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Blackberry Smoke Feeling Fantastic To Be Back On The Road

Charlie Starr and Blackberry Smoke play the Corn Crib in Normal Saturday night
Blackberry Smoke
Charlie Starr and Blackberry Smoke play the Corn Crib in Normal on Saturday night.

Musicians and concert promoters are working their way back into larger live music events. Blackberry Smoke headlines one of two shows this weekend at the Corn Crib in Normal.

Band leader Charlie Starr said his Atlanta, Georgia-based band returned to the road last week playing outdoor shows in drive-in theater settings where audience members themselves were social distanced.

“Basically, we were on top of a mountain on a stage and everybody was down at the bottom of the mountain,” explained Starr. “So, it was like this huge expanse between the stage and the audience. There were big screens, you know, drive-in screens with video playing, but it was great. It was great to play music for people.”

That setup can be a challenge for many bands who play off an audience crammed up to the front of the stage.

“At this point, I don't have much of a choice,” said Starr. “So, I was really experiencing so much joy and just a release. Just being on stage with my buddies playing … just a fantastic feeling. It was immediate.”

The latest Blackberry Smoke album is the June release “Live from Capricorn Sound Studios.” It's an homage to the legendary studio in Macon, Georgia, and an homage to the town itself. The band covered six southern-rock staples songs with ties to the venerable studio and to Macon. Starr said the timing was not related to the pandemic.

“Well, it started a little more simply than that. We were trying to think of ways to promote our summer tour. That didn't happen thanks to COVID. But it was called 'The Spirit of the South Tour.' And we were going out with a few bands and friends of ours and (drummer) Jaimoe from the Allman Brothers, an original member. He was going to come too, and it was like a traveling festival. We'd all play a show, then the last show of the of the day or the night would be all of us playing Southern music from the Allman Brothers and Skynard and Marshall Tucker, and even Otis Redding and Little Richard and whatever felt right at the time, really,” said Starr.

He said the recording was spontaneous. When they found out the legendary studio was back open for business, recording there was a no-brainer.

“We'll go down and film ourselves playing some of these songs we love that are Capricorn songs some of them. So it was a promotional tool video, but it sounded great,” said Starr, adding the entire recording was completed in one afternoon by playing live with no overdubs.

“Jimmy Hall from Wet Willie came in and song a couple songs with us and played harmonica. Marcus Henderson from the Marshall Tucker Band played flute on (the Marshall Tucker Band song) “Take the Highway.” And so it was all really spontaneous,” said Starr, still glowing thinking about the Spring recording.

“Right as we finished there were some people in our camp that were like, ‘This is cool. There might be people who want to own this.’ And it was like, ‘Well, we're not a cover band. We have seven records of our own.’ But it was like, ‘OK, maybe there are, this is fine. The music is fun. It's enjoyable.’”

Obviously, the pandemic has forced everybody to stay home for long periods of time, which has forced people and businesses to rethink how the do business. Especially cubicle based businesses are asking if vast office space is needed anymore.

That’s a much more difficult lift for musicians who make the bulk of their income touring and playing live.

“It's forced us to unfortunately, like everyone else,” said Starr. "You turn to live streams and alternative forms of delivering your music to people.”

Similarly, long stretches in isolation has allowed the mind to open up in creative way. Starr said his mind different think in a different way, but it was working overtime.

“It just worked a lot and I wrote a bunch of songs and we made a new album. It'll probably see the light of day early next year. Hopefully we can tour it. Because that's the way we promote it.

Blackberry Smoke plays the Corn Crib in Normal Saturday night. Wild Feathers and Bloomington's Backyard Tire Fire open. On Friday night The Way Down Wanderers, Chicago Farmer and the Fieldnotes and special guest Dan Hubbard play the Corn Crib.

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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.