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Josh Smith - Don’t Give Up On Me

CrossCut Records

11 songs - 59 minutes

Guitarist/songwriter/producer Josh Smith follows up on 2011’s highly received “I’m Going To Be Ready” CD with this powerhouse of a modern blues album. Recorded in California for Germany-based CrossCut Records, it features Smith on vocals and guitar, backed by Calvin Turner (bass), Charles Jones (Hammond B3, piano and clavinet), Dennis Hamm (Rhodes, Wurlitzer and clavinet) and B.J. Kemp and Monet Owens (background vocals). Harmonica wizard Kim Wilson makes a guest appearance on track four, “I’ve Always Been,” and large horn and string sections contribute to a warm, lush sound from beginning to end.

You might not be aware of Smith, but he’s a former child protege who deserves much wider attention than he’s received. This writer first became aware of him in the early 1990s. At 12, he began appearing with his father at pro jams near his home in Pembroke Pines, Florida, and then at the legendary Musicians Exchange in Fort Lauderdale, where he sat in with many of the best musicians in the world, including Matt “Guitar Murphy, Kenny Neal, Tinsley Ellis and Johnny Clyde Copeland. He was polite and somewhat shy, with long hair tucked under a Stevie Ray Vaughan-style flat-brimmed hat, but the moment he hit the strings, people began sitting up and paying attention. At the time, Jimmy Thackery described him as “being just three heartbeats away from being a true blues genius.”

By age 13, Smith was playing professionally as a member of the Rhino Cats, one of the most in-demand bands in South Florida. At 14, with he released his first CD, “Born Under a Blue Sign.” A second album, “Woodsheddin,” followed a year later. Many local awards followed, including an endorsement from Washburn Guitars when he was still in high school, where he was an honor student. Following graduation in 1997, he formed a new power trio, Josh Smith and the Frost, embarked on four national tours. His experience as a band leader forced him to work on his vocal skills. Powerful, but relaxed, they quickly became a match with his prowess on guitar. Within months, B.B. King invited him to serve as his opening act on a national tour.

Fifteen years and three CDs later, he’s a heavily tattooed, closely cropped married father of two who’s living in L.A. And if his latest effort wasn’t hitting the U.S. market so late in the year, it would definitely be drawing attention as one of the ten best modern blues albums of the year.

Smith wrote all eleven songs here – 10 vocals and one instrumental. The set opens with a slow blues and seering guitar, “Bad Side,” a wish never to cross the woman he loves because “there’s...something I don’t understand/How a woman so sweet and small/she can crush glass in the palm of her hand.” The next number, “Made For Me,” is a horn-driven, uptempo love song for the ages.

He follows with the title cut from the CD, “Don’t Give Up On Me,” a musician’s pledge of faithfulness to the good woman he’s left behind to go on the road: “Hanging over my head, I can’t leave it alone/The last thing I’d ever do, is break up my happy home.” Like many of the other tunes here, the overall sound swings in the manner of 1960s Bobby Blue Bland, but with a definite modern feel.“I’ve Always Been,” follows, delivering a parallel message of love and support, layered atop Wilson’s distinctive harp lines.

The disc takes a 180-degree turn on the next number, “That Ain’t Me,” the story of a man who takes in a down-and-out woman with nowhere to go. He shows her kindness, but she quickly turns on him. “You thought you’d found your fool/That you could bend to your needs/But oh baby, that ain’t me.” A hard-driving horn line opens “Letting You Go,” which works as a partner to the tune that precedes it, delivering the same message from another point of view. The horn section and keyboards are featured during the middle break.

“No One But Me” returns Smith to the positive side of romance in another uptempo number featuring brief, clean guitar lines. He credits his woman and thanks her for being the driving force in his life in “Carry Me Through.” The opening horn lines create a comfort zone as they mimick the feel of a ‘70s TV show opening theme. The only instrumental in the set – “Sneaky Jo Turner” – leads into “The Middle,” which is a love song of sorts to being a family man. “Here in the middle, it’s all the same/There ain’t no big ending/just the playing of the game.” The set concludes with “That Ain’t Love,” an uptempo, guitar-driven complaint about a woman who turns and runs without giving the singer a chance to ask her stay.

Unlike many teenage guitar wizards, who appear like supernovas then quickly disappear into the black hole of a mundane, working-world life, Smith continued mastering his craft. This rich, R&B flavored CD will serve him well as he takes his place in the upper levels of the blues stratosphere.

Reviewer Marty Gunther has lived a blessed life. His first experience with live music came at the feet of the first generation of blues legends at the Newport Folk Festivals in the 1960s. A former member of the Chicago blues community, he’s a professional journalist and blues harmonica player who co-founded the Nucklebusters, one of the hardest working bands in South Florida.

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