Big Smith is a self-described hillbilly band out of Springfield, Missouri. The band is all family, consisting of brothers Mark and Jody Bilyeu, their cousins Jay and Mike Williamson, and cousin Rik Thomas. These guys have been playing together their whole lives, and it shows in their musical ability. Though each band member has an instrument they specialize in, during a live show they’ll trade instruments to re-work their instrumentation for a different sound. Instruments they use include mandolin (primarily Jody Bilyeu), acoustic guitar (primarily Mark Bilyeu), upright and electric bass (Mike Williamson), and washboard and drums (Jay Williamson). Various songs also make use of mouthbow, harmonica, sousaphone and trombone.
“Gig” is the band’s third release, the eagerly anticipated live recording. Their two previous albums “Big Smith” and “Big Rock” were solid studio recordings, consisting of a mix of traditional tunes and the bands often quirky original compositions. Gig includes tunes from the studio albums, along with crowd-pleasing favorites that hadn’t been recorded before.
The traditional tunes range from gospel tunes such as “Rich Man’s Poor” to murder ballads such as “Darlin’ Corey” and “Willow Garden”. Some of the best times I’ve had at Big Smith shows were dancing to their fast instrumental hoedown numbers, so I was very pleased with the inclusion of tunes like “Old Joe Clark” and “Tongue in Groove”. Both of these start somewhat slow, and build in tempo until you’re just about ready to collapse.
The band displays their often twisted sense of humor on songs like “Die Dead Die”, the story of a man taking a drive through the cemetery to “tilt back the stones so the dead can see them good.” My favorite line from that song is the closing “In certain Asian countries the dead are more benign, but in the western hemisphere, they’re a pain in the behind. Die dead die, too much living to be done…” I don’t gather that Jody Bilyeu is a particularly religious man, and the second song on the second disk is a quick number called “His Eye Is On The Baptist.” On it, he croons “I’m a Southern Baptist, and I’m much better than you.” The second verse is done with an almost They Might Be Giants-esque echo effect, and is just hilarious.
Some of the treats on this live collection are the different arrangements of tracks from their studio albums. When “Bareback Riding” is played live, Mark Bilyeu always plays an extended acoustic guitar solo in the middle, and he doesn’t ever hold anything back. I’ve seen him break strings during this song more times than I can count. The energy of this tune is captured well on this disc.
As a bonus, each disk includes video shot for a TV special the band did earlier this year. The first disk includes footage of their “12 Inch 3 Speed Oscillating Fan” and the second disc includes video of a live performance of “Trash”. This is cool, but my only complaint is that since they are video, you can’t listen to these two favorites in a normal CD player. However, it’s a good thing that we finally have a recording of their cover of “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” as the closing track on the second disc.
“Gig” is an excellent sampling of what you can expect to hear at a live Big Smith show, and as good an introduction to the band as any of their studio albums. The album can be purchased at the May Apple Records website. Though they’ve been playing regionally around Missouri and Arkansas for years, they’re starting to get more and more out of their area. Check their dates and go see them every chance you get.