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CD Review: Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Way Back

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There’s a lot more to Willie “Big Eyes” Smith than his best-known role as the drummer in Muddy Waters’ band. His new CD finds the singer, composer, drummer and harmonica player in fine form at age 70.

Taking front and center on a mix of covers and originals, Smith leads a variety of top cats through a delightful eleven-song set of old-school Chicago blues. With Pinetop Perkins, that nonagenarian national treasure, on piano, and guest appearances by other notables including fellow Muddy Waters alums James Cotton and Bob Margolin, these songs incline mostly towards the joyful side of the blues, which is part of the reason I’ve hardly stopped listening to it since I got it.

Highlights include the Muddy Waters tune “Read Way Back”; Sonny Boy Williamson’s classic “Don’t Start Me Talkin’”; and Smith’s own wryly funny “I Don’t Trust You Man” and Howlin’ Wolf-style one-chorder “Woman’s World.” The beautiful original “Blues and Trouble,” a slow number played with only Margolin’s resonator guitar and Smith’s harp backing up the vocal, is the heart of the CD: “Blues and trouble bother me everywhere I go / Blues and trouble bother me everywhere I go / I’m so stuck in the bottom and can’t see the light no more.” But Smith doesn’t stay down in the dumps for long, picking up the sticks to bang out the backbeat behind guest guitarist Billy Flynn’s composition “I Want You To Love Me.”

Smith plays drums himself on only two tracks; his son Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith more than ably handles skins duty on the rest. In spite of the variety of musicians helping out, the whole CD has the feel of a family affair. For authentic traditional Chicago blues played by some of the best in the business, look no further.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    I had no idea this was coming out and it sounds fabulous, Jon! Of course, I am most familiar with Smith through his days playing behind Muddy but this set sounds great. I am definitely going to have to check it out soon.

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    Oh cruel fate! I went to go buy this and it doesn’t come out for another 2 weeks. Damnation!

  • http://jonsobel.com Jon Sobel

    Put it on your Amazon Wishlist. That’s what I always do – then my mom buys it for me on my next birthday.

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    My birthday isn’t until September. That just won’t do.