march 2011

steve smith
The Steven L. Smith Band: (from left) Matthew Magee, Archie Anderson, Steven L. Smith, Herb Sommer, Tim Howe: Singing for the people who punch in and punch out or take to the highway to make their livings.

Rising To A Higher Plane of Feeling

The Steven L. Smith Band puts the pieces together

By David McGee

stev l smithPIECES
The Steven L. Smith Band
Vinyl Records

Upstate New York is the stomping grounds for the Steven L. Smith Band, a quintet whose tough-minded, gritty, straight-ahead rock and country comes out of a blue-collar environment and a populist sensibility. Hardly alone in this regard, the Smith Band has something going for it that separates it from other, similar hard-working outfits toiling in the bars and small clubs throughout the land--it has the songwriting of Steven L. Smith going for it, to be precise. Though he proves on the fiddle-fired Chuck Berry-style rocker “Old Hillbilly” that he can write a Saturday night-get down-party-hard message with the best of ‘em, his energies are more focused on documenting the disquieting temper of the times and then suggesting survival methods for his characters, who tend to be people who punch in and punch out or take to the highway to make their livings. He wastes no time establishing this position, as the album’s first song, the gritty, southern rock-flavored “Live Free,” begins with a sample of a crowd chanting the protest slogan “The whole world’s watching” before Smith enters, singing in his bluesy tenor, “politicians, hookers and crystal meth/use you, abuse you and steal your breath/through it all there’s a song/live free--love music,” which sets up some soaring, wailing, thick-toned guitar solos that would make Allen Collins smile (he might also appreciate Smith’s lyrical nod to “sweet home”; as a side note, it’s interesting that in March, when this album was released, the South Philly hip-hop outfit Dumhi not only employed the same protest chant that opens “Live Free” but in fact titled its socially conscious new album The Whole World’s Watching). Archie Anderson’s soothing, rippling guitar and guest Tommy White’s lyrical steel guitar set the tone for “Can’t Take It With You,” a song that picks up steam as it unfolds and even features an emotional guest vocal by Crystal Gayle in an advisory to listeners to surmount the hard times by keeping life in the proper perspective: “most of us are dead broke/the money tree won’t grow/hang on tight, enjoy the ride/you can’t take it when you go,” Smith, seconded by Ms. Gayle, implores.

The Steven L. Smith Band, ‘Live Free,’ the opening track on the band’s new album, Pieces

“What makes that woman love me/and hold onto me so tight/she knows I’m just a workin’ man/but I’m the king of the night,” Smith growls in kicking off the bluesy rocker, “Truck Seat Angel,” one of the best road songs in recent memory, with its strong, buoyant melody, thumping beat and some spitfire lead guitar courtesy Archie Anderson, plus an added vocal boost from the plaintive, gospel-inflected harmony stylings of Jenee Fleenor, who’s present throughout the album and makes her presence felt whenever she shows up. Smith then takes the lead, a powerful one, on “Freebird Fly,” a bittersweet childhood reminiscence about two boys who grew up together under trying circumstances but shared a lively, carefree fantasy world (“pretending we were the Dukes of Hazzard! Me and Cooter, Luke and Bo!” he shouts) before his buddy went off to the service the night after they “sat on the floor and sang ‘freebird fly,’” only to meet an early death (“I still don’t know why”). The singer turns to playing music, “singing ‘freebird fly,’ and I let those feelings go…,” as a way to heal his soul. Selling the story as well as it could be sold, Smith makes you feel the abiding pain his character lives with, and his remorse is embodied in Anderson’s zigzagging, mournful guitar solo, as guest Ron Fairchild’s churchy piano and White’s crying steel add a solemn but churning backdrop to the proceedings. Nice touch in the last few seconds, too, when Joe Bosnall sends the song home with a purposely ragged quote from “Dixie” that sounds like muted weeping.

The Steven L. Smith Band, ‘I Stole the Bible,’ from the band’s acclaimed 2010 album, Outside of Tupelo

Jimmy Van Zant, cousin to the legendary Ronnie and Johnny, takes a guest vocal turn on “Roadhouse” and does himself and the song proud with a high-flying, good-time performance about a place where “the smoke is thick, the music’s loud, the beer is cold and I can always find a fight!”  A rough-cut country cousin to the earlier “Old Hillbilly,” the tune is further embellished by Glenn Duncan’s furious, fiery fiddling, a taste of honky tonk piano courtesy Ron Fairchild, Tommy White’s agitated steel, Anderson’s prickly lead guitar, and, for good measure at the song’s close, a some blue-eyed soul sister shouts from Jenee Fleenor. Then there are the pieces whose sum elevates the whole to a higher plane of feeling: “First Come, First Serve,” an example of Stones-inspired country honk, with a robust horn section pumping mightily and Fleenor adding soulful harmonizing; a slow, urgent country soul ballad of devotion and commitment, “I’ll Come Running”; a propulsive, Big Sky, Old West story-song, “Roland,” about a mysterious character who rides in and terrorizes a town with impunity; a stomping, southern soul take on Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man”; and not least of all, the album closer, the title track, a howling, aggrieved maelstrom of broken hearts and wayward souls trying to put the pieces back together, “but I don’t know where they go,” as Smith cries amidst a hailstorm of guitars, drums, organ, his own blazing lead lines and mesmerizing, gospelized backing vocals. An album with a lot going for it, Pieces’ finest quality is in getting better the more you listen, its variety and its heart being calling cards that should make the Steven L. Smith Band welcome wherever and whenever it shows up to tell its tales.

The Steven L. Smith Band's Pieces is available on Also, Mr. Smith is a luthier who sells his own handmade acoustic guitars and repairs most stringed instruments. More information is available at the S.L. Smith Guitars website.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024