6-String Ranch 2020
Austin master of mellifluous vibe uncovers his past for wide world to marvel at decades of imagination running wild.
Texas and arms often share the same context for all the wrong reasons, but Matt Smith is truly the state’s best hidden weapon. Active for four decades as a composer and player, clinician and producer in American North and South, Smith issued "Being Human" – the opus Matt deservedly considers his masterpiece – in 2020, and apparently realized this record wouldn’t display the entire width of his genre-crossing creative expanse. Which is why the auteur picked the cream of his back catalogue and came up with the 4-disc anthology of 47 tracks spanning 32 years and ordered chronologically and geographically – because any other division can’t do justice to such an output.
“Vol. 1: Upstate NY 1988-1994” exposes the not-yet-veteran’s not so humble beginnings as a recording artist, starting with a few cuts from “Matt Smith Band” – among them a couple of tasty numbers which show the extremes of his reach: “Happy Jack” a relentless, albeit rather standard, fusion assault on rock ‘n’ roll and “Shine Your Light On Me” an Americana-tinctured AOR ballad, so typical for its period – while pieces from “Whisper To A Scream” see Smith move further into hard rock on the contagious “Dancing On The Blue Ball” and embrace the jovial outdoor jive on “Lickety Lick” which highlight Matt’s skills as a group leader, and the orchestral passages of “Reason To Be” put forth the force of his vocals. And, of course, this musician didn’t wait too long to present his stage persona to those who weren’t able to attend concerts, so “House Of Fire” on “Live At The Ritz” is all Hendrixian riffs ‘n’ roar, “Falling In Love Again” a mighty, richly toned instrumental plea, and the funky, brass-splashed “Runnin’ Just As Fast As I Can” should find Smith in an almost rapping mode, peeling blistering licks off the frets. Sure enough, that album’s follow-up, “Delta Radio” had to be polished, and the jazzy “Perfect World” fails to hook the listener as much as the emotive “Not That I’m Afraid Of Love” – another foray into blues.
Quite understandably, “Vol. 2: NYC 1994-2005” has an urban air about it, and the velvet “Ballad Of The Lower East Side” – one of the numbers off “Black And White” – does indeed taps into the wonder of the big city lights, with lap steel in hands, but there’s an elegiac vibe to the captivating “Shelter From The Storm” that became a staple of Matt’s repertoire and, as "Live! At Strange Brew" reflected, was performed as late as 2013. The same club report features the exquisite “Greenfield Grove” off “Big Fun” – Smith’s sonic return to natural pastures, the countrified “Holy Ground” stressing the importance of simple life – although the record’s groovy title track introduces lace and shredding to hoedown. Still, the frantic “Ashes On The Wind” and “Montreal” sends bluegrass-basted rumble across the frontier, giving hilarious substance to the “Free Beer And Chicken” album, before allowing the organ-oiled “Tough Guy” from “Chop Shop” – which is also the title of the guitarist’s instruction book – to tighten the sound and sway with swagger, let the piano-sprinkled “Alo Moana” flow in Hawaiian style, and incite “Djeet Yit” to marry six-string filigree and stately ivories.
Nothing can be as different from its predecessor as “What I Feel For You” that opens “Vol. 3: NYC/Austin 2005-2011” with an effervescent, luscious take on “A Rainy Night In Georgia” and adds more soulful covers to Smith’s armory, “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying” turning into an elegant slice of reggae, as Matt’s axe twangs with a lot of gusto. His croon won’t evaporate on “Meet The Monstas” by his band THE MONSTAS, as suggested by the gentle grit of “I Want To Love You” until the song’s robust rock structure is bared, and by the vaudevillian “Junkie For Your Love” which would soon appear in a concert set, as documented in 2011 on “"Live At The Saxon Pub" where a good slice of “Matt Smith’s World” was played. A great example of his varied talents, this record may feel defiantly easygoing on the improv-minded singalong of “Struggle On” and invoke the spirit of “Hotel California” in the solo of “Six Degrees Of Separation” but it goes all the way to old-timey juke-joint for “Hot Club Of Brooklyn” – all heard on concert CDs, too.
Selections from two on-stage albums make a bulk of “Vol. 4: Austin 2011-2020” yet there are four compositions from "Parlor" – also released in 2020 – Smith’s sole purely acoustic offering, delivered on a guitar that’s been in his family since 1890s, so the crunchy, spontaneous, ensemble-involving likes of “Trust Yourself” and “Simple Song” share the space here with a far-reaching, raga-flavored reading of “Love The One You’re With” which graces many of Matt’s shows, and aural stained-glass of “Daydreams” and the Latino-tinged “Dance With Me.”
And that is what the followers he’s bound to acquire with the four-disc anthology: dance to Smith’s individual rhythm. Here’s the artist deserving a wider recognition – and here’s a chance to delve into his psyche.