Tuesday, 14 June 2005

Lavay Smith looks like a cross between Marilyn Monroe and Bettie Page. And when she sings…it’s as if Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Bessie Smith are all rolled up into one. Pure heaven! She is one of my favorite artists these days, if not the favorite.

Is it any wonder that, when I flew to San Francisco to visit my good friend Jules, there was only one thing on my “can’t miss” list? Hell, I picked the specific weekend entirely to see Lavay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers play live.

The show was at a place called Biscuits & Blues. It was just a couple blocks from my hotel, although I’ll admit it wasn’t entirely by accident. I had stayed at The Savoy Hotel about 10 years prior and loved it. That it was so close to the club was an added bonus.

Biscuits & Blues offers a full dinner menu upstairs and nightly shows in the club downstairs with a limited menu selection. Wanting to make a night of it, our dinner reservations were at 2030 and I reserved tickets for the 2230 show. The plan was to have a leisurely dinner (review forthcoming) and be able to enjoy the show without distractions.

Holding little more than 100 people, the club is located in the basement. Lit primarily by candles, the low ceiling, exposed pipes and proximity of the tables and the stage give the space an intimate feel and just the slightest 1920’s speakeasy vibe. It turned out to be the perfect setting for the show that was to come.

Dinner had taken a little longer than expected, but we got lucky and were seated very near the front just as the band took the stage. The sight lines were fantastic with only one table and a small dance floor between us and the stage. As small as this place was, I don’t think there could have been a bad seat in the house.

There wasn’t an opening act so much as a two-song warm-up by The Red Hot Skillet Lickers; a sextet featuring piano, string bass, alto and tenor saxophone, trumpet and trombone. They were tight and played off each other rather well, starting with a Ray Charles tune and another up-beat number. Both songs showcased the band’s talents and got the joint jumpin’.

Then Lavay Smith took the stage and I could barely contain myself. Right then I knew it would live up to my expectations. As it happens, we were standing right next to her as we entered the club and I hadn’t even realized it.

For reasons I can’t begin to fathom, the couple in front of us left after Smith’s first song. The waitress asked if we’d like to move up front. Umm…HELL YEAH! I had flown over 1000 miles with only two things in mind: visit Jules and see this show. There was no way I would pass up a front-row seat.

My biggest worry was that Jules wouldn’t like the show. I know she likes Blues music, but what I’ve heard her talk about the most is Johnny Lang, while Lavay Smith is a bit different. As excited as I was to finally see Smith play live, I would have been totally bummed if Jules hated it. Luckily, my fears were unfounded and she had a good time.

Through the 90 minute set she did a couple songs from her forthcoming CD that “should be out in time for Christmas,” plus several songs from each of her first two releases.

I wish I could remember the whole set-list, but there’s just no chance. I do recall that she did most of my favorites, including “Blue Skies” and “Walk Right In” (from One Hour Mama) plus the torchy “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You?,” sassy “I Want A Little Boy” and the title track from Everybody’s Talkin’ ‘Bout Miss Thing!

Afterwards, Ms. Smith came out and signed autographs. There’s no doubt I came across as a gushing fan-boy, but we got a chance to talk for a couple minutes. She was gracious and signed both of my CDs. Lavay mentioned that they’d be coming to the Twin Cities in September and November. While I already knew about November shows in Rochester and Fairmont, Minneapolis wasn’t on the list as of when I left.

Ironically, after having made special effort to bring my camera, I was so enamored that I completely spaced it. How cool would it have been to score a couple pictures with Lavay, let alone pictures during the show? Boy, did I blow that one.

Still, I had started the evening with a huge grin and afterward…you practically had to scrape me off the ceiling. You can bet I’ll see her again when she comes to town. If the Minneapolis gigs are true, I’ll be there! If they don’t happen and it means a road trip to Rochester, I’ll happily do that.

I won’t forget pictures either.