Black Star Riders find identity outside of Thin Lizzy
Anyone who’s seen a classic rock act live has witnessed what looks like the world’s largest game of musical chairs.
The crowd is on its feet singing along and dancing to all the old favorites. Then the lead singer announces they’re going to play a new song … and everybody sits down or decides to take a bathroom break.
Black Star Riders was created so that its new music could stand on its own.
When the band isn’t touring as BSR, it’s Thin Lizzy, the Irish rock act best known for such songs as “The Boys Are Back in Town,” “Jailbreak” and “Whiskey in the Jar.” Original Thin Lizzy lead guitarist Scott Gorham assembled a new band in 2010 to carry on the legacy of the act Phil Lynott led until his death in 1986.
But Gorham’s new bandmates — Ricky Warwick, lead vocals; Damon Johnson, guitar; Robbie Crane, bass; and Jimmy DeGrasso, drums — started creating new music together, as musicians do, and even demoed some of those songs for a possible Thin Lizzy record.
“Scott quickly realized we could write ‘Let It Be’ and ‘Hotel California’ and it still wouldn’t live up to the legacy of Phil and that band and those songs at that time,” Johnson said during a telephone interview from his home in Alabama.
Instead, they created a separate outlet for that new music. BSR has released three albums — “All Hell Breaks Loose” (2013), “The Killer Instinct” (2015) and “Heavy Fire” (2017) — which have had some success in Europe, and the band is looking to broaden its audience in the United States by opening for Judas Priest on a tour that includes a concert March 15 at Youngstown’s Covelli Centre.
Johnson, who co-founded the band Brothers Cane and played lead guitar for five years for Alice Cooper, loves playing Thin Lizzy’s music, and he could have paid the bills playing 40-year-old Thin Lizzy songs, but the joy that comes from writing songs with Warwick and playing them live is different.
“I live for that,” Johnson said. “The fulfillment level is just off the charts … I’ve never had greater output creatively than what I have with Black Star Riders. I’m really loving where we’re at.”
As the title of its new record indicates, BSR can bring some “Heavy Fire,” but the songs don’t necessarily sound like Thin Lizzy. It’s more like they were written by guys who have similar record collections as the original Lizzy lineup.
“‘Testify or Say Goodbye’ is definitely steeped in some Motown, steeped in some Van Morrison,” Johnson said. “Ricky and I talk about Motown records all the time. On ‘Someday Salvation’ (from ‘All Hell Breaks Loose’), we literally sat down trying to rip off ‘Baby Love’ by Diana Ross and the Supremes.”
Even as BSR, the band usually includes a couple Thin Lizzy songs in the setlist.
Johnson, 53, got to see the original Thin Lizzy with Lynott when he was growing up in Alabama.
“It was a fluke, almost destiny in some weird way,” he said. “We’d just moved to north Alabama and I was starting 10th grade in high school I made some new friends. and one their dads drove us to Huntsville to see Ted Nugent. Thin Lizzy just happened to be a last-minute add as a support act. I was familiar with ‘Boys Are Back in Town,’ but that totally changed my life.”
Another band that was a big influence on Johnson growing up was Judas Priest, which makes the upcoming tour that much more exciting. Johnson said “Desert Plains” from Priest’s 1981 album “Point of Entry” is one of his 20 favorite songs of all time, right up there with Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” and Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street.”
The interview with Johnson took place two days after Judas Priest announced that founding guitar player Glenn Tipton would be unable to tour with the band because of his Parkinson’s disease. Johnson said they found out the same day as the public announcement.
“Glenn is a legend,” Johnson said. “Isn’t it fascinating how it takes a health scare or even someone’s passing before you really put the microscope on their body of work and look at what they have meant and their influence? I’m still living in a perpetual state of mourning since Tom Petty passed on. We take them for granted and think they’ll live forever.
“But we love Judas Priest so much. There’s just not a better organization or a rock ‘n’ roll band on the planet. They’re like family to us … Fans are going to get a great night of music, but all of us on both side will be thinking about Glenn.”