Black Stone Cherry release their Live From The Royal Albert Hall… Y’All! DVD/CD of last September’s performance at the iconic venue today. They have also announced a co-headline UK arena tour with The Darkness for early 2023. MetalTalk’s Paul Monkhouse sat down with the band in London this week.
Sometimes the planets just align, and wonderful things happen. With the promise of train strikes happening, the thought of getting to and around London was not an inspiring prospect. Still, when your editor asks if you want to join him and interview two of the premier rock acts on the planet, you know you’ve got to move heaven and earth to get there. The news was huge: Black Stone Cherry and The Darkness were joining forces for a UK arena tour.
Easily one of the best live bands on the circuit, Black Stone Cherry had just attended the film premiere of their monumental Royal Albert Hall show, the quartet exuding bonhomie and happy in the knowledge that a lifelong dream has now been captured for posterity.
The courtesy and warmth that the band are renowned for was plainly evident, singer/guitarist Chris Robertson, guitarist Ben Wells, drummer John Fred Young and bassist Steve Jewell were friendly, thoughtful and full of natural Southern hospitality.
Black Stone Cherry have a huge passion for the UK, and that feeling is certainly reciprocated by the fans over this side of the pond. “It’s overwhelming still,” Ben Wells says, “and people always ask why the UK versus anywhere, and we really just don’t know the answer. We’ve asked some of our fans, and the thing that we hear the most back from them is that we just try to be ourselves all the time. We try to be humble and personal, and we try to talk to everybody. I think that’s appreciated, which to us, that’s something that just should be a part of everyday life.”
The band has been watching the Albert Hall show the previous evening, the interviews with fans highlighting this truth. “It’s incredible what we’ve been able to build over here,” Wells says, “and it’s exciting to see what we can continue to build over here.”
Watching the band live is phenomenal and seeing that passion live on stage is something special. “I think over here, more than anywhere we’ve ever been,” Chris Robertson says, “the crowds are here for more than just a concert. It’s a part of who they are, it’s a part of life, and people can tell when what’s coming off the stage is genuine or not.”
He continues, “You see people who have been to our shows for the last 15 years. I spoke to a girl last night that I once said four words to. She had asked me for some advice, and I had said four words, and she told me that that completely changed her life. That is why we do this.”
The band have always been approachable. They don’t do meet and greets, “I have a lot of personal anxiety and stuff, and I just can’t do it,” Chris says. “But even when we play the Albert Hall or the arenas, if you can find your way to where the gate is by the bus, and we see you, we will come out and say hello.”
The Albert Hall show was something special, the band playing on a stage where I’d seen Clapton, Beck, and Sinatra. “It was 15 years in the making,” Chris says, referring to them first playing in the UK in 2007 at Hyde Park. “Aerosmith headlined the main stage,” he says. “We were in the tent with Satriani. We played that show, and then we came back that Fall for the first headline tour and played the Astoria. We recorded live that night, which is kind of a cool thing that people did. I just said the next stop is the Albert Hall. We want it. One way or another, we’re going to do this.”
And happen it did. “I remember walking in that place,” Chris says. “You walk in there, and no matter wherever else you’ve played in your life, it’s just different. I don’t have a better word to describe it. It just resonates with your body differently. When you hit an E chord on that stage, as opposed to anywhere else in the world, there is something a little different about the way that E chord sounds.”
Wells agrees. “You can’t even wrap your head around this,” he says. “You were saying you saw Sinatra there, and that still hits me. The night before we played there, they had the James Bond premiere for No Time To Die. They had a red carpet for all these movie stars, and then we came in the next day.”
They had a plan for dealing with the psychological weight of playing a venue of that historical value though. “Our running joke the whole day,” Chris says, “when anybody got nervous, we would say, ‘they kicked all kinds of movie stars out of here last night because we were coming in today.’ We would kind of laugh about it.”
“It was just a surreal thing,” Ben agrees. “And that’s why it was important for us to film this show. If that’s the only time you ever play there, we have it. We can always relive it.”
Spending time with the band, you can experience the sense of family they have together, a constant theme in their lives from their early background of living in a small town. “For us, playing rock n’ roll was off the beaten path for what people did,” John Fred Young says. “Our families were always so supportive, and I think it’s because they saw how dedicated we were as 15-year-old kids.”
They talk not of time spent at parties but of a routine of school, then practise, then bed, then repeat. “When our family saw that we were so dedicated to music,” Young says, “they realised that they could either fight this or just go with it and luckily for us, our families all love music and have been very supportive. They went with it with us and pushed us even harder to get it right.”
I relate to them that my uncle was a comedian who was a different person on and off the stage, but it has always struck me that they’re the same on and off the stage. “I think our amplified selves come out when we’re on stage,” Wells says. “I appreciate you saying that because we don’t try to go on stage and talk one type of game and then act a different way off the stage. That wouldn’t be fair to the fans or even ourselves or each other.”
“We do put every ounce of passion that we have for playing music and playing music together,” Young says. “We have a bond offstage and onstage, and we’re just lucky to get to do what we do. You never try to take any of it for granted.”
With long-time bass player Jon Lawhon leaving last year, it’s impressive how Steve Jewell has fitted into the band. Watching Jewell on stage, there is almost a Michael Anthony connection, for my money one of the most underrated musicians in the world, and Steve has that same energy and voice.
“It’s funny you say that because I love Michael,” Steve says. “Michael Anthony was Van Halen, his playing a little more simplistic, but I think he had a big and profound part in writing. But when he got to play with Chickenfoot, he got a little bit more expressive, and so that was really nice to hear. But yeah, thank you, I appreciate it. It’s been a lot of fun.”
“Steve’s been a great friend for so many years,” Youngs says. “We’re so blessed to have him.”
“I mean, we would let Michael come hang out,” Wells says, laughing.
Having seen these two bands play together previously at Thetford Forest, Norfolk, this new arena tour is a prospect overloaded with promise. How did they feel about going out on the road? “Unreal,” says Wells. “We’ve been saying that all day. Just the energy that both bands have together. We’ve known each other for a long time.”
“The biggest common denominator in all this,” Young says, “is we love to laugh, and we love rock n’ roll. The tours gonna be amazing. If today is any indicator is gonna be just fucking heavy.’
“We’re fans of theirs,” Chris says. One of the first bands they saw together was, in fact, The Darkness, in Nashville at the Municipal Auditorium back in 2004, the night ending with them trying to meet the Hawkins brothers after the show.
“I think people will just be super excited,” Young says. “We’ve wanted to do something with them forever. I was telling Justin outside that we’ve been playing I Believe In A Thing Called Love before our shows for ten years. He thought that was the coolest thing.”
The Albert Hall shows has a version of Don’t Bring Me Down by ELO. Young talked about how inspirational the Jeff Lynne album Armchair Theatre was and how they would use Lynne’s What Would It Take track to master their harmonies. This passion for music further illustrates just how important the medium was during the dark days of global lockdowns, live streams and social media bringing together people together in a way that shows that music was and is still the universal language.
“It was the only way to communicate with one another for a while,” Young says. “When you’re locked down, you can send your friend a song, and they immediately know how you’re feeling. That’s what’s always amazed me about music. Someone can send you a message that has a song in it and nothing else, and you know what kind of mood they’re in. Maybe they’re going through something, or maybe they just got great news. It’s the most powerful tool on the planet, in my opinion.”
I put it to them that in their catalogue, they have good time songs like Blame It On The Boom Boom but also much more emotional fare like Things My Father Said, even more poignant as Robertson’s role model father passed away last year. The latter, in particular, seems to have touched so many, and when the band look out to the crowd, they must see their legacy in the way the music has captured hearts, an incredible thing for any musician to feel and know.
“The most amazing feeling on the planet,” Chris says, “is when you’re doing a song, and you start to struggle with it a little bit, and the entire room picks you up and carries you through. I’ve had that happen a few times with that song, and I can’t describe it. But to be up there singing a song to my dad and, if I start to struggle, the entire crowd every night was there. They have my back. It makes all those nights away from your family and all those sleepless days and everything worthwhile. It all goes away for a second when things like that happen.”
Given the claim made by Gene Simmons saying that rock is dead, Black Stone Cherry are very quick to laugh at the idea, stating that record sales may be dead, but rock n’ roll is most definitely still alive, especially in the UK. They believe that rock and Metal genres are different to other types of music, with their strong fan bases and super strong communities. “Rock very much not just a musical genre,” Young says. “It’s a lifestyle.”
We leave things on that suitably positive note. One thing is certain, Black Stone Cherry may have been around for a while, but they are the next generation of big headliners. They have the chops, they have the heart, and they have the passion. That is why UK fans love them. If you’re in any doubt, just watch the footage of the Royal Albert Hall show.
Following our time together wrapping up, John Fred stopped us to dig further into our knowledge of British humour, discussing Monty Python and Benny Hill, amongst others. It was an unexpected and wonderfully charming sidebar that typifies the very human side of Black Stone Cherry, probably some of the most down-to-earth and genuine bands ever to play in front of multiple thousands of adoring fans.
Rather than being in the presence of ‘rock stars’ in the more traditional sense, although they are doubtless a mighty force, you feel you’re in the company of friends. You really can’t say any better than that.
Long may they continue to shine.