Review: Black Stone Cherry/Kris Barras – Exeter University

Black Stone CherryI have been lucky enough to attend a number of gigs since the long period where live music was silenced came to an end. Each one has only featured bands from the UK however, as the restrictions on travel and the additional costs and time of the imposed periods of isolation led to bands from Europe and The States pulling out. It was therefore a massive demonstration of the affection between band and fans that Black Stone Cherry bucked that trend and treated the UK to a full tour in medium-sized venues. It was also an unexpectedly emotional experience!

Opening the evening at what was pretty much a home venue were the Kris Barras Band. The venue was rammed to bursting by the time the band took to the stage, showing the esteem in which Kris is held. I have followed the band for a number of years, and there has been a steady and relentless change in direction from blues, to a much heavier sound, almost redolent of the headliners tonight. Since those first gigs the rhythm section has changed (now featuring Kelpie on bass and Billy on drums) and Josiah has moved from behind the keyboards to fill a more than capable second guitarist role, but it is the muscled and tattooed Barras that is the focus of attention with some sensational playing. The set opened with a new song “Dead Horses” which showcased the evolved direction beautifully with a massive riff and raw vocals alongside a sing-along chorus.

Kris BarrasThe set is a great mix of older KB classics (“Rock n’ Roll Running Through My Veins”, “Ignite (Light It Up)”) and newer songs, including a seriously impressive guitar duel between Manning and Barras that shows that the former is no slouch on a fretboard alongside his keyboard and production skills. Set closer “Hail Mary” gets the usual huge reaction from the crowd and again, shows the different focus as Kris avoids the expected showboating of playing behind his back and with his teeth (fun as it was to watch and photograph) to simply shred the frets off his guitar with a sensational solo.

Then it was time for some choir practice as a series of metal and rock standards blared out over the PA and were gleefully sung by every person present before the lights went down and “Bohemian Rhapsody” raised the volume even further.

Black Stone CherryThe volume paled into insignificance as the band casually wandered on stage and waved hello, took up their positions, and RIPPED into “Me and Mary Jane”. Damn it is a powerful way to open a show. Chris Robertson bellowed out the opening lyric with so much power the sound levels must have gone past red into infra-red, Ben Wells kicked, leapt, ran, posed, cajoled and rocked as if plugged into the mains, new bass player Steve Jewell (replacing Jon Lawhon who is not currently touring) flung hair and provided a driving rhythm, and behind them John Fred Young, who has to be one of the most hard-hitting drummers anywhere, absolutely battered his kit.

Black Stone CherryIt is clear from the off that this tour means a LOT to the band. The emotion is palpable each time either Chris or Ben addresses the crowd and talks about how hard the last year or so has been and how much it means to them to be back onstage. Often when reviewing I will go through the setlist song by song, but this wasn’t a playlist, this was the coming together of long-separated friends in a communion, and that feeling provides all of the memories that I want to capture better than a tracklist.

Two particular moments stand out.

Firstly, Chris on stage, alone, emotionally incredibly vulnerable as he spoke about his father passing away so recently and how the song he was about to play now meant more to him than it ever had before. Playing “Things My Father Said” alone, his voice cracking with emotion and occasionally having to let the crowd fill in the gaps where he needed to recompose, he bought many of us to tears as we thought of those we had lost. The sight of the auditorium absolutely alive with twinkling lights as he sang the last verse and chorus was simply beautiful. There is no better way to understand the void that losing live music left in people’s lives than seeing the reaction of the crowd to what was an utterly sublime and extraordinarily brave performance.

Black Stone CherryThen after a run to the finish comprising of “Blame It On The Boom Boom”, “White Trash Millionaire” and “Lonely Train” the band left the stage. Chris and Ben returned for the encore “Peace Is Free”. I LOVE this song and the way it was delivered was gentle and subtle, which I thought was going to be a brave way to end the set when most bands would have left on a big, bombastic ending.

Not a chance.
Not even close.

The song got bigger and bigger. The band growing to full strength, Then Robertson spoke one more time and laid down how it felt to be doing what they do. He told every person in the venue that they WERE going to give the last verse EVERYTHING and not one person was going to stand there and watch. Now at this point, I was pretty close to the stage and I have NEVER seen someone look as he did as he ripped into the last lyrics. It was a level of intensity I don’t think I have experienced and it will stay with me for a very long time. “Don’t you bring your sadness down on me” – has there been a better lyric to sum up what are have all come through? If there is, I can promise you it has not been sung in a more meaningful, emotional, or heartfelt way.

Review and photos – Rob & Danni Wilkins

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