Josh Smith transcends boundaries
makes blues his own genre
Josh Smith has been lauded by blues-guitar legends such as former John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers member Coco Montoya — “plain and simple there’s no one better” and Joe Bonamassa — “Josh is one of my favorite musicians on the planet. His musical depth and guitar playing transcend the boundaries of the blues genre into a genre of his own.”
On his all-instrumental album “Inception,” Smith showcased his virtuosity across genres. You can hear echoes of the greats such as Jeff Beck (on “Just Within Reach”), ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons (“Looking Ahead”) and ’50s rockabilly legend James Burton (“Propulsion”), as well as ventures into bluegrass territory (“Triple J Hoedown”) and jazz swing (“Hairflip”).
” ‘Inception’ was almost like a business card,” explains Smith, who will make his Maui debut in the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s McCoy Studio Theater on Wednesday. “I was in L.A. making the most of my living as a sideman and session guitarist, and I needed a record that wasn’t ‘Josh Smith blues artist,’ it was ‘Josh Smith guitar player’ to show all the things I can do. I’m a blues guy at heart, but I love all music.”
Even at the age of 16, Smith was blowing away audiences with his prodigious guitar skills.
“Josh jumps off the stage to take an extended solo during Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Machine Gun’ “ reported the Baltimore Sun. “His mannerisms offer up an eerie resemblance to his late mentor, Stevie Ray Vaughan. The 16-year-old guitar phenom has even been called the heir apparent to his hero Vaughan.”
Picking up a guitar at age 6, Smith was exposed to a variety of music through his parents’ record collection.
“They had an enormous vinyl collection, and my father’s side was rock ‘n’ roll, jazz and blues — so it was Allman Brothers, Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and Freddie King and Albert King, and also Coltrane, Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins. My mother’s side was all Stax and Motown. That’s what I grew up listening to. I couldn’t help but be touched by it. B.B. King was the first thing where, ‘What is this and why do I feel this way when I hear it?’ Imagine if they had just listened to the Carpenters — where would I be?”
Blues became a passion he says because, “once I realized I wanted to improvise, the blues vocabulary became an obsession. Those guys were saying everything they were feeling on their instruments without singing and they were doing it in a direct way with a few notes. It was so moving. For me, it’s a nonstop process of adding and evolving and being influenced by new things. I’m obsessed with this stuff.”
By his early teens, Smith was playing regularly in clubs. Observing him at 14, blues star Jimmy Thackery proclaimed: “Josh is three heartbreaks away from being a true blues guitar genius.” At 14, Smith released his first CD, “Born Under a Blue Sign,” and his second CD, “Woodsheddin’,” a year later.
“As silly as it sounds, I had gotten good at a young age,” he recalls. “Kids my age who were good weren’t into the music I liked, so I had to go out and play with adults. My parents would take me to blues jams. The first time, the crowd went crazy because I was a little kid and I was good. I was hooked.”
In time he even opened for B.B. King.
“A few years in a row I did his entire Florida run. It was great — hanging with B.B., playing before him every night and getting to talk to him.”
Among his high profile gigs, in 2007 he was hired by American Idol-winner Taylor Hicks to be his lead guitarist. After two national tours, he was then hired by soul/R&B great Raphael Saadiq. Touring nationally and internationally with Saadiq, he got to play with Mick Jagger at the Grammy Awards in 2011 and perform in London at a BBC production of “Live From Abbey Road.”
“That was great,” he says of his time with Saadiq. “He had played with Prince and Sheila E and worked with D’Angelo and Erykah Badu. I didn’t grow up with gospel music, and Raphael’s an Oakland-gospel Edwin Hawkins guy. That’s where he comes from, and it was new to me — such great music that shares a thread with the music I grew up on.”
So, playing with Mick Jagger?
“That was a special moment,” he says. “We were in rehearsal for a tour and Raphael’s phone rang. He walked out of the room and comes back, ‘Guys, that was Mick Jagger.’ We’re all, ‘Shut up!” He goes, ‘No, it was Mick Jagger. He wants us play with him on the Grammys, the Solomon Burke tune, “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.” ‘ Mick was the nicest guy. He just loved doing it.”
