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Music Review: Byther Smith – Got No Place To Go

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Byther Smith plays and sings the blues with rare intensity. He’s always written the bulk of his material, with a strongly autobiographical bent to many of his songs. And when he cuts loose, there’s never any doubt that he means it. A former boxer, Smith’s fiery fretwork and ferocious vocals hit like a heavyweight punch – he can be downright scary, never a bad quality for a bluesman.

To date, though, Smith’s recordings have never quite captured that ferocious intensity. Perhaps it’s simply that few backing bands could possibly keep up with him. Here, though, he’s backed by Frank Goldwasser (aka Paris Slim), a guitarist more than capable of matching Smith punch-for-punch. The results aren’t perfect but make for a consistent and satisfying listening.

Smith himself is in fine form, his passion undiminished as he roars out his lines with almost ecstatic abandon. The band is solid – Goldwasser contributes harmonica as well as guitar, with Roger Perry is on keys and guitar, Danny Camarena on bass, and the disc’s producer, Chris Millar, handling drums. They slip into a groove and hang on for dear life, with Goldwasser providing furiously propulsive rhythms and Perry’s organ weaving in and out to excellent effect.

That leaves the material. Smith accounts for all but two of the disc’s eleven tracks (The covers are J. B. Lenoir’s “How Much More” and Mel London’s “Come On In This House,” a tune Smith has recorded a number of times). Most borrow heavily from blues conventions, but they’re elevated by the sheer conviction Smith pours into his performances.

Taken individually, most songs are strong enough, but pacing proves a problem early on – the disc’s first four tracks are all a little too groove-dependant to lump together, and a lack of musical development threatens to derail interest – tight though arrangements are, too many extended jams out of the gate start to seem a bit monotonous (“I Know That’s Grace” wears out its welcome long before song’s end).

Smith hits his stride by the fifth song, though, slipping into more straightforward twelve-bar fare with Millar and Camarena switching to brushes and acoustic bass respectively. Both “Got No Place To Go” and “Byther Boogie” feature Goldwasser’s basic but effective harp, while “How Much More” rides a Hooker boogie beat that’s satisfyingly short and succinct. Smith is characteristically intense on “35 Long Years,” a slow grinder that gives him lots of room for the stinging leads he’s known for. The closer, the rather bizarre “Red! You Let The Dogs Out” is interesting but feels more like a goofy experiment than a real song, and there’s a curiously metallic edge to the production that sounds processed and artificial – it’s an odd but not unlikeable way to finish things off.

This is as good a disc as Byther Smith’s yet recorded, with the supple, but muscular backing he needs. A few of the songs could have been trimmed a bit (longer versions work better in a live setting), but apart from a somewhat slow start, there’s enough variety to keep things interesting. And Smith remains a force of nature, supremely confident and radiating soulful conviction with every note. All in all it’s a good ‘un …!

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