy of the music, including during “Payback’s a Bitch,” “Waiting for the Thunder,” and “Shakin’ Hands With the Holy Ghost.”  Every song brought an equal amount of enthusiasm from the crowd; they were just all hits to these diehard fans. 

With a distinct twang in Starr’s voice, the songs fluctuated from a Southern rock feel, to a Country rock vibe….but always with a foundation of rock and roll. Newest member of the band, guitar player Benji Shanks, and founding member, guitar player/singer Paul Jackson, jammed throughout the set, while original member, bass player Richard Turner, remained steadfast and stoic, keeping the rhythm of the band, alongside the band’s back-up singers, The Black Bettys.  Additional band members include, drummer and founding member, Brit Turner, whose sly grin could be noted peaking through his massive beard, newcomer percussionist Preston Holcomb, and keyboardist with the band for over a decade, Brandon Still.

While no single band member is responsible for a band’s overall functioning, I have to say Charlie Starr, in my humble opinion, is that shining star. (Having picked the stage name Starr, Starr was able to make it a reality.) It is hard to draw your attention away from Starr as he sings and performs; his stage personality is magnetic. Starr addressed the crowd shortly into the set, while audience members hung on his every word.  “When they said show time is 7:30, I was like…7:30!?? No, really, I said, 7:30….hot damn. Time for an episode of Matlock, soak my feet and get to bed. I’m getting old.”  While Starr didn’t spend much time chatting with the audience, he didn’t need to do so to make a connection with his adoring fans.  

Throughout the hour and a half set, slower melodic songs, like The “Whippoorwill” and more soulful pieces, like “Medicate My Mind,” were mixed in with the energetic, spirited numbers. However, regardless of the mood of the song, each one was sung with the utmost passion and spirit. That is what I’ve been learning as I’ve stepped deeper into the world of Southern rock. It is about passion and spirit, connected to relatability and realness. Country music has always been known for telling stores….stories people can relate to and connect with. Southern rock takes a piece of that realness, and adds a rock and roll energy and vibe. In a world where the landscape of music has drastically changed over the past 20 years, Southern rock is a reminder where music once was and where it still can be. What is old can be new again, with the right twists, turns and creativity. That is what these Spirit of the South bands all possess…the ability to take a sound and a feeling that has been around for over 50 years and make it just as new and fresh. Blackberry South has been successfully doing so for over 20 years, while the  Allman Betts Band, rather new to the game, started out with a bang and has been skyrocketing ever since. Any of these bands are a must-see if they come to your area, but surely so if you have the privilege of seeing them together. The Spirit of the South Tour, a must see.

Photos and Review by Rebecca Wolf