Calibrations

Tilt

The C-Man, Sabu, and Monkeyboy ventured into the wilds of Palm Beach County on a recent Saturday night. We had two destinations in mind, the first of which was approached with hopeful optimism, the second with a certain dread. On both counts expectations were met and, ultimately, exceeded. (The Calibrator speaks for himself alone. Unsubstantiated rumor has it that Sabu and Monkeyboy have minds of their own.)

Though Ray's Downtown Blues on the 500 block of Clematis Street in West Palm Beach has welcomed all sorts of crazy rock acts onto its stage lately, Saturday night was reserved for the great white hope of the South Florida blues scene, Josh Smith, an alleged guitar prodigy who fronts a tight two-man rhythm section called the Frost.

The press on Smith says he got his first guitar when he was 3 years old, began lessons four years later, and started playing clubs at the tender age of 12. Now 20, Smith is often mentioned in the same breath with Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, two likewise young, Caucasian ax slingers, both frequently regarded by blues observers as the living embodiments of the future of the blues. Just as often other people who follow the scene simply dismiss young guns like Smith, Lang, and Shepherd as mere kids without the breadth of experience to sing or play the blues with any authority. All that loud, electric noise, the cynics say, is nothing but slightly reconstituted rock 'n' roll without a hint of blues music's deep, dark essence. Generally the Calibrator sides with the latter camp.

Trifling labels aside, however, Josh Smith is a whale of a guitar player. It makes not an iota of difference that he looks like a tattooed Doogie Howser -- or, for that matter, that his bass player, Tom Sandelier, bears a striking resemblance to Doogie's smarmy Italian sidekick -- Smith has more lean chops than a Brooklyn butcher shop.

Ray's was decorated for the Yuletide Saturday night. Holiday lights were strung along the walls, lending a warm ambiance to the club's main room. By showtime -- 10:15 p.m. -- the crowd was a homogenous sea of white. The only black dude in the whole bar was Junior, a 55-year-old man who claims to sing like Sinatra and who has otherwise been Ray's bathroom attendant three nights a week for the last four years.

Backed by Sandelier on a pretty six-string electric bass guitar and handsome Chris Chance on drums, Smith led off the show with a couple numbers from his forthcoming disc -- his fourth -- Woman. (As with Smith's last release, Womanwas recorded and produced in Memphis by studio heavyweight Tom Gaines.) For these first few tunes, Smith wielded a Stratocaster guitar, from which he coaxed a variety of fat and vibrant tones. Throughout the evening -- or at least until we left at the end of the first set -- the band's repertoire drew heavily from the white-boy, electric era of blues, but the group hardly seemed enslaved to its traditions. The songs were laden with playful, melodic hooks that Smith embellished with an understated yet nonetheless dazzling array of rhythm and lead guitar passages. Chance and especially Sandelier contented themselves with laying down a solid rhythmic foundation for their laid-back leader.

The crowd ate up the whole act. Sabu and Monkeyboy, however, thought Smith's singing left much to be desired. The Calibrator disagreed, though in any event it was often difficult within the sound mix to get a good fix on the kid's vocals. From what could be ascertained, his voice was admittedly an unspectacular instrument -- young and still developing -- but it was very much of a piece with the music he and his band were playing. The group's whole vocal-instrumental package sounded best on the fun tunes or, in other words, the songs that didn't aspire to some profound "blues" statement. The Calibrator is still not comfortable with 20-year-old boy-men bemoaning in song their hard luck with the ladies and all the heavy pain they've likewise endured. Happily I found Josh Smith and the Frost went easy on the stereotypical blues-posturing and opted to play their hands straight and genuine. At this point the band could not make a more eloquent or compelling claim to blues legitimacy.

Josh Smith and the Frost return to Ray's Downtown Blues, 519 Clematis St., West Palm Beach, on New Year's Eve. Tickets cost $10 in advance, $15 at the door. For details call 561-835-1577.


The second portion of our evening -- the one anticipated with dread -- led us a bit farther inland in West Palm Beach. Tilt Nightclub, a 12,000-square-foot techno dance hall that until recently was a country-and-western bar called Country Nights, was holding its grand opening. Why the dread? It's a personal thing. Generally the Calibrator finds the whole techno world sorely lacking in soul or anything that might even vaguely be considered life-enhancing. Sure, techno is popular right now, but so is lots of other useless crap. So why go? Well, checking out new venues in the area is part of this job. More important, the possibility always exists that some new club will lay waste to the Calibrator's silly preconceived notions. As matters turned out, that's not what happened at Tilt, but the possibility continues to exist nonetheless.

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