As folks file eagerly into the venue, Josh Smith quietly sits right of stage and amongst his rack of guitars in suspended anticipation of his next performance. During this tranquil moment, he looks at each and everyone who makes their way down the stairs, by the edge of the stage, and onto the floor in hope of finding that prime seat to sit for the next hour and a half.
The folks entering return the stare, smile back at him or nod in unison. After all, they are there to check out America's latest guitar phenomenon and upcoming band appearing in the competitive and burgeoning blues/rock scene.
It would turn out to be standing-room-only this particular evening; the entire town of Eureka Springs, Ark. had heard good things about Josh Smith and the Frost from resident and blues guitarist, Jimmy Thackery. And they had come to see what all the commotion was about.
Currently, Smith, 20, and his band, The Frost, comprised of Birmingham, Ala. Drummer, Chris Chance, 31, and Coral Springs, Fla. Bassist, Tom Sandelier, 21, are doing more touring and are ready to be noticed on the national blues/rock scene. Yours truly caught up with the lads backstage at the Bricktown Fourth Annual Blues and Barbecue Festival in Oklahoma City in late June after their rousing and well-received ninety-minute set. This performance marked the first time anyone in the band had performed within the Sooner State.
"My parents were responsible for introducing me to the music of their generation," Smith said, as he looked around the RV trailer searching for his liquid refreshment of choice, soda pop. "Folks like Muddy Waters, Albert and Freddie King and T-Bone Walker were constantly being played on our home stereo. They also took me to such concerts as the Allman Brothers, Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen.
"When I was around 12, they took me to the blues jams held around southern Florida so I could get a taste for playing in front of a crowd. I jammed at the Musicians Exchange Café in Fort Lauderdale and Club M in Hollywood. Club M is where I met the Rhino Cats." (A veteran area blues band that would eventually change their name to Josh Smith and the Rhino Cats).
Smith said that encouragement from his mother, Janie, and father, Joel, along with advice from Musicians Exchange owner, Don Cohen, really helped him out early on when he was cutting his teeth.
Musicians Exchange is famous for bringing in the best national touring blues bands to perform. Smith was invited to sit-in with a number of them. Cats like Jimmy Thackery, Chris Duarte, Tinsley Ellis, Kenny Neal, Lucky Peterson, Matt "Guitar" Murphy, Johnny "Clyde" Copeland, Joanna Conner, Kim Simmonds and Double Trouble were game for jamming with the youngster that had the glow in his eyes.
Smith was three years old when he got his first guitar and seven when he started taking lessons. At 13, The Rhino Cats were so impressed with his guitar playing they asked him to join the group as their lead guitarist. At 17, the Middletown, Conn. native finished recording his third album Too Damn Cold (produced by Jim Gaines) and graduated from the Dillard Performing Arts School in Florida. (As did Sandelier.)
In 1994, Josh Smith and the Rhino Cats received the Florida Jammy Award for Best Blues Band, and were selected as XS Readers Choice Award winners in 1995 for best blues band.
In 1996, the national magazine, High School Senior, put Smith on the cover hailing him as the "Up and coming Guitar legend." In the same year, Washburn Guitars International endorsed Smith and flew him to Chicago to build a custom guitar with luthier Grover Jackson. GHS, Rivera Amps and Conklin Guitars (Springfield, Mo.) also endorse him. ("The Rivera that I have is over six years old. And I have never had to do anything to it except change the tubes. I just ordered a new one and I look forward to working with Paul Rivera in the future. And as far as Conklin guitars, they are beautiful sounding guitars that seem to hold up well on the road. I am proud to be associated with them.")
Smith's live performances allow him to stretch out and display his remarkable skill and virtuosity. During shows in June at the Eureka Springs Blues Festival and also Oklahoma City, he demonstrated his skill in a variety of guitar styles from blues, to rock to jazz. His guitar playing has substance and shows mastery and taste.
He often plays three jazz numbers on the custom Conklin arch-top during sets. In Eureka Springs he also did an extended walk about Center Stage playing directly to individual patrons-like it was a show especially for them. This one had the Harley Davidson crowd standing up-bandanas, chained wallets and all-and their applause sounded as loud as the "hogs" they drove into town on.
At one point Smith downed a glass of water while he continued to play one handed-not missing a beat. At another point, as he was walking past a table where a patron was proudly wearing his Josh Smith and the Frost T-shirt, Smith picked up an empty Budweiser bottle and used it to play slide guitar. Meanwhile, Sandelier and Chance were hanging happily back on stage laying the foundation needed for Smith to slide convincingly under and conjure up his guitar magic.
Watching Sandelier play his bass guitar makes one wish they could read minds. He is a treat to watch perform and is one of the best six-string bass players (and bass players in general) playing on the circuit today. There are moments during songs when he seems off into another world. During these moments, his eyes are shut and his head slants upward while he transgresses through a low B or sliding C.
"I have been playing with Josh on this leg of the tour for about nine weeks," Sandelier said. "We are high school buds and I decided to take a year off from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where I am studying jazz and music theory, to see what happens. But I definitely plan to go back to Philly and finish my degree. We are all having the time of our lives."
Smith said he played more than 240 shows last year and enjoys traveling anywhere to perform where there is an interest and a chance to play his music.
Jim Gaines (who was introduced to Smith by Jimmy Thackery) will serve as producer again for the band's upcoming fourth CD tentatively titled Woman, which should be released sometime this fall.
Drummer, Chance, who has a son and a wife back home in Alabama, said working with Gaines was a thrill of a lifetime.
"For somebody who does not play an instrument," said Chance, who has played drums since the age of six, "he sure comes up with some incredible ideas. We have three songs basically finished and he really helped the band and I find that full and fat sound we were looking for. Professionalism is what he is all about, and I think some of it rubbed off on all of us."
When asked about the inevitable comparisons to the other young guitar slingers like Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Derek Trucks, Jake Andrews and Mato Nanji (Indigenous), the entire band responded: "All we know is that people keep coming back to see the band, which tells us that they like us, and what we are doing."
This review is copyright © 1999 by Matt Alcott, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved.