Calm, cool, and collected
by Stephanie Kadel-Taras
"You can go your own way, but you can't be gone too long." That lyric from the first track on Smokestack's 2001 CD It's Coming Down is a fitting description of this jam band's approach. Serving up familiar rock sounds with innovative themes, each talented musician participates in long, multisectioned improvs that let the instruments reveal their own voices. But the musicians (who hail from Ann Arbor and the U-M jazz band) also find their way back to each other, whether to wrap up a number or push it to another level.
A professional calm permeates Smokestack's live act; they don't even seem to sweat. And after several years on the road, they've developed an impressive traveling show: tapestries and rugs for the stage, a well-lit display for their merchandise table, and cool home-size light-show machines projecting psychedelic patterns around their heads.
But they're not just flash and polish. Guitarist Chuck Newsome can be bright and squealing in a classic guitar solo, down 'n' dirty when playing against James Sibley's lyrical keyboards, or even funky and soulful, as in his own "Shafted." Meanwhile, Sibley takes his cues from Stevie Winwood, Bruce Hornsby, and Vince Guaraldi, playing melodic, single-note lines that often carry the tune along. And percussionist Dan Eichinger is as likely to latch onto a Latin beat as to throw in a marching drum roll. With his goofy sexiness, the bassist, Thom McNeil, may take the prize for strongest stage presence, although he makes his mark in a sneaky, understated way.
It's a relief (and almost retro nowadays) to see a young, local band relying on good ol' guitar, keyboards, bass, and drums to say what it has to say. But there's some question as to how in tune Smokestack is with the foundations of its chosen genres. When I saw these musicians live, their meandering, trippy dance jams sometimes got a little thin, sounding more like a copy of a copy inspired by
Phish instead of the Grateful Dead, for example. On the other hand, their CD's longest number, "Bodhi," weighing in at over eleven minutes, offers various strong improv sections, turning gutsy and frenzied by the end.
My favorite moments on It's Coming Down, however, are when the guys don't take themselves so seriously. "Why Did You Do Me Wrong," sung in group harmony to a Latin-cowboy beat, and "Send My Regards," with its swinging rockabilly feel, beg for carefree dancing.
Everybody in Smokestack writes songs, and everybody sings, too just more evidence that this tight groove ensemble can fire on all cylinders.
Smokestack is at the Blind Pig Thursday, January 30.
[Originally published in January, 2003.]