Byther Smith
All Night Long
Delmark 708
Classic blues albums sometimes only seem so after the passing of years. Too often, only the chancy re-release by a new record company (as in the case of Otis Rush's lost stunner, Right Place, Wrong Time) or the championing of a neglected record by a well-read critic gets a buried masterpiece its rightful audience. Well, here's a chance to get on the train early. Chicago guitarist Byther Smith has put out the classic that's been simmering inside him all these years.

In a town where it's easy to coast on perfunctory shows and blasé, foot-tapping recordings, Smith has built a career on rage and submerged violence, crafting songs that drip with menace and throb with hurt. Two earlier efforts, 1991's Housefire and 1993's I'm a Mad Man, boasted tough songwriting and spidery guitar work.

What launches All Night Long into a higher plane are not only Smith's stellar songs and guitar but a top-flight band that includes avant-garde jazz trumpeter Malachi Thompson and disciplined production by Delmark veteran Bob Koester, the last of Chicago's independent record-company owners. Koester allows Smith enough rope to dip into uncharted water, trying his hand at country-influenced numbers. His Cajun-inflected "Mother You Say You Don't like the Black Colors" and "Daddy, You Got a Son" may jar at first, but they're Smith's own songs, and considering Smith once played bass in rodeo bands in Arizona, they quickly come into their own.

Those light tempos are about as cheery as Smith gets. "Walked All Night Long" is stone homicidal, a minor-key powerhouse about a jealous man stalking his betraying woman's lover. Smith rips poison chords out of his guitar as he sings: "When her man got smart, I just laughed and shot him twice. Yes, I'm a man of my word, girl. I swear I'm gonna take his life." This is not a man to meet on a dark street.

Likewise, "Hey Mr. Dee Jay" starts off on traveled ground, pleading with radio men to play blues music. Buddy Guy has been here before, but only Smith would advise the ignorant disc jockey that if he fails to get Byther's music on the air he'll "burn in my father's fire." I'm not quite sure what that threat means, but if I had a radio show, I'd lock my studio door just in case.

There are long, warbling swatches of Albert King-style guitar on the moody "Look Over Your Shoulder," a beautiful piece that ought to have young guitarists listening repeatedly in years to come. And the closer, "Thinking Real Hard," has more King-inflected work, but wrapped around another well-crafted blues, this one about how hard it is to write a good blues song. He's right. It is hard. But if Byther Smith gets his due, that track and the 12 others on this superb set will get the blues audience to take notice.

-- Steve Braun

This page and all contents are © 1998 by Blues Access,
Boulder, CO, USA.