Rock? Jazz? Musician can play it
From rock, pop and fusion to blues, bluegrass and other forms of roots music, John Smotherman has proven to be one of South Florida’s most versatile guitarists and vocalists since moving here in 1984.
The Palm Beach Gardens resident initially moved from his native Tennessee to work as an engineer for aerospace manufacturer Pratt & Whitney in Jupiter, but his self-taught musical skills soon caused him to soar with multiple bands. Former groups include variety act Lite-N-Up and roots music trio 301 East; current bands include blues unit the Micah Scott Project and bluegrass trio Smiley Tunehead.
Mr. Smotherman took his engineering and musical prowess to locales both stateside (Indiana) and international (Sweden) starting in 1992 before returning to South Florida since 2001. His instrumental prowess also includes dobro, mandolin, banjo, bass, and percussion, but in the past year, one of the area’s ultimate band mates has done something he’s never done before — embarked on a career as a solo performer.
“I did my first solo gig at Rudy’s for one of the club’s festivals,” he says of the diminutive downtown Lake Worth venue, which features mostly solo to trio acts. “That was only a 30-minute set, so I had enough material. After that went well, I had the idea that maybe I could look for other solo opportunities once I built up my song list.”
Predict that list at your own peril. Sure, there are requested favorites by artists like Tom Petty (“Runnin’ Down a Dream”), The Eagles (“Tequila Sunrise”), Dire Straits (“Sultans of Swing”), Paul Simon (“50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”), James Taylor (“Sweet Baby James”), The Doors (“Light My Fire”), Jimi Hendrix (“The Wind Cries Mary”), The Beatles (“Norwegian Wood”) and Jimmy Buffet (“Come Monday”), but mostly lesser-known gems off the beaten path of the pop and classic rock charts.
Few other than Mr. Smotherman could also conceive of and pull off Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Riviera Paradise,” Jethro Tull’s “Thick as a Brick,” Prince’s “Cream,” Little Feat’s “Willin’,” Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” Bob Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain,” Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line,” Booker T. & the M.G.’s “Green Onions,” Robert Johnson’s “Come On in My Kitchen,” Freddie King’s “Hideaway,” and Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5.”
“The list is a combination of tunes that I get requests for, plus some more obscure material that I really like to play,” he says, “but even some of those lesser-known tunes are by pretty well-known artists.”
A versatile guitar is required to encompass such feels from acoustic, progressive and roots-rock to blues, country and jazz, so Mr. Smotherman’s hollow-bodied, acoustic-electric hybrid instrument by Clearwater-based Michael Kelly Guitars is essential. Another key to his solo act is a Boomerang looping pedal, which allows him to record multiple rhythm guitar tracks on the fly, then play them back to sing and solo over.
“I had to work with that pedal at home and get used to it before playing out,” he says. “It will definitely point out if you’re unknowingly speeding up or slowing down. But I’m glad I found it. I didn’t want to resort to using backing tracks and vocal harmonizers, but rather to keep it as simple and organic as possible.”
Others among the area’s best guitarists have long admired Mr. Smotherman’s organic approach.
“John is a great player,” says Lake Worth-based Andy Stein, who freelances with various artists in South Florida, plays solo gigs with his own looping pedal, and is perhaps best-known for his 1990s work with West Palm Beach progressive pop band Inhouse. “I love his instrumental tone, his style, and the passion he brings to his playing.”
“John has the ability to come up with little parts that help create and define a song,” says Palm Beach Gardens-based Mario LaCasse, the blues veteran who plays with The Natty Bos, and is perhaps best-known as a founding member of the 1970s-1980s act Misbehavin.’ “When you add that to the physical ability he has playing guitar, I don’t think there’s anything he can’t do.”
That includes writing, recording and performing original material. Mr. Smotherman’s compositions on his ReverbNation site include playful flamenco feels (“Cathedral”), surf music (“La Furia Nacosta”), funk (“Champagnzee”) and jazz (“Sassy Gams”). On the bluegrass-themed “Rover,” Mr. Smotherman’s banjo playing is the driving force, and he even plays violin lines to accompany his additional guitar, bass, and drum programming.
All are instrumentals, but the versatile musician is working on new originals with live drum tracks — some of which will also feature his deep yet nimble voice, which tends to be underestimated only by comparison to his reputation as a player.
“I’d like to eventually release a solo CD,” Mr. Smotherman says, “so I’m waiting until I do that to post new material on the Web site. And I’m trying to decide which of the originals, vocal and instrumental, are best-suited to this format before putting them into this show. Doing solo gigs, I’m singing more than I ever have; up to 30 songs a night.”
Lest anyone think that Mr. Smotherman’s musical expertise is a by-product of his meticulous engineering skills, rare errors like the one at a recent solo performance showed a self-deprecating nature that’s a far greater factor. Before he delivered a spot-on rendition of Jethro Tull’s “Living in the Past,” complete with mimicry of lead singer Ian Anderson’s vocals and his flute solos on the guitar, Mr Smotherman stopped midway through a first attempt.
Asked why afterward, he grimaced, then laughed.
"I realized I was playing it in the wrong key signature," he said. ¦
— See John Smotherman perform solo at 6: 30 p. m. Feb. 28 at the Ship wreck Bar & Grill, 1511 N. Old Dixie Highway, Jupiter (746- 8882), and at 5 p. m. March 10 and 17 for happy hour sets at Double Roads Tavern, 251 U. S. Highway 1, Jupiter (203- 7061).