Like most musicians, G.E. Smith has a tough time giving a simple answer when asked what kind of music his band plays.
"Well, it's kind of hard to describe," he says not very helpfully. "The songs come from country roots, but the band definitely rocks. I guess you could call it country-rock. I play blues a lot, so there's that blues thing in there, too. Maybe we sound a little like Poco at their most rock and roll-y. We're definitely not a big-hat country band."
It's amusing and strangely reassuring to hear the versatile guitarist and Saturday Night Live musical director since the Paleozoic Era grasping for words to describe his latest project like some kid who just mastered his first three-chord progression and threw a band together to play Stones covers at frat parties. G.E. Smith has been picking guitars since the age of four, professionally since eleven. He's played with Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Hall and Oates -- you name the rocker, Smith's probably backed him or her at one time or another. Nonetheless he remains best known for his eight-years-and-counting tenure as the Not Ready For Prime Time Players's lead axman.
"I'm sort of like the liaison between the bands and the director," Smith says of his duties on the show. "Maybe a song runs too long -- we try to limit bands to around eight minutes for two songs. As a musician it kind of hurts to have those kinds of limits, but what can you do?"
What can you do, indeed. If you're a musician of Smith's renown, you can throw together a band of your own around the original songs of a long-time friend and collaborator like Stillwater, Oklahoma, native Bruce Henderson. Smith and Henderson met a decade ago in New York City while Smith was playing with Hall and Oates. The future Saturday Night guitarist took an immediate liking to Henderson's soulful country tunes, helping the singer-songwriter record a few demos. About a year ago the two formed a band, the High Plains Drifters, featuring two more SNL alumni A bassist Paul Ossola and drummer Shawn Pelton. Guitarist Andy York, who's played with Nils Lofgren for several years, drifted in to round out the lineup. All of the musicians live in or near New York City, and this summer the High Plains Drifters became the unofficial house band at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett, Long Island, where Smith and his wife maintain a home.
Rolling Stone raved about the Drifters recently, singling out Henderson's "dry, wind-swept delivery that conjured up an intoxicating mix of images from Hank Williams to Joe Ely," and "a deft combination of the sweet, desolate wail of the prairie and the macho crunch of Southwestern rock and roll." The live performance review called Smith's fretwork "a dynamic synthesis of blues architecture, rock and roll drive, and Merle Travis-style rhythmic intonation," and noted the guitarist's brilliant slide solo on a Muddy Waters cover.
Talkhouse owner Peter Honerkamp managed to persuade the goldilocked guitar god to bring the band to the club on Miami Beach over Thanksgiving weekend. "I've been to Miami a few times," recalls Smith. "We were there for a Dylan tour. We played this place that was surrounded by a lot of fences [Miami Arena]. They told us not to go outside, not to leave and walk around. I mean, I live in New York. I'm not afraid to walk around. But it sure seemed like there were a lot of fences around that place."
Ever the paradox, Smith is one of the few musicians with a steady, financially lucrative gig who actually misses touring. "I've been to Europe 23 times, never bought my own ticket. It's great. When you travel with a band, it's a lot better than going as a tourist. Everywhere you go there are local people waiting to show you around. They take you to the really good restaurants, the really good clubs. You stay in great hotels, eat great food, meet all kinds of interesting people. It's fantastic."
Of course, it's not always that glamorous. "I was playing in Kansas City with Hall and Oates in '81. 'Private Eyes' was out and that week it had gone to number one on the Billboard charts. It was the first time I'd ever been number one, and Hall and Oates hadn't been there for years. After the gig we decided to go out to a rib place to celebrate. It was in a kind of funky part of town. We closed the place. But because of the part of town it was in and the lateness of the hour, the limo driver left without us. Luckily, a guy in a pickup truck who had been to the show passed by and took us to our hotel. But I remember sitting in the back of this pickup truck in the wee hours of the morning, with Darryl shouting 'We're number one!' to nobody. Nobody. That scene just sums up what the rock and roll life can be like."
Don't let the cautionary tale fool you, though. Smith is still a true believer. In fact, contrary to what you might expect based on his cocky posturing as he puts the Saturday Night Live band through its paces every week, he's as starstruck as the next fan, even if he does enjoy a bit more access to the objects of his idolatry.
"One of the biggest thrills of my career -- hell, of my life -- was being the musical director for the Dylan tribute at Madison Square Garden," Smith gushes. "I came home one day and there were messages on my answering machine from George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Johnny Cash. Believe me, I saved that tape."
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Smith, who toured with Dylan as recently as 1991, has nothing but kind words for the temperamental songwriter from Hibbing, Minnesota. "He's the best. Hey, he's Bob Dylan. I was thrilled when he mentioned my name in the liner notes of his new album. I remember doing several gigs outdoors with Bob in Europe. Cold. Driving rain. Wind blowing in our faces. He'd do a two-and-a-half-hour set. Never bothered him."
The upcoming visit to Miami with the High Plains Drifters will be one of Smith's first sojourns outside of New England since that Dylan tour in '91. He's looking forward to the opportunity to break in the Miami Talkhouse with the same no-holds-barred attack he and the band used to rattle the Amagansett club this past summer. When asked if he'd like to take one last stab at categorizing the High Plainsmen's sound, Smith pauses for a minute before giving it his best shot:
"We play and people dance. That's all there is to it. I used to have a job delivering 50-pound crates of celery, wooden crates with heavy-gauge wire sides. By the end of the day those crates didn't weigh 50 pounds any more. They weighed a couple hundred. Tearing your hands up. One thing I know for sure -- this is much better than that."
G.E. Smith and the High Plains Drifters perform at 9:00 p.m. Friday and 11:00 p.m. Saturday at Stephen Talkhouse, 616 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, 531-7557. Admission costs $15 and $20.