"Eileen Aaron" from the album Moonalice
I started learning the rock 'n' roll drums when I was pretty young. When I wasn't practicing from the pages of the Haskell W. Harr Drum Method book on my snare, I used to position my clock radio on the top of my red-sparkle kick drum, tune it into WKTM, crank the volume, and play along with everything that came over the air.
This was back when Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Tommy Tutone, and Night Ranger were considered "new rock." It was also during the early heyday of MTV, a period during which (I'll go ahead and admit it) I enjoyed watching the videos for a string of songs by Hall & Oates. Daryl Hall and John Oates had already scored mild pop chart hits, but in the clips for "You Make My Dreams," "Private Eyes," "Maneater," and "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)," they sounded and looked a bit more New Wave and modern.
Cool images aside, the musician adding the strongest rock flavor to these power-pop hits was guitarist G.E. Smith. He may have looked a bit like "Jaws" in the James Bond films, but his versatile guitar style resembled the edgy blues/chaos of Keith Richards, the fluid licks of Eric Clapton, and the simplified soul of Steve Cropper. Even as a rookie drummer, I took notice of this Telecaster-toting guitarist.
From 1985-'95, Smith worked as the music director and guitarist for the Emmy-winning Saturday Night Live band. During that time, he regularly displayed fine taste and great guitar tone, performing with an impressive list of musicians, including Keith Richards, Al Green, Rickie Lee Jones, Bryan Ferry, Eddie Van Halen, and Buddy Guy. He played for years with Bob Dylan's band as well.
Smith will actually be in town this Thursday for a late-night performance at the Pour House with R&B/rock supergroup Moonalice — a rootsy band with a seriously deep blues and hippie-rock pedigree initially assembled by veteran Silicon Valley investor and guitarist Roger McNamee (Flying Other Brothers).
"It is fun, playing these smaller places," Smith said. "You know, Jorma Kaukonen once said a great thing that speaks directly to that: 'We start in the bars and we end in the bars; the only difference is where you went in the middle.' And that's what musicians do.
"When I was 11, I started playing in joints in Pennsylvania. Along the way, whether it was with Daryl or John, or with Dylan or anybody, sometimes we'd play in a bar. It is fun to play in a joint where you can just drop in and play. It's exciting for the band, and it's exciting for the audience. You can hear yourself in a way that's different from the bigger places, too."
Moonalice recently released an impressive book of gig posters and essays titled The Moonalice Legend: Posters & Words, Vol. 1, which is available at the band's online store. A self-titled debut album (produced by T Bone Burnett) is due in March.
"Thirty years or 30,000 years ago, it's the same gig," Smith says. "When a cave guy sat around the campfire and told a story, what did he want to do? He wanted to communicate something. He wanted to create an emotional atmosphere and a response. That part hasn't changed. I don't care if it's a band that goes on stage with a few laptop computers; they're making a sound and trying to get something across. That will never change."