Another Saturday night

Legendary late-night frontman returns to The Frederick Blues Festival

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Hans and Franz, Hartman as Sinatra, Carvey as Bush, Toonces the Driving Cat, Matt Foley: Motivational Speaker (You remember, he lived in a van down by the river.)

Everyone had a favorite.

But there’s one thing that’s undeniable.

To this day, when tuning into Saturday Night Live, those who grew up in the 80s and early 90s cannot help but hear ‘‘G.E. Smith” before ‘‘and The Saturday Night Live Band” is uttered