"Blues On The Moon: Live At The Natural Rhythm Social Club"
Reviews & Info
Byther Smith is a fighter, a scrapper, a hard worker and a
survivor. As a child in Monticello, Mississippi he lost both his parents; his
mother when he was one year old and his father six months later. Shipped off to
Arizona as a young man, Smitty took up boxing in part to deal with the pain.
"I had 69 amateur fights and I only lost one." Smitty came to Chicago
in the mid-'50s and by the early '60s was playing at Theresa's Lounge, where he
backed Junior Wells. He also worked with Big Mama Thornton, George
"Harmonica" Smith and Otis Rush. He recorded his first LP for the
Grits label in 1983, two for Bullseye in the early '90s, and this is his fourth
Delmark CD - his first live album. DVD contains one bonus track and Byther Smith
commentary special feature.
A native of Monticello, Mississippi, guitarist/vocalist Byther Smith has been a venerable Chicago-blues mainstay for decades and has rightly earned the distinction of living legend. Blues On The Moon, part of Delmark Records' exceptional live blues DVD series, was filmed in the summer of 2007 at the Natural Rhythm Social Club, the perfect little hole-in-the-wall for a night of intense, electrified blues.
The opening funk of “Judge of Honor” segues nicely into the lump-a-lump shuffle groove of “If You Love Me,” featuring an impressive solo by guitarist Anthony Palmer before Smith cuts loose with his own razor sharp licks. The shuffle grind continues on the crowd-pleasing title track. The tune's hypnotic vamp entices the party crowd to get up off their feet and sway to the groove.
On the rockin' “Hard Times,” Smith pays homage to blues great B.B. King with short, vibrato-laden phrasing and a groove reminiscent of King's classic “Why I Sing the Blues.” Smith's cutting licks complement his hard-edged vocalizing throughout. His delivery is straightforward and convincing on Sonny Boy Williamson's “Don't Start Me Talkin'” and the autobiographical “Monticello.”
Along with guitarist Palmer, Smith's tight back-up band consists of bassist Greg McDaniel, drummer James Carter and keyboardist Daryl Coutts. Coutts, a long time sideman with guitarist Ronnie Baker Brooks, delivers an impressive amount of Otis Spann-inspired piano solos and greased-over organ licks.
The tight stage setup allows for stunning close-ups, capturing the focused interaction between musicians. All in all, Blues On The Moon is an entertaining release with a next-best-thing-to-being-there vibe. Bonus features include commentary by Smith and a detailed discography.
Personnel: Byther Smith: vocals, lead guitar; Anthony Palmer: guitar; Daryl Coutts: keyboards; Greg McDaniel: bass; James Carter: drums.
Judge of Honor
If You Love Me; Blues On The Moon
Give Up My Life For You
Your Mama's Crazy
If I Misused Someone
Monticello; So Mean To Me
Rock Me Baby
My Daddy's Mean
Don't Start Me Talkin'
About Byther Smith
by Niles Frantz
The band, crowded onto a small stage tucked into a corner of the bar, locks into a rollicking, Chicago blues groove. Byther Smith, a fiery spark plug of a man, steps to the microphone, and in a full, gospel-drenched voice, barks the lyrics to Otis Rush's Keep On Lovin' Me Baby like commands. Then he steps back and discharges a series of clear, surprisingly fat-toned notes from his Stratocaster, turning the dancers into watchers, and the watchers into people standing, whistling, and applauding. Later in the set, during a song reminiscent of Elmore James' Crossroads, Smith seems to be playing slide, the notes rolling and tumbling together, only he uses no slide, just his bare hands.
During Smith's January 1996 performance at Koko Taylor's Chicago Blues, scheduled while the man was finishing up an album for his new label, Delmark Records, the guitarist and his recently formed band powered through three sets full of ferocious, driving, funky rhythms and tortured slow blues. Imagine Magic Slim crossed with Otis Rush. In evidence are his skillful adaptations of well-known rhythms and melodies -- songs reminiscent of Muddy Waters' Mannish Boy, J.B. Lenior's Mama, Talk To Your Daughter, and Junior Wells' Messin' With The Kid pepper the sets.
The most lasting impression is left by Smith's strong, passionate voice, as he delivers his original songs of bitterness and pain. The images are bleak and violent. They paint a man alone, abandoned, wronged. Smith feels no particular compulsion to rhyme his lyrics, a technique that leaves the listener slightly off-kilter. Yet offstage, he is affable and approachable, though no less intense.
"This is what I search for in my heart all the time," Smith said, "to try to get something across to the people, to get them to feel what I feel."
Smith's tough, unflinching songs reflect a tragic, turbulent youth and a determined, focused adulthood. Byther Claude Earl John Smith was born in Monticello, Mississippi, on April 17, 1932, the next to the youngest of nine kids, the only musician in a church-going family. His mother died in childbirth, and his father died just six months later. One of his sisters died in a house fire, the story of which would later become a song and an album title for Smith. The boy was raised by an aunt and uncle on a farm, which he left at 15 to work throughout the South in construction.
Smith was drawn to boxing as a teen, and when he wasn't at the gym, he picked up upright bass from some cowboys at a nearby ranch and soon began playing country-western music at rodeo shows. When he experienced his first boxing defeat, his aunt bought him a Fender bass and told him to focus on music, and stop boxing.
"I learned from boxing that you got to have that killin' instinct," Smith said. "You got to hate everything that's an obstacle to you getting to the top. You got to stop what's in front of you."
Smith told Living Blues that he still considers himself a better bass player than guitar player, which may partly explain the undeniable drive underpinning many of Smith's compositions. The youth also learned harmonica and drums.
Smith's oldest brother had lots of blues 78s, and the young guitarist tried to play like Tommy McClennan, and then Blind Boy Fuller. The first song he learned all the way through was John Lee Hooker's Sally Mae. Smith is a cousin to the idiosyncratic Chicago bluesman J.B. Lenior, on his mother's side. Lenior was Smith's idol. In the mid-50s, while home from Chicago, Lenior offered to start Smith in music if he ever made it to Chicago.
Smith made the trip in December 1956, having married his wife Etta Mae three years earlier, and started working at a candy company while his wife worked at a barbecue house. Unfortunately, there was no room for him in Lenior's band. Ever determined to pursue music, Smith played bass with a three-piece jazz combo for a couple years, singing a few blues numbers each night to break things up. In Chicago, he got to hear and even sit in with many artists he admired, including Lenior, Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, and Chuck Berry. Around 1962, he began to take guitar much more seriously, and he received guidance on the instrument from Robert Lockwood, Louis Myers, Hubert Sumlin, and Freddy Robinson. Lessons
aplenty came when Smith earned a gig playing rhythm guitar for Otis Rush on Wednesday and Thursday nights at Pepper's Lounge.
Smith landed another plum job playing with Junior Wells on the South Side at Theresa's Lounge. He held this post for about six years in the 70s, and he ran Junior's band, which became the regular band at Theresa's. In the mid 70s, Smith hit the road as guitarist for George "Harmonica" Smith and Big Mama Thornton.
Though he dropped out of music for a time in the 1960s, Smith managed to record a handful of now-obscure, independent label singles in the 60s and early 70s, for labels including Ena, Bea & Baby, CJ, Cruz, Apex, and BeBe. (Smith recorded a full album for BeBe in 1976 that was never released.) He also recorded behind Sunnyland Slim and Bonnie Lee for Slim's Airways label.
For Smith, the 1980s and early 1990s were spent working hard for his family, playing music in clubs throughout the Midwest, regularly touring overseas, and making records when the opportunity presented itself.
In 1983, a self-produced demo session became the album Tell Me How You Like It on the Texas-based Grits label. Material from the sessions was leased to Red Lightnin' in England and to the Mina label in Japan. This led to tours of Europe and Scandinavia. In 1984, Smith was prominently featured in the book Sounds So Good To Me: The Bluesman's Story by Barry Lee Pearson.
While in Europe in 1985, Smith did a session backed by saxman A.C. Reed's band, featuring guitarist Maurice John Vaughn. The recordings were released as one-half an album on Black & Blues Records, the other half of which is by Larry Davis (with the same band). The album was reissued on CD by Evidence Music in 1994.
Also in 1985, Smith recorded a second album for Grits, which languished unreleased in the U.S. due to money troubles at the label. (A very limited release was done in Japan.) Happily for blues lovers, the masters were purchased by Chicago-based Razor Records and released as Housefire in 1988. Rounder Records reissued Housefire on CD on its Bullseye Blues label in 1991.
Smith's 1989 session with his regular road band The Nightriders was released on the British JSP label as Addressing The Nation With The Blues (reissued in 1994). 1993 brought Smith's Rounder/Bullseye follow-up I'm A Mad Man.
The new Nightriders have been together about four months, and the nucleus of the group backed Smith on his latest recording, to be released soon on the legendary Chicago blues and jazz label Delmark Records. Smith reported that he was pleased with the sessions, in which he was given a lot of freedom. The majority of the recordings are of new, original compositions, plus new versions of two older Smith songs, including Play The Blues On The Moon from the JSP album.
"I writes what a person would feel if it happened to them," Smith said. "What I write has happened to somebody. I gets a lot of ideas just talking to people. People just say a word, and it gives me a title or an idea. Lots of songs come to me in my sleep."
Smith retired in July 1995 after working 25 years as a machinist at Economy Folding Box Company, having put his six daughters through college. Though he will now be able to concentrate fully on music and do more touring, in many ways, to Smith, it is still just a job.
"If people write about me after I'm gone," Smith pondered, "I wish they'd say, 'He was a working man.'"
Niles Frantz lives in Chicago and writes regularly about blues for Blues Revue, Juke Joint Notes and the newsletter of the Philadelphia Blues Machine. His work has been published in Living Blues, Blues & Rhythm, Juke Blues, and Chicago Blues magazines. Niles contributed more than 100 reviews to the All Music Guide, now available in book form, CD-ROM and on the Internet.
Live at The Sleepy Hunter Bluesclub, Terschelling, January 2005