I've been receiving review copies of DVDs from Delmark Records in Chicago for the last couple of years now. While there have been some interesting experimental Jazz concerts, and a few other Jazz discs, the ones I've liked the most have been the recordings of Blues gigs from bars around the city. While a couple of the bars, like Buddy Guy's Legends, are large and well appointed, most of them look like they could be a local bars in any working class neighbourhood in North America.
It's only when the camera pans across the walls of these bars to show the autographed pictures of those who have played at them over the years that the difference between these places and other local watering holes becomes clear. There aren't many neighbourhood bars in many cities that can boast of having had Sonny Boy Williams, Junior Walker, Carey Bell, and Luther Alison perform a gig in their bar, let along play there on a regular basis. The picture walls of these bars are hall of fame galleries of Blues practitioners dating back to the late forties when the post war electric Blues scene in Chicago first started.
They're a far cry from the large venues where today's pop stars perform. You're about as likely to find fancy dressing rooms and special foods laid out here for those playing as you're the Grand Wizard of the Klan walking in the front door. For although the crowds are pretty much mixed these days, they're still located in the old neighbourhoods and pull in a fair number of people from the surrounding streets. Follow the camera through the door and wend your way through the crowd to the small stage, and you've stepped into a world where the old divisions don't matter; everybody is here for the same reason, to listen to the music.
The Natural Rhythm Social Club is located on the South Side of Chicago and in August of 2007 Delmark records brought their recording equipment and cameras out to record Byther Smith and his band for the DVD Blues On The Moon. Released last week, this collection of 12 songs is some of the most intense Blues music I've heard gathered in one place before.
Now if the name Byther Smith means as little to you as it did to me when I first read his name on the cover of the DVD, don't feel too badly as he seems to have flown under everybody's radar until recently. Born in Monticello, Mississippi in 1933, Smith arrived in Chicago as part of the post war migration North in the 1950's. He had been a bass player prior to coming to Chicago, but soon switched to guitar and began playing gigs around town.
According to the biography included in the liner notes of Blues On The Moon although Byther received some local recognition in the '60s and '70s, it wasn't until the 1980s and the recording of his first full length album, Housefire on the Razor label, that he began to garner attention. Listening to Byther Smith for the first time, you have to wonder how the hell a talent as impressive as this could have been missed for so long. His voice is as strong and authentic as any of his more storied contemporaries, his guitar playing assured and stirring, and his own material is the equal to anything I've heard written with few exceptions.
Some Blues musicians are known for their ability to wring emotion out of lyrics, others for the way their guitar playing pulls at your heart strings. Byther Smith brings to his music an intensity of emotion that shines through in the forcefulness of both his guitar playing and his vocals. If emotion is an electrical current powering music, than Smith is a conductor who translates it into guitar and vocals that pulses with an intensity that could power a small city. Constantly driving forward, his music challenges the listener to keep pace with the level of emotion he's transmitting and to let it carry them places where others aren't able to venture.
Eight of the 12 songs on the DVD are Byther's own compositions and each one is as assured and professional a song as you're liable to hear from any Blues musician no matter what their experience and credentials. "Blues On The Moon" and "Give Up My Life For You", the third and fourth songs on the disc respectively, are two that stood out in particular for me due to the two different perspectives they give a listener into Byther's personality.
"Blues On The Moon" can be seen as a funny song about being offered $5 million to play Blues on the moon. It's sort of silly, but think about his career as a musician and the lack of financial success he's experienced to date, and there's also a certain amount of irony you can attach to the song. Being paid a large amount of money for a gig is as likely to happen to him as he's likely to play a gig on the moon. What's nice about this song is that's there not an ounce of self pity to be heard, It's just a simple statement of fact, and an acknowledgement that you don't play the Blues in the hopes of fame and fortune.
"Give Up My Life For You" is a far more complex and emotionally intense song than its immediate predecessor. Who else do you know has compared love's intensity with the crucifixion? "Baby Jesus died/He died for this world/ I'm Baby – Don't let Him die for you girl." The power of the lyrics, and their emotional depth, coupled with the intensity of Byther's vocal delivery and the churning strength of the music, makes this a love song unlike any love song you've heard before.
It would be remiss not to mention the four men accompanying Byther on this disc. Anthony Palmer on guitar, Daryl Coutts on keyboards, Greg McDaniel on bass, and James Carter on drums, are equally proficient on their instruments as their front man. Not only do they do a magnificent job of accentuating Byther's creations with their playing, they each add a layer of texture to a song that keeps in mind that the song is what's important, not their contribution.
As anybody who is familiar with Delmark DVDs has come to expect, the sound and visual quality of this disc is exemplary, with the options of either 5.1 surround or DTS sound available for those with the equipment. It also comes with a combined commentary/interview track with Byther Smith that you can play while watching the concert. Blues On The Moon is also available as a CD that features the almost identical track listing, missing only the eleventh track on the DVD, "My Baby's Mean."
You may never have heard, or even heard of, Byther Smith before listening to Blues On The Moon, but you won't be forgetting him soon after this disc. His passion, intensity, and talent combine to make him a truly remarkable Blues musician.