Photos and Story by Scott A. Smith
The spirits of Thin Lizzy, Brother Cane and Megadeth are near – but never overpower – one of rock’s newest, most invigorated bands.
Black Star Riders are burning down U.S. highways to promote their debut CD, “All Hell Breaks Loose,” and their concert May 5 at Neumemier’s Rib Room & Beer Garden in Fort Smith was loud and proud, with the quintet of veterans giving 150 percent over the course of a well-paced, tour-hour set.
Guitarists Scott Gorham (Thin Lizzy) and Damon Johnson (Brother Cane) kept six-string fans and casual rock fans happy with edgy, always tasteful interplay, while bassist Marco Mendoza (Ted Nugent, Thin Lizzy) and drummer Jimmy DeGrasso (Megadeth) formed an air-tight rhythm section from the get go. This instrumental base gave lead singer Ricky Warwick (The Almighty, Thin Lizzy) the ultimate, punchy platform.
Well-rehearsed but often incorporating brilliant flashes of improvisation, Black Star Riders played the bulk of their new CD, with “Kingdom of the Lost,” “Kissin’ the Ground,” “Before the War” and the title track all leaving a sustained impression on audience members. “Hey Judas,” an early single from the band that seemingly documents the narrator’s forgiveness during troubled times, and the motivated greatness of “Bound for Glory,” which in some alternate universe was released on Thin Lizzy’s timeless “Live and Dangerous” LP back in ’78, also proved to be prize-fighting champs on the Fort Smith stage.
It’s inspiring to see Black Star Riders’ recent evolution. The nucleus of the band was the same as Thin Lizzy’s 2011 lineup – DeGrasso replaced original Thin Lizzy drummer Brian Downey before the group’s name switched to Black Star Riders. Thankfully, Black Star Riders haven’t turned their backs completely on Lizzy’s legacy. Gorham still has all his lead-guitar chops, and in true, team-player fashion, shared solo spots with Johnson a la The Who’s Pete Townshend and Simon Townshend.
“Are You Ready,” one of Lizzy’s must-play tracks from the late 1970s that ironically was never released in studio-version form, sounded wonderfully ferocious. Lizzy’s “Jailbreak” and “Whiskey in the Jar” also seemed to gain gritty momentum, with DeGrasso’s tom rolls and cymbal crashes playfully pushing his compatriots on a rip-roaring cut of “The Boys are Back in Town.” “Bad Reputation” became fueled by stop-and-start aggression, and the sprawling “Emerald” was another high-watt adventure with heavy Celtic overtones.
Throughout the evening, Black Star Riders displayed a strong sense of class. Gorham and Johnson continually grinned at the crowd and pointed, while an equally chipper Mendoza kept a steady stream of guitar picks going to the dancing, cheering fans. As if possessing a power like a likable cartoon villain, Mendoza can throw a guitar pick 100 feet from the stage. When a BSR stage tech placed more picks on Mendoza’s microphone stand, Mendoza patted the crew member twice on the arm in mid-song.
Black Star Riders’ good-sport nature was evidenced during an early evening sound check, which led to a low-key meet and greet with a dozen fans. Like Deep Purple and the Dio version of Black Sabbath, the BSR guys signed literally everything that was placed in front of them while chit-chatting about the new tour, Thin Lizzy’s 2011 tour with Judas Priest and the back catalog of Brother Cane.
At the end of the evening, moments after the final crunchy chords of the Lizzy/Bob Seger cover “Rosalie” faded into the breezy, night air, Mendoza leaned over his floor monitor and handed his bass to a female fan. Stunned and wide-eyed, the woman clutched the maple-necked bass close to her body before jumping up and down in an excited, Beatlemania-like state. Mendoza then grinned, blew a kiss at the crowd and disappeared into the shadowed backstage area with his band mates. We can only hope that the boys will be back in town again to transform the Rib Room into Dino’s Bar & Grill one more time.