Black Stone Cherry
American purveyors of backwoods rock chug their way through an impressive set at Mandela Hall
So, first things first, Black Stone Cherry are a band who play their material loud, really loud. In fact, these strutting rockers are possessed of some seriously good tunes. While few are subtle they are, nevertheless, delivered with a grimy backwoods confidence and the speakers turned all the way up to 11.
In an era where manufactured pop becomes less obvious, insidiously taking on what it imagines to be a more ‘authentic’ exterior, one feels incredibly refreshed to hear actual rock played for its own sake, free of cynicism, shorn of the nonsense.
No, Black Stone Cherry are for real, lacking any knowing silliness, and if they are hardly alone in tacking closely to the genre’s traditional hard-edged roots, their live show still offers a gloriously enthusiastic tribute to the music Gods.
Regular visitors to Belfast over the course of the last few years, this quartet – lead vocalist and guitarist Chris Robertson, rhythm guitarist Ben Wells, bassist John Lawhon and drummer John Fred Youngs –springs from southern Kentucky to unleash itself on the UK and Ireland in support of a fourth studio album, Magic Mountain.
Mandela Hall in the Queen’s Students Union is the venue, where the low ceilings create a fittingly dank sound box inside which Black Stone Cherry might deliver their stew of ballsy Americana.
Exuding the hillbilly vibe he is clearly aiming for, Robertson sports (as one would almost hope) a sleeveless Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt and trucker hat. His voice is remarkably good: strong, pure and smoky, its bluesy twang never lost beneath the wall of sound that he and his compatriots churn out with wild abandon.
Opening up with ‘Rain Wizard’ and ‘Blind Man’, they offer explosive classics from the group’s earlier catalogue. This is genuine Dixie rock packaged for the quick-fire age, and Black Stone Cherry are aiming for a generous set to give the punters – of which there are a great many – adequate bang for their buck.
To that end, the collective’s presence is as energetic as its music. Wells and Lawhon race from one side of the stage to the other, stand defiantly atop their amps and implore the crowd to sing along.
The blond, baby-faced Wells is a natural showman, his look sitting somewhere between misplaced Californian surf bum and chirpy hayseed. He spends almost as much time with his hands outstretched towards the audience as he does strumming his guitar.
He asks if everyone is enjoying this ‘big redneck rock-and-roll party’ before informing the attendees that Belfast was left off the initial list of dates for the tour, an oversight that he and his colleagues quickly sought to remedy. He may well say that everywhere, though it goes down a storm here.
A more grounded presence, Robertson is not to be trifled with as he belts out ‘Me and Mary Jane’ – the band’s penultimate single – a swaggering slice of hedonism, which showcases the pounding Cherry signature sound. The same style could be attached to the simple but aspirational ‘Maybe Someday’.
‘Such a Shame’ exhibits a darker, rougher spirit. References to death and desolation are far from unusual in this genre, yet for men who appear to greatly enjoy their work, the song is a morbid departure from those pouting, feel-good ‘rawk’ sensibilities.
Mercifully, ‘White Trash Millionaire’, a brilliant two-fingered salute to all things refined, reclaims the jolly tone. The lyrics won’t changed the world but are terribly amusing. ‘I wanna be a white trash millionaire,’ sings Robertson. ‘Ain’t got much and I don't care. Count your cash and kiss my ass. This whole damn world’s gonna know I been here.’
When Youngs is left alone to perform a raucous, if somewhat meandering drum solo, it seems clear that the Black Stone Cherry boys like to spread the glory around. They even grant a gracious nod to their betters before the end, building Eric Clapton’s iconic ‘Layla’ riff into the prolonged bridge of ‘Blame It on the Boom Boom’. Robertson can’t help but grin as he caresses that haunting melody.
The encore is an uplifting affair thanks to ‘Peace is Free’, a relatively thoughtful ballad with lighter-waving overtones. Not exactly a moonshine anthem but the sound system might very well be worn out.
Visit the Queen's Student's Union website for information on forthcoming events.