John Mayall once described James Quill Smith as "... the best guitarist I've had since Eric Clapton." It may be several years since Quill Smith played with Mayall, but "Down To Earth," the first outing from the James Quill Smith Band shows that he still has something to offer. It's a sort of second coming for Quill Smith who was pronounced dead on stage after being electrocuted during a gig with Mayall. After a few Dr. John style incantations from a roadie, however, he revived and went back onstage to finish the gig and the tour.
The opener ("Hospital") illustrates the band's Blues credentials. Lyrically the song shows that Quill Smith is capable of tackling contemporary issues head on. It's essentially a castigation of the US medical system, and its reliance on having money or a Blue Cross card as a prerequisite for getting treatment. Unfortunately it's a system that countless Bluesman have fallen prey to, as is seen all too often in Blues magazines where artist's make requests for donations to pay outstanding hospital bills.
The overall style of "Down To Earth" is one of music from the Southern States, rather than just Blues. In this respect the James Quill Smith Band find themselves alongside Dale Hawkins and Guy Forsyth. It's no bad place to be, especially since the band can carry it off, although Quill Smith's vocals do sound a bit strained at times. The Bluesier material does tend to sound best though, with "Hospital" and "Loser Blues" being the pick of the bunch.
Drummer legend Sandy Nelson's presence is pronounced on the cover, although he apparently only appears on the last track, "Sandy's Prayer." On the evidence of what is the best and most interesting track, Sandy Nelson would be right at home in a fife and drum band. Probably the best way to describe it is as a hybrid of Native American chanting, African American drumming and an R.L. Burnside tune where the guitar volume has been turned way down, with a bit of harp thrown in for good measure.
"Down to Earth" certainly has its moments, but is a bit of a curate's egg: good in parts. Whilst it's not a Blues album, there is a Bluesy feel to some of the material here. Overall, though, no clear sense emerges of the direction in which the band are heading. There are some promising signs, however, so the James Quill Smith Band will be worth keeping an eye on.
James Quill Smith Band Website: www.jamesquillsmithband.com
This review is copyright © 1999 by Gordon Baxter, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved.