Saturday, 10 September 2016

Blackfoot's 'Southern Native' - Album Review

While the first wave of southern rock arguably died in 1977 with a tragic plane crash, the genre as a whole was not dead. With harder rock and metal growing more popular all the time, southern rock needed a heavier band to drag it away from it's country roots and into the 1980s. That band was Blackfoot. Despite originally forming in 1969 it was not until 1979, when their third album Strikes was released, that the band really started making waves. In fairness, the band had been on ice for some of that ten year period, with founding members Rickey Medlocke and Greg T. Walker both joining a fledgling line-up of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Lynyrd Skynyrd moved on without Medlocke and Walker however, which led to a revival of Blackfoot that set them on the path to become the southern rockers of the 1980s. Their rawer, bluesier, and heavier take on the genre was made for the 1980s, at a time when NWOBHM and glam bands were starting to get really popular. Lynyrd Skynyrd's more laid back country vibe would never have fitted in with these scenes, but Blackfoot proved they could rock as hard as any metal band, as is proved on their 1982 live album Highway Song Live which is a true classic. Like many bands however, Blackfoot's time passed and internal strife, line-up changes, and record company pressure caused the band to deviate from their established sound, and eventually split up in 1997. By this time Medlocke was the only original member left in the band, and his career took a decidedly upward turn from the depths Blackfoot had sunk by this point when he rejoined Lynyrd Skynyrd as a guitarist (he played drums during his first stint with the band), a position he still holds. Walker, Charlie Hargrett, and Jakson Spires (until his death in 2005) reformed Blackfoot in 2004 without Medlocke, and various incarnations continued to tour until 2011 when legal wranglings with Medlocke brought their version of Blackfoot to an end. The following year Medlocke unveiled a new version of Blackfoot. I had expected him to front a new band under the name, but instead he created a totally new band of unknown musicians under the Blackfoot name with himself acting as producer and manager for the group. This was a strange, and fairly unpopular move, but the new Blackfoot has been touring ever since. Last month saw the release of the first album of original material from this new version of the band, and the first Blackfoot album since 1994's After the Reign. At the band's core now are singer and guitarist Tim Rossi, bassist Brian Carpenter, and drummer Matt Anastasi.  Singer and guitarist Rick Krasowski joined the band earlier this year, but does not seem to be featured much on this new album (which is a shame, as watching recent live footage of the band paints him to be a better singer than Rossi), which is called Southern Native. It is produced by Medlocke, and the vast majority of the songs are a collaboration between him and Rossi. Medlocke also adds guitar to the album throughout, which helps to add some legitimacy to the recording. Despite the questions that this album raises (i.e. is this really a 'Blackfoot' album?), there are still songs to enjoy here.

The album starts off pretty strongly with two good songs. Need my Ride is a high-energy opening number that certainly channels the old Blackfoot spirit. The bluesy main riff and explosive short opening solo ensures the album starts off strong, and this is one of the album's best tunes. Rossi proves himself to be a pretty strong vocalist here, with some solid vocal melodies, but lacks the grit and character of Medlocke himself. Rossi and Medlocke play all of the album's guitar solos, and the one in the middle of this song is great with plenty of bluesy shredding that fit in with the fast pace of the song. A simple but strong chorus also adds to things, and overall the new era of Blackfoot gets off to a fine start. The southern strut of the title track follows and keeps up the good work. Despite sounding more like Medlocke's recent work with Lynyrd Skynyrd than classic Blackfoot, the song fits the canon well and packs a punch with another good chorus (aided by some great backing vocals from Stacy Michelle). Rossi proves himself in the guitar department too in the country-influenced guitar solo. An issue that these first couple of songs throw up however is the weak production. Both of these songs are out-and-out rockers, but the thin production holds them back somewhat. Neither of these songs come roaring through your speakers like classic Blackfoot would, and that definitely has an effect on the overall feeling the album gives you. Another issue is the drop in quality that the songwriting takes sometimes. Everyman is an example of this, and is shown up even more following two genuinely good rockers. The song is a bit of a ballad, but lacks the emotional impact or melodies that make those kind of songs great - this is no Diary of a Working Man or Highway Song, that is for certain! That being said, there are some nice bursts of bluesy lead guitar, and Carpenter's basslines are surprisingly melodic, so there are redeeming features. The dirty blues rock of Call of a Hero gets the album back on track with a big riff that sounds like something Black Stone Cherry might have come up with. This a proper southern rock song, with big guitars and a sing along chorus that is memorable from the first listen. Again however, I just cannot help but feel that the sterile production holds the song back from reaching it's full potential. A rawer, heavier overall sound would certainly help here. Take me Home, which is written by Marlon Young (who plays guitar for Kid Rock), opens with a great murky clean guitar pattern, that continues throughout. This is a much darker song than has come before on this album, and it stands out for that reason. This is a real guitarists' song, with loads of excellent lead and slide guitar lines which help to enhance the murky blues feel of the tune. Subtle keyboards (played by Lynyrd Skynyrd's Peter Keys) also add to the atmosphere, and make this into one of the album's best songs.

Another standout is a great cover of the old Procol Harum song Whiskey Train which seems much louder and in-your-face than anything else here. The song's riff, matched by some creative drumming from Anastasi, has serioud boogie to it, and the song is sure to get people moving when it is played live. There are also two distinct and excellent guitar solos here too, which again show that Medlocke has not lost his touch, and that Rossi is more than up the job of playing guitar in the true Blackfoot style. Satisfied Man gets back to the band's new original material, and is another good song built around a strong mid-paced guitar riff that drives the song throughout. Like Whiskey Train, this song sounds much louder than the rest of the album, and it makes you wonder if these songs were recorded over a long period of time in different batches. It is a shame the rest of the album does not sound as good as these two songs, as it would certainly have improved the impact of songs like Need my Ride. Ohio, a cover of the old Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song, is the album's last cover. While being listenable too, with a great twin guitar opening riff, it is certainly not a patch on Whiskey Train. Rossi turns in a pretty weak vocal performance on the song too, which is a shame as he does pretty well elsewhere, especially during the chorus where there are some really strange vocal harmonies that just seem out of place and grate on the ears. Love This Town is the last 'proper' song on the album, and this seems to be a deliberate attempt to create a feel-good party song similar to modern Lynyrd Skynyrd, but it falls short. For one, the chorus is weak without any big backing vocals to push it, and the lyrics are cheesy as anything. Medlocke lays down some excellent slide guitar however, which helps redeem the song somewhat. There is much better on this album however, and that is fairly evident when listening to this song. The album closes with a country/flamenco rock instrumental workout called Diablo Loves Guitar, which is quite good but seems a strange choice as a closing track. It would have been better placed as a mid-album change of pace in my opinion, and just seems tacked on in it's current position. Overall, Southern Native is a pretty solid album and has turned out better than most people probably thought it would. When listening to it however, despite having some songs that certainly channel the classic Blackfoot spirit, I do not feel like I am listening to Blackfoot. I am not quite sure what Medlocke is hoping to achieve with this 'new' band. They are all good musicians, but listening to Southern Native just makes me wish he was singing these songs rather than Rossi. My guess is that he feels Lynyrd Skynyrd's days are numbered due to Gary Rossington's failing health, and will properly re-join Blackfoot in the future, but creating this whole new, younger Blackfoot in the meantime seems a very strange decision. It just sets a bit of a dangerous precedent going forward where other bands could end up carrying on without any original members long into the future. I hope this is not the case, and Medlocke actually does re-join the band like I think he will, but until then we have 'Blackfoot' and Southern Native. A decent album, but certainly a strange turn of events!

The album was released on 5th August 2016 via Loud & Proud Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Southern Native.

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