US touring hard rock mini festival Carnival of Madness made its way to the UK, including a stop at London’s Wembley Arena. With the event offering a line-up of Brooklyn-based trio Highly Suspect, the Lzzy Hale-led four-piece Halestorm and Jacksonville rockers Shinedown, headliners Black Stone Cherry were challenged to go above and beyond to follow such a stellar line-up of their peers.
10 years after the release of their eponymous debut album, this mainstay of the American hard rock scene have toured the US extensively as well as building a huge following across the pond early on, hitting up Donnington Park’s Download Festival a massive five times including headlining it’s Encore stage last summer. And while at first listen their music may come across as exactly what you might expect to hear from a Kentucky-based hard rock outfit – gritty vocals, heavy guitars and massive drums – Black Stone Cherry have proven that they bring so much more to the game.
The four-piece started their European tour in London not with tonight’s huge Wembley Arena show, but at the tiny Borderline Venue to 300-odd lucky fans in support of charity Teenage Cancer Trust. From the tiniest of stages to the biggest, the Chris Robertson-led band tore onto the North London stage shrouded behind a giant curtain which was dropped a few bars into 2014 single Me And Mary Jane which bled straight into rip-roaring debut album opener Rain Wizard. The hits kept flowing with 2008’s Blind Man up next.
“This is f***ing amazing, this is so beautiful” the frontman proclaimed, looking out at the 12,000-stong former Empire Pool venue crowd and asking “did you bring your singing voices with you tonight?” before slowing down the tempo with 2011 hit single In My Blood, handing over vocal duties to the audience as the song concluded.
A few bars of The Doors’ 1970 single Roadhouse Blues introduced Yeah Man ahead of Magic Mountain track Holding On…To Letting Go.
While Robertson largely stayed put behind a pair of microphones centre stage, Ben Wells on rhythm guitar and Jon Lawhon on bass guitar made the most of the vast Wembley stage, bounding about, switching places with each other, jumping up onto risers at either side of the stage and interjecting with backing vocals from whichever position they happened to be in at the time. Wells shook his blonde locks thoroughly with some clichéd head banging, but it was John Fred Young on drums that may just have trumped the sheer energy displayed by the axemen.
Following forthcoming album track In Our Dreams, the band departed leaving Young to a true rock show drum solo. Having to follow on from Arejay Hale’s efforts earlier in the evening, which included the Halestorm drummer jumping off his drum stool and landing in a seated position all while maintaining his drumming, Young had his work cut out for him. But he addressed the issue by playing harmonica along with drums before going completely apeshit on his setup, rounding out the solo by using his hands and arms to whack the kit.
Young then departed with Robertson returning for a solo acoustic take of Folklore And Superstition single Things My Father Said, real cigarette lighters rather than phones at the ends of swaying arms in the crowd. A stripped-back rendition of new album track The Rambler followed, the 30-year-old frontman stating that Kentucky will be “the most honest representation of Black Stone Cherry you’ll ever hear”. Halestorm’s Lzzy Hale was invited back onto the stage her band had player earlier in the night, joining Robertson for ballad Peace Is Free, her voice adding an extra dimension to the song.
The main set was rounded out with Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea tracks White Trash Millionaire and the not altogether necessary Blame It On The Boom Boom, the rockers leaving the stage only to return for a short encore of debut single Lonely Train and a brief foray into Motörhead’s Ace Of Spades, in tribute to the late Lemmy Kilmister. Wells and Lawhon went the extra mile, jumping around the stage and navigating platforms reaching up and behind Young’s drum riser while thrashing their respective guitars.
As frontman Robertson sings on Lonely Train, “you can’t judge a book looking at the cover” and so it is with Kentuckians Black Stone Cherry; there are layers beneath the surface of this American hard rock mainstay that deserve your attention. This wasn’t a huge arena rock show featuring runways, guitar duels, massive screens and bright theatrics but an old-fashioned rock show, with screaming guitars, heavy drums and some proper on-stage head-banging, proving that the energy and music of great bands are more than enough for the masses. That being said, it may just have been 2010 and 2013 Carnival of Madness headliners Shinedown who stole the show, frontman Brent Smith literally parting the crowd of the arena floor in two so he could reach the sound desk during their set.
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The four bands rounded out their UK stretch with Carnival of Madness hitting up Leeds and Manchester Arenas before Black Stone Cherry go on to follow a more usual touring schedule with Theory Of A Deadman throughout Europe and Shotgun Revolution across Scandinavia. Their fifth studio album Kentucky drops on April 1st.
Live Review by Kalpesh has more music photography up on his Flickr stream here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/somethingforkate