“I don’t play the drums, I feel the drums.” ~ Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith
Kenny Smith has the Chicago Blues flowing within his veins. There is a cliché which aptly applies to Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith. The one I’m referring to states: “The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Kenny’s father was Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, who like so many others was born in the Mississippi Delta and migrated to Chicago to play music. Willie hailed from Helena, Arkansas, which was known as the Blues Capital of The Delta around the time Willie was born. Willie learned harmonica as his first instrument and recorded with Bo Diddley and others in The Windy City. Willie Smith switched to drums and earned his greatest fame by joining the Muddy Waters Band in the early 1960s. He played with Muddy and other Chicago legends for more than 2 decades. Willie and Pinetop Perkins, a famous piano man from one of Muddy’s great bands, teamed up for a Grammy award winning album entitled Joined at the Hip in the summer of 2010. “Big Eyes” sang and played blues harp on the recording while his lone son Kenny Smith expertly manned the drum kit. The younger Smith earned a Grammy of his own for his major contribution to the project.
Kenny subsequently used that invaluable experience, along with numerous other stage and studio performances, to further his stellar status as one of the best drummers in the world. To declare that Kenny is well-schooled in the Chicago Blues tradition is a huge understatement; but his musical expertise doesn’t end there.
“I grew up in Chicago and my inspiration for this album was drawn from the rhythm of the footsteps on jagged pavement and the soulful and shadowy sounds of the city at night.” ~ Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith
“Beedy Eyes” has assembled an exceptional group of like-minded fellow musicians to craft the album Drop The Hammer on Big Eye Records. In addition to the traditional post-war Chicago Blues templates, Kenny and his group (The House Bumpers) delve into numerous contemporary blues styles providing plenty of poise, precision and pizzazz. The prototypical lineup pioneered by Muddy and his Windy City peers required a polished accomplished blues harpist. Omar Coleman, one of Chi-Town’s finest players (born and raised on Chicago’s West Side) passionately fits the bill appearing on six of the album’s tracks. Sugar Blue joins the action on two tracks which showcase his stalwartly dynamic blues harp play that keeps him ever-in-demand. Sugar Blue is himself a Grammy winner and has played onstage with far too many blues legends to name. The blues harp master recorded with The Rolling Stones on their albums Some Girls, Tattoo You, and Emotional Rescue, providing a most memorable solo on their song “Miss You.”
Versatile veteran bassist Felton Crews, who grew up in Chicago, cements the ultra-tight rhythm section on ten songs. Five separate guitarists are in attendance; with a twin guitar lineup used on assorted occasions. Ari Seder and Billy Flynn are the primary guitar slingers drawn upon for the release. Guest all-stars Greg Guy (son of legendary Buddy), Guy King, and Nelson Strange augment magical diversity with their ferocious fretwork. The release’s slew of assorted keyboards are the sole province of Luca Liella Cheillini (The Caesar of Keys).
“Music is the nutrient of our souls; the pulse of our spirit. It’s the passport of our minds and the owner of our hearts. A world filled with love and creativity shall ring as one; a chord that resounds infinitely.” ~ Felton Crews
All twelve compositions are originals penned by Kenny Smith who, much like his father, has in his possession a persuasive singing voice. This is a skill which I fully expect him to cultivate further with added age. Varied background singers are used on occasion to wonderful benefit.
“Chicago Blues is the kind of music that makes you want to dance. When I hear it I feel like movin’, it’s infectious.” ~ Billy Flynn
The album kicks off with “Head Pounder,” a tune brimming with African based rhythms and a small dose of Bo Diddleyesque guitar courtesy of Billy Flynn (who also plays sitar on the track). These idiosyncratic characteristics are complemented by a deeply echo-chambered vocal by Kenny. Omar Coleman’s biting blues harp also helps to fuel the song. The sum of the components aid in bestowing a primal urgency to make this a stand-out opening track.
Kenny imparts a marvelous vocal turn on the cheery shuffle of “Hey Daddy.” Coleman provides a sturdy as an oak tree harmonica performance as Seder and Flynn interweave patterns on guitar with the slide guitar residing deep in the songs groove. Kenny’s children (Mae, Clara, and Theodore) apply youthfully infectious charm with their chants of “Hey Daddy.”
“Drop The Hammer” is the album’s title track and gives evidence to the shadowy sounds of nighttime Chicago that Kenny referred to in his above quote. Greg Guy teams with Ari Seder to energize the song while the female background singers (Andrea Miologos, Dana Gordon, and Kimberly Johnson) add some flirtatious substance to the mix. It’s a song that slithers snakelike over a booming bass courtesy of Felton Crews.
Stax Records style funk resides profoundly on “Scratchin’ Your Head.” Hammond B-3 organ and guitar are present, a song that epitomizes what a full blues ensemble (sans horns) should encompass. Omar cuts loose on his surface-to-air blues harp to perfectly seal the deal.
A late-night slow blues treat comes with “No Need Brotha’,” a tune that features some emotional superlative guitar work by Ari Seder and Greg Guy. Kenny provides a knowing vocal and some lyrics that focus on one of the fifty ways to leave your lover.
“Puppet On A String” finds Kenny pounding mightily on the drum kit and Crews poppin’ his bass as they drop the rhythm hammer on the song. Ari Seder’s proficiency on wah-wah guitar pedal competes with Sugar Blue’s rip-snorting harmonica for the center of attention.
Plenty of good-time Chicago blues in the rollin’ and tumblin’ tradition abound on “Keep On Pretending,” making it a fine dance song. The groove has a gully deep feel that brings a picture to my head of a crowded club with everyone out of their seats.
The female background vocalists return on “Living Fast,” and the song contains some pertinent lyrics concerning no more running up and down the streets because he’s found himself a new main squeeze gal to hang with. Bass guitar (Crews), piano (Chellini), and tasty twin guitar (Seder and Guy King) ideally cluster to highlight and compliment Kenny’s dark and brooding lead vocal.
A driving back beat and poppin’ bass line combine with some slightly humorous lyrics to make “Second Hand Woman” a winner. Kimberly Johnson compellingly duets with Kenny Smith on “One Big Frown,” the lone song to feature Nelson Strange on guitar. Although Strange’s pyrotechnics are brief, they are still mighty impressive.
The last track and lone instrumental to be found is titled “Moment Of Silence.” It features some killer guitar work from Flynn and Seder; and more of Omar Coleman’s blues harp. At present, it is vying for ranking as my favorite track on “Drop The Hammer.”
There is a good reason that Kenny Smith has won Living Blues awards for most outstanding drummer in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015. He is also a consummate producer and arranger, and I don’t judge there are many highly disciplined performers out there who strive harder to keep the blues tradition alive. The sound is big and warm and alive, the Chicago blues without unnecessary flash; punching home where it’s supposed to, with solid ensemble play throughout. There is a purposeful approach to this project in which the whole is much greater than the sum of its lively parts. If you are a fan of electrified Chicago Blues, then you better climb aboard, hold on tight, and “Drop The Hammer” now.