Loved by ZZ Top, befriended by Skynyrd and Gregg Allman says they’re “gonna put southern rock back on the map”. We joined Blackberry Smoke on the road as they met their adoring British public.
It’s a wintery night in Manchester, but inside the steamy confines of the Ritz club teenage blues wunderkind Aaron Keylock is warming up the audience in the sold-out 1,500-capacity venue for tonight’s main attraction.
On a sofa on the balcony, one fifth of that main attraction is watching proceedings with interest. Richard Turner, bassist with new southern rock kings Blackberry Smoke, is a towering, shaggy-haired, leather-trousered giraffe of a man, but no one has noticed him yet.
Or they hadn’t until one member of the audience bounds over and promptly drops his trousers. For an alarming second, he looks poised to make an indecent proposition. But then the reason for his exhibitionism becomes clear: his thigh is adorned with a large, ornate Blackberry Smoke logo.
Firmly clasping Turner’s own thigh, he pulls his trousers back up. “In 1969 I discovered Hank Marvin!” he bellows. “In 1976 I discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd! And about eight years ago I discovered Blackberry Smoke. You’re the best fucking band in the world!”
Over-enthusiasm aside, he may have a point. Right now Blackberry Smoke are the best band in the world at what they do. They come from the same ‘Stetsons ’n’ Southern Comfort’ school of music as Lynyrd Skynyrd, but rather than just churn out knackered old Free Bird rip-offs they blend bluegrass, Delta, gospel, classic rock and even metal in their music – a bourbon-soaked trucker beard of countrified cheer for people who also love Aerosmith and Metallica. This is 21st-century southern rock’n’roll. And, it seems, it’s worth dropping your trousers for.
Turner takes it well, even as more fans stream across and ask for photos on their phone. “Fans are mostly pretty well-behaved in the UK,” he says, as his gaggle of new friends eventually disperse.