This virtuoso guitarist shines on his latest CD, “Over Your Head.” Hearing tracks like “How Long” and “. . . And What,” you might imagine Hendrix had returned to earth. Other songs reflect a Led Zeppelin influence; while on “When I Get Mine,” his guitar playing is reminiscent of Eric Clapton’s early work; and on the fiery “You’ll Find Love,” he inhabits ZZ Top’s swampy blues. Guests on the album include Bonamassa and harmonica-legend Charlie Musselwhite.
“My previous record was a big blues record with ’70s-style strings and horns, with complex tunes and huge orchestrations,” he says. “The reviews were great. I’ve never been prouder of a record, but it didn’t sell well. The comment I kept getting from everyone was, ‘Can’t you just play more guitar?’ My European label said, ‘Maybe for this next one just play a lot more guitar.’ So I decided, ‘I’m going to play a lot and we’re going to do it completely live.’ Every guitar on the record is live with the band — not a single overdub. That’s what got me excited. We went for it as hard as we could for two days, and that’s the record.”
A ROCKS magazine review noted: “His extremely adventurous and haunting melodic style has earned Smith a position among the greatest blues guitarists of our time.”
While JAZZ’N’MORE praised: “Rolling Stone magazine once declared Jimi Hendrix the best rock guitarist of all time. Since his tragic passing, thousands have tried to emulate him. “Over Your Head” may prove that Josh Smith is a possible contender.”
Jack Johnson headlines a “Kokua for Kauai” benefit concert for Kauai flood victims on Saturday at the Poipu Beach Athletic Club. The concert will also feature Donavon Frankenreiter, Paula Fuga and Makana. All net proceeds will go to the Kauai Relief & Recovery Fund. The show is sold out. If you’d like to donate to help the Kauai flood victims, visit www.hawaiicommunityfoundation.org/KauaiRelief.
The Seabury Hall Craft Fair typically attracts thousands to the Olinda/Makawao school campus. Besides a variety of crafts and food, folks can enjoy an eclectic array of music beginning at 9 a.m. with Clouds on Fire. Pi’ilani Arias performs at 10 a.m., followed at 11 a.m. by The Drivers. Dr. Nat and Rio Ritmo kick off at noon with some hot Latin music, followed by the Jamie Gallo Lee Band at 1 p.m. and the Von Linne Express at 2 p.m. Cheryl Rae will conclude the entertainment at 3 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults; children 12 and under are free.
Paula Fuga returns to The Shops at Wailea for a free concert at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Fountain Courtyard. Fuga is featured on the latest “Playing For Change” CD singing Bob Marley’s “Natural Mystic” with Jack Johnson and Congolese musicians Afro Fiesta.
Grammy-nominated for his debut album, “Pua Kiele,” Josh Tatofi performs at 7:30 May 17 in the McCoy Studio Theater at the MACC. Known as the “Polynesian Luther Vandross,” Tatofi is the son of Kapena co-founder, Tivaini Tatofi.
Last year his debut album won him Na Hoku Hanohano Awards for Male Vocalist of the Year and Island Music Album.
Tickets are $30 (plus applicable fees) and are available at the MACC box office, online at www.maui arts.org or by calling 242-7469.
After presenting concerts in Makawao and Hana, the 2018 Maui Classical Music Festival will conclude at 7 p.m. Friday at Keawala’i Congregational Church in Makena.
The program will open with Ponce’s “Sonatina Meridional No. 5 in D for Guitar,” featuring guitarist Colin Davin.
Brahms’ “String Quintet in G, Op. 111” will follow, with violinists Scott St. John and Benny Kim, festival co-founder/violist Yizhak Schotten, violist Sharon Wei and cellist Peter Wiley.
The evening will close with Faure’s “Piano Quartet in C Minor, Op. 15,” with St. John, Schotten, cellist Edward Arron and pianist Jeewon Park.
Tickets are $25 for adults and $10 for students. For information and reservations, call 298-1862 or visit www.mauiclassicalmusicfestival.org.