Black Star Riders carry on legacy of Thin Lizzy, open for Judas Priest
Black Star Riders are in a unique situation, one with which few, if any, bands can identify.
While the five-piece heavy rock outfit creates new, original music to share with fans — the band has released three records since officially forming in 2012 — its members also have the distinct honor of carrying on the legacy of one of classic-hard-rock’s most celebrated groups: Thin Lizzy.
And that, guitarist Damon Johnson said in a recent phone interview, is not a responsibility Black Star Riders take lightly.
The band will carry that torch on March 13 when they, along with Saxon, will play in support of tour headliner Judas Priest at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre Township.
“None of us ever saw this coming,” Johnson said. “When (lead singer) Rick (Warwick) and I found ourselves in Thin Lizzy with Scott (Gorham) and our original drummer Brian Downey, it never occurred to us that it would evolve into another band or even new Thin Lizzy material. As we began to move in a forward direction to make that a reality, we started taking on board what fans might say, how they’d feel about it.”
Johnson said even he would have been skeptical of a version of Thin Lizzy that didn’t include late bassist and vocalist Phil Lynott.
“If you called me and said, Thin Lizzy is going to make new songs without Phil, and I wasn’t in the band, hand on my heart, I wouldn’t want to hear it,” Johnson said.
But after much deliberation, the band pushed on as Black Star Riders, showcasing new material while still passionately performing Thin Lizzy staples live, a development that was embraced by purists and those who were eagerly anticipating fresh music.
Their latest volume in that new body of work, “Heavy Fire,” was released in February 2017 and touches on a full spectrum of heavy rock from metal to thrash to melodic, soulful hard-rock to classic Thin Lizzy-esque soundscapes.
“We’re really proud of the fact that the band can cover so many different tempos and dynamics and textures as well as we do,” Johnson said. “For fans of Thin Lizzy, they know that’s what made that band so special. They were not just metal or hard blues or pop; they were all of that and so much more.”
The knack for diversification on a record, Johnson said, comes from the wide range of music enjoyed by him, Warwick and longtime Lizzy guitarist Gorham.
“I think a lot of people think hard rockers sit at home and listen to Black Sabbath,” Johnson said. “We don’t do that. We listen to singer-songwriters and blues and Kendrick Lamar and SZA.”
For Johnson, who describes himself as “one of the biggest Thin Lizzy fans on the planet,” the opportunity to be a steward of the band’s legacy and play twin leads with Gorham is the chance of a lifetime.”
“As I’m standing in my living room in Nashville, revisiting it, it was staggering for me,” Johnson said of the call he received in 2011 asking him to join Thin Lizzy. “That band means so much to me, not just the guitar parts, but the songs, the lyrics, the tempos, the riffs, the feels, the grooves, all of it. The almost intoxicating reaction I got from the Thin Lizzy faithful and from the guys on board was incredible. I brought all that love, respect and fire, and my best, to the band.”
And Johnson says the albums, tours and feelings that followed as a member of Black Star Riders have been just as gratifying.
“Extra credit to Ricky Warwick, our frontman,” Johnson said. “Ricky being an Irishman himself, as Phil (Lynott) was, is such a key component. Ricky grew up on the same music as Phil. He lived with the same political organizations and social stances. That’s going to affect his writing and stances on certain subjects. It’s an incredibly important component to how the band was received. It helps us, as Black Star Riders, carry the legacy forward.”
And another component in carrying on that legacy is a recent addition on drums who is already familiar to hard rock fans in Northeastern Pennsylvania: former Breaking Benjamin and Black Label Society drummer Chad Szeliga.
“He is such a good soul,” Johnson said of Szeliga. “Beyond his talent and love of music and passion, he’s got such a great heart and soul. He’s really changed the chemistry of the band. Interestingly enough, I just got off a call with Ricky earlier about album number four, which we intend to record at the end of the summer. It will be our first opportunity to be in the studio with Chad, and we’re excited to see how it turns out.”
Reach Matt Mattei at 570-991-6651 or on Twitter @TimesLeaderMatt.
IF YOU GO
What: Judas Priest, Saxon, Black Star Riders
When: 7 p.m. March 13
Where: Mohegan Sun Arena, 255 Highland Park Blvd., Wilkes-Barre Township
Additional information: Tickets start at $36.75 and are on sale now at the arena box office, online at ticketmaster.com and by phone at 800-745-3000.