Blackberry Smoke needs a better stage

What a kick in the dick. I’ve been jacked up for literally months now, waiting to see a band that I love in New Orleans’ newest, hottest music venue The Fillmore New Orleans. The hype was intense, the initial line-up pretty damn hot for New Orleans. The fucking Foo Fighters were going to light the place up and then it would be properly baptized for me to roll in on a Thursday night and rock out to Blackberry Smoke. WRONG.

This was supposed to be a concert review, but I will warn you now to walk away if that’s all you want. This is going to be a ranting diatribe instead.

To get to the Fillmore NOLA, you have to walk through Harrah’s Casino, which is one of the shittiest, most pathetic casinos I’ve ever been to. And I’ve been to a lot of them, I love to gamble. I remember when Harrah’s was new and exciting, and the casino gave a crap about its “customers” who were feeding millions into the slots and table rakes. Now, they bus geriatrics with oxygen tanks over from God-knows-where to blow their retirement. The table sections, which used to be hopping with excitement, are now pathetic and sad with minimums so high the only patrons are degenerate gamblers and tourists. And this is the opening salvo for the Fillmore, which is upstairs in the Masquerade lounge.

Once you get upstairs, there are several sinewing corridors with tons of people working: ticket takers, 3 folks working the metal detector, another 4 people working the line that consisted of just me and my wife. Where are all the people? And maybe it’s Thursday night, and maybe this is New Orleans, and maybe Blackberry Smoke doesn’t draw the way I hoped they would. At least not in this town. But as we work through all of this unnecessary rigamarole, my excitement is turning to fear and anxiety. Am I a fucking sucker?

Yep. We round the corner into the venue, and it’s confirmed. Big long bar in the back as you enter, 15 bartenders, and me. And my wife I guess. Neon glowing crappy lights all under and around the bar. Hot bartendrixes fake-vibing to Chris Shifflett who has just taken the stage. Please God no. Maybe it gets better?

It doesn’t. We take our overpriced, under-poured drinks and move into the venue entering from the back right side. Chandeliers on the ceiling with blue or purple lighting. Please God no. The VIP sections which I heard so much about? Two long fenced-off sections on the sides with a few bar tables. The “reserved seats” which were offered for almost twice the price of the $25 general admission tickets? Fucking high school stadium bleachers 150 feet from the stage, tucked in the back.

Awesome “reserved seats”.

I. Should. Have. Known. Better.

Why did I get so excited? I should have known better, I should have seen this coming. A shitty casino opening a music venue like this should have reeked from the start. There is not one amenity in this entire building that is worth paying for. The VIP experience looks like a total let down. The food looked inedible: I mean fucking seriously, who wants to eat Deep Fried Pickles & Jalapenos at a concert??

Oh no, it’s getting worse. There are drink cart girls sashaying through the crowd with blinking glowsticks attached to their back. Presumably so we can find them in the massive crowd of 400 geriatric bikers (2,200 seat capacity). I didn’t see one floor drink sold the entire evening. The vibe is shitty and manufactured. Pretentious. Devoid of any character.

Drink girl with blinkies.

A long time ago, I went to Razzoo’s with a particularly cheesy acquaintance from college, and he paid the doorman to rope off a 10’x10′ section in the corner. In fucking Razzoo’s. That’s what this is. This is his venue. For the first time in my life, I understand the millenials’ dilemma. My generation has sold the fuck out. Casinos are ruining music. LiveNation is leading these touring bands around on a leash, trying to control every cent of the value chain. Bleeding the artists out because there are no other options, then leaving them left for dead once the crowds catch on.

I know, I know. Who the fuck am I? I get it, this has been said before, and it will be said again. Almost over, bear with me.

The crowd. Holy shit. Literally a geriatric biker gang. Now this may just be the hardcore following of Blackberry Smoke that gets drowned out at a festival, diluted in the masses. Where are the kids? Shit, it’s only $25 to see a great band. So what if it’s Thursday night? Show’s over by 11pm, get off your couch. Where are the 30-somethings even? I spot the NOLA County guy in the back with his awesome NOLA County vest. He looks like he’s seen a horror movie. We’re on the same wavelength buddy.

I can’t understand Fillmore NOLA’s raison d’etre. Why are we doing this? Is it as simple as Harrah’s takes so much off our old and poor that they are willing to subsidize a music venue to get more people through the casino doors? Maybe. The venue is too big. I notice that of roughly 30 shows posted on the website through May, only 6 of them have sold out. Kudos to the Foo Fighters, Avett Brothers, Revivalists, and seriously to Dan & Shay. The line-up overall is pretty good, likely the product of poaching solid booking talent from other venues.

The implications of the opening of Fillmore NOLA will be far-reaching. It’s going to put House of Blues under, and within 10 minutes you will realize that HOB is a much better venue. It’s going to hurt the bottom line for the Saenger, the Joy, the Orpheum making it harder for them to book good talent at their size level. And eventually, it’s not going to work. Maybe Harrah’s doesn’t have to reconcile with that. Maybe the Fillmore’s bottom line is really of no consequence for the casino, maybe half the 400 bikers hit a table or a slot on the way in or out and that covers the cost. Regardless, this is a disruptor for a live music scene that has evolved and come together so nicely recently. The Fillmore is engineered live music, attempting to manufacture an atmosphere and neglecting the organic root essential to providing consistently good show experiences.

OK, onto the music. Rant over. I’m genuinely sorry for that, I’m not a negative person by nature.

Chris Shiflett, Foo Fighters guitarist, opened the show. He’s sort of honky tonky on his own, much moreso than the Foos. The bass guy is wearing a Mexican rug, I’d imagine he’s got the good stuff. The music is loose and a little sloppy. There’s no connection with the crowd, which in Chris’ defense could easily be the crowd’s fault. A few promising moments are sprinkled in through an otherwise inconsequential set. Chris is clearly disappointed in the crowd as he walks offstage.

Blackberry Smoke is one of my favorite bands. It’s half southern rock and half country twang. I wish they’d ditch the country side eventually. Not that it’s not good, it’s damn good. But that’s a severely over-served market today with XYZ Production Company cranking out male country heartthrobs in a never-ending parade of Jason Aldeans. Blackberry Smoke is better at country music than most of that genre.

But where they really shine is in the Black Crowes southern rock genre. This is by no means a copycat band, they only played a select few covers the entire night. Charlie Starr is the star clearly, he has a distinct voice similar to Chris Robinson’s unique vocal sound. But let me be clear, he does not sound LIKE Chris Robinson, twangier and less gruff. And he has awesome stage presence, a real rocker. The supporting cast is pretty damn good too, especially the keyboardist Brandon Still.

The Blackberry Smoke set was actually really good despite my other issues with the evening. Acoustics are fine but not great in the Fillmore, and the advantage of a mediocre crowd is that you can easily push up to the stage and be comfortable. The band opened with “Leave a Scar”, and the crowd was transformed. Throw your walkers to the side bikers. This is what they were here for clearly.

Blackberry Smoke at the Fillmore NOLA, 2/21/2019.

The set was hard-hitting and consistent, the juxtaposition with the opening act couldn’t have been more stark. My mood is lifting. The band rolls through their rolodex of songs with “Good One Comin’ On”, “Ought to Know”, and “Waiting for the Thunder”. They intro “Sleeping Dogs”, the angry fight song. Then a cool transition into a really good cover of “Come Together”. My wife, who is bored out of her mind because she doesn’t know the songs, says “Yay Aerosmith!” I choose to ignore her. The coolest part of the show is a song break with Charlie Starr describing his history in New Orleans culminating with an ill-advised trip to the Mermaid Lounge to go down the rabbit hole.

The band moves into “Restless” and “One Horse Town”. A nice set altogether, easily worth the $25 entry and the crappy expensive drinks and the biker sweat smell. They haven’t played my favorite Blackberry Smoke song “Ain’t Much Left of Me”, and I’m hopeful this weak crowd can pull the encore out. They muscle through, barely. Literally 4 guys (and myself) coax the band back onstage. Charlie’s wearing a Bob Dylan Last Waltz hat, and I fucking love it. They rip right into it, and I’m happy.

Charlie “Bob Dylan” Starr.

Then into a quick cover of “Dixie Chicken”. As an aside, “Dixie Chicken” and Little Feat in general are like top of the list all-time for me. But the cover is overdone, there’s nothing more to add. Too many people doing it. Sorry Charlie, you’re not Lowell George. “Come Together” was a much better use of my time, and frankly the band’s time as well.

We’re at the end. We unceremoniously exit this hellhole, through the shitty casino, and into a cab. Night over. I got to see a great band for cheap. And all I can do is complain. And complain. And complain. Fuck the Fillmore.

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