Blackberry Smoke: Like an Arrow

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Blackberry Smoke
Like an Arrow
(Thirty Tigers)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Even for the hard working Blackberry Smoke, a band that has been at it since 2001, the past four years have been productive ones. This is the third studio album the Southern rocking quintet has released since 2012’s The Whipperwill breakthrough, along with a live disc and simultaneous DVD of a typically energetic 2014 performance. While the group’s direction stays rooted in the red clay soil that has created its solid and growing fan base, they expand their boundaries, at least slightly, for Like an Arrow.

It’s likely Blackberry Smoke will never entirely break free of the Lynyrd Skynyrd comparisons attached to the dueling guitars/keyboards sound they traffic in. Still, there is stylistic room to roam. Songs such as the tough, sinewy riff heavy title track, the Bad Company/Brit rock inspired opening “Waiting for the Thunder” with its arm-waving chorus, the grinding rocker “Ought to Know,” and blue collar anthem “Working for a Working Man” are some of the hardest, most powerful tracks in Smoke’s studio history.

Conversely, lower wattage, more pensive material such as the bluesy ballad “The Good Life” and the breezy “Running Through Time” (both co-written with veteran Nashville songsmith Travis Meadows), display a more sensitive side. The same holds for the closing “Free on the Wing” where kindred spirit and Smoke supporter Gregg Allman guests on vocals for a song clearly inspired by “Midnight Rider” even though the somewhat clunky lyrics of “People just want you to be/what they want you to be” come up short in the creativity department. The lilting, reflective “Ain’t Gonna Wait” with its acoustic guitar/mandolin underpinnings provides more ying to the yang of the chugging boogie of the appropriately titled “Let it Burn,” the latter a return to the act’s bar band roots.

This is Blackberry Smoke’s first self-produced higher profile project, recorded in their home state of Georgia,  close to their Atlanta home base. While there aren’t drastic changes to their sound, there’s a sense of sureness to the songwriting, playing and Charlie Starr’s singing that reflects a decade and a half of the same dudes slinging it out together on the endless highway.

The Southern rock genre was never the hippest way to make a living even at its peak. But for those whose eyes glaze over in rapture when the name Ronnie Van Zant gets mentioned, Blackberry Smoke fills the bill for the next generation of gutsy, heartfelt and honest Southeast rocking with plenty of talent, tons of drive and no apologies.