Josh Smith is a Badass Guitar Player …and a nice guy too!
About a month ago, Big Island concert promoter Les Hershorn announced a show that would include surviving members of Sixties rock group Electric Flag and blues guitar virtuoso Josh Smith. Although those plans collapsed, Hershorn booked Smith and his Power Trio for a three-island tour of Hawaii with three shows on the Big Island. It was Smith’s first time to the Aloha State.
Smith is part of the latest breed of rock/blues guitarists, like Derek Trucks, Joe Bonamassa, and Kirk Fletcher. The latter two appear on his eighth solo release, Over Your Head (Crosscut Records – 2015). Smith may be slightly less well-known than his counterparts, but he relentlessly tours and teaches, while further honing his chops.
In addition to his Big Island nightspot engagements, Smith held an intimate guitar workshop at Hilo Ukulele & Guitar last Saturday afternoon. He explained that branching out from blues to jazz, helped develop his style.
“I started listening to jazz guys playing blues tunes like (saxophonist) Charlie Parker’s ‘Bloomdido.’ I came home every day after school and started out writing chords. Some didn’t make sense, but I eventually figured out a way to connect them.”
Watching Smith perform at his Hilo Town Tavern gig, it was easy to spot Albert King’s influence on his playing. Smith even balls up his fist, like King did, to emphasize certain lyrics. Said Smith, “When Albert King hits a note, it’s like a punch in the gut!”
Besides jazz and blues, Smith admits while growing up that he kept an open ear to other genres of music like R&B and pop. He even cites the influence of Paul Jackson Jr. and David Williams’ studio guitar work on Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
One of the guitar workshop attendees noticed Smith’s James Brown t-shirt with the phrase “You can’t fake the funk” on the front, and asked, “What about funk guitar players?” Smith said, “You mean like this?,” and breaks into Brown’s “Doing it to Death,” emphasizing Jimmy Nolen’s repetitive yet infectious groove.
“Funk, like the blues, is all about how the music makes you feel. Those funk players were laid back, but never draggin’. Yes, it’s about the repetition, but it’s also about the feeling and keeping that going.”
Click play to listen to hear my interview with Josh Smith.
About 20 minutes before Smith’s Tavern gig started, Smith and his bass player Steve Jenkins eyed the durability of the tarp covering the stage during one of Hilo’s punishing downpours. The Tavern is a multi-room venue: part bar, part pool hall, and a semi-covered outdoor area filled with picnic tables where folks eat, drink, smoke, and watch a show. This stage area is dimly lit: two poorly placed round blue/purple LED lights hit the band about mid-waist. Above are a dozen low-watt golf-ball-sized bulbs that adorn the tarp’s peak and serve no useful function other than giving the area a “camping outdoors” mood.
Smith kicked off his set with “…And What,” a song reminiscent of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s riff-heavy “Soul to Soul.” A great warm-up crowd pleaser. It’s the kind of song that makes you want to dance, but for some reason, the Hilo crowd seemed subdued tonight. Several tapped their feet, but not much more. After the song ended, a middle-aged man approached the stage and looked back at the crowd shouting, “What’s wrong with you people? Why aren’t you dancing?!”
Watch: “…And What”
Going forward, few budged from their seats. You could hear the clack of billiard balls in the quiet parts of songs, and many held loud conversations almost oblivious to the quality blues music live in front of them.
None of the distractions phased Smith, in fact, he was overjoyed that for the final night of his Hawaiian tour he got to crank it up. “I’m happy to play with some volume tonight,” said Smith. “For the first three shows I had to play so quietly, so, you’re getting the opposite.” Someone in the back shouts, “YEAH!!” Smith responds, “I felt so restrained, but now I feel like I’m being shot out of a cannon!” No doubt he could be heard down the street at the Palace theatre.
Drummer Alan Hertz conjured up a solid funky intro for “Pusher,” another tune from Over Your Head. Hertz had a stint with the jam band Garaj Mahal and engineered Styx’s 2017 album The Mission. Bassist Steven Jenkins has recorded, toured, or performed with Vernon Reid, John Scofield, The Roots, and many others. For something different check out his neo-jazz metal album Steve Jenkins And The Coaxial Flutter. Both Jenkins and Hertz had amazing solos over the course of the evening.
Watch: “The Middle.”
Throughout his two-hour set, you could experience the vast universe of musical influences that shape Smith’s style. As he concluded his signature instrumental “Penance,” Hilo’s hip entertainment reporter cried out, “Roy Buchanan!” Smith nods. The track is off his 2009 Inception record and pays tribute to Buchanan’s “The Messiah Will Come Again” and Gary Moore’s “Parisienne Walkways.”
Smith headed home to L.A. on Sunday. He’s married and has a son, Riley B. Smith, an accomplished child actor who has appeared on the television drama series Scorpion since 2014.
It might be a while before we see Josh Smith here in Hawaii again, but if we do, let’s hope it’s at a larger venue with folks willing to dance.
Josh Smith’s 2018 tour resumes on May 25th in Santa Monica, CA.
Steve Roby is a music journalist, an L.A. Times bestselling author, and a Big Island filmmaker. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.