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Pat Smillie Band - Down By The River

12 songs; 45:20 minutes; Splendid

Styles: R&B, Soul, Blues, Roots Rock

Why would a competent artist do a cover song of another artist’s work?  Check all that apply:

(A) Feels can do it better than the original or with a unique arrangement
(B) Can’t come up with a song of his/her own
(C) Wants to do a tribute from respect for the original artist
(D) Wants to bring attention back to an older song
(E) Wants royalty money to go to the original artist
(F) Feels the song is a perfect fit for his/her style

As a huge Neil Young fan, I was surprised at Pat Smillie’s choice of “Down By The River” for the title track to his third album. To be honest, at first listen I thought recording it was pointless, because how could anyone ever top, or even equal, the 1969 original. However, subsequent listens convinced me there is something deeper here. Typical of the songs on the CD, Smillie’s intricate, full studio version with horns and background vocals is performed so passionately that it rekindled my own feelings for the song. Done correctly, music is about the song anyway, not the artist.

“Down by the River” is about what can be done sonically. The meaning of the lyrics always seemed vague to me, but two explanations for that: (1) It is Neil Young (2) Neil wrote the song sick in bed with a 103 degree fever.

“Over the years, I've heard maybe 5-6 cover versions of the song (including Roy Buchanan, Buddy Miles, and Michael McDonald), and I think ours is different from all of them. I thought we brought something a little different to it,” said Smillie in an interview spurred by my overwhelming curiosity after I had written the opening to this review. “I LOVE Neil Young, and we had been playing ‘Down by the River’ for about 2-3 years on our live gigs. I think the song is beautiful and haunting.”

The Pat Smillie Band version, said Pat, “had sort of developed into a showcase for our keyboard player, Alton Woodley. The version on the album (including the synth opening and solo) was recorded live in the first take. We overdubbed some backing vocals - the girls did a great job.”

“Initially, I was struck by how many people knew and loved that song -- all people (black or white, old and young) seemed to have a strong reaction to it. In August 2005, we opened for Robert Cray at the Park West club in Chicago, and we plopped that song in the middle of our set. The whole auditorium erupted in applause afterwards. So, I figured we'd try recording a version for the album. I just have always loved the song, and after seeing the way people reacted to our performance and Alton's keyboard solo, I figured we might as well include it on the CD,” he shared.

Not to be ignored, six of the twelve songs are strong Smillie (and cohorts) originals. Standouts include “Broke Down Chevy” and “Snaggle Tooth” reminiscent of Clapton’s “Tell the Truth.”

Other enjoyable covers include “Isn’t It a Pity” by George Harrison replete with Harrison’s unique guitar tones, Muddy Water’s “You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had,” and Chuck Berry’s “Back To Memphis.”

Born in Detroit MI on Valentines Day 1969, Pat’s musical memories stretch back to age five when he would listen to music in the car with his father. Later, after a decade immersed in the classic recordings of legendary Blues and R&B artists like Ray Charles, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, Wilson Pickett, and Otis Redding, a young Pat Smillie found his own voice for singing. His vocals have a gruff edge sounding like a blend of Joe Cocker, Van Morrison, and Delbert McClinton.

In 1992, Smillie moved to Chicago where soon he was being invited on stage to sing in blues joints across the city. In May 2003, Pat celebrated the release of “Letter to Hampton” (FBM 1001). That album cracked Living Blues magazine’s TOP 25 album chart - garnishing airplay on blues radio programs across the United States.

For “Down By the River,” Pat Smillie teamed up again with co-producer, Bud Johnson (of Red Brick Recording) to record the first new studio recordings from the band in over three years. Special guest appearances include contributions from Corky Siegel, Alice Stuart, and Big James Montgomery and the Chicago Playboys Horns.

Pat Smillie, his large band, and his recordings are a welcome addition to the Chicago music scene. Give this CD a try, and see if you, like me, don’t dig out the Neil Young original for comparison.

Reviewer James “Skyy Dobro” Walker is a noted Blues writer, DJ and Blues Blast contributor. His weekly radio show “Friends of the Blues” can be heard each Thursday from 4:30 – 6:00pm on WKCC 91.1 FM in Kankakee, IL

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