by Geno Thackara
Open air, blue sky, a cool breeze, a view of the river at sunset and a not-too-obnoxious jam-band crowd to celebrate with: you can hardly find a better way to spend an August evening out in Philly. The Festival Pier is an invitingly small amphitheater right on the Schuylkill river – seriously, it’s close enough that a crazy person could probably swan-dive from backstage straight into the water if they really wanted to – and has the shape of a stadium tent without the lawn full of picnickers…or the tent. On the downside, it’s all concrete and they allow smoking (though tobacco smoke was really in the minority ify’knowhatImean). On the upside, the standing room keeps the vibe energetic and gives you a chance to drift within ten feet of the stage if you’re patient. With our recent 90s heat wave settling down to a balmy 83° or so as night fell, it made almost the perfect climate for a night of grit, blues and boogie.
Stir up a spicy melting pot of equal parts Southern soul, fired-up country, hippie reggae and dirty rock and roll, and if you’re lucky you’ll get a result like Blackberry Smoke. The Atlanta five-piece smoked the crowd indeed with a blistering set to start things off. Previewing some hard-kicking new material like “Believe You Me” and “Waiting for the Thunder,” they’re clearly stoked about their forthcoming fifth album Like an Arrow, but you can already tell these are the kind of guys who give it their all every night already. For anyone spotting T-shirts while watching the audience last night (I’m not the only one who does this, right?), Blackberry’s name was the most common to be seen alongside all the Mule and Allman Brothers Band logos*.
If anyone might have started out wondering why they have such fervent fans, there was surely no doubt left once the hour was over. Charlie Starr gave his best Robert Plant wail with Led Zeppelin’s “Your Time Is Gonna Come” before the others added sizzling guitars and funky keys; later on they turned to Bob Marley and wrapped up with an endearing “Three Little Birds” to bring everyone together. The band is all about not just music but the shared experience. Clearly they’ve spent their years on the road earning that devotion with sweat and hard work.
Among diehard road dogs, though, few can compete with the likes of Gov’t Mule. Warren Haynes let us know we were in the presence of a master guitarist from the moment his grungy slide introduced “Hammer and Nails.” Apart from one mid-set technical snafu, they pounded the place for a solid two and a half hours with barely a pause for breath. They slid from the highway thump of “Driving Rain” to the flying groove of “I’ll Be the One” and back again so smoothly it seemed effortless.
The band is a tireless workhorse as a unit, but Haynes is nonetheless the star of the show, always well-lit and taking the lion’s share of barn-burning solos. At the same time the less featured contributions are just as key if you listen. Danny Louis squealed on a whole array of analog keyboards while the Abts/Carlsson rhythm section kept the low end grooving without a hitch. The group offered plenty of their trademark jams and fun surprises through the set – making mini-mash-ups by sprinkling in teases from “Message in a Bottle” to “When Doves Cry,” then spinning a hypnotic “Thorazine Shuffle” medley into fifteen minutes of cowbell-tastic trance.
Starr came back to join the others for nearly half an hour of trading solos on Rod Stewart and Rolling Stones covers before they sent us off. Like the previous sets, it was full of electric juice and as happily good-natured as you could possibly want. In a night full of great high points, the closing peak came from everyone sharing the stage as good friends – whatever the band or style, that’s what it’s really all about.
*Of COURSE Grateful Dead tie-dyes were the most numerous by far, but those are just so obvious they don’t really count. Official rules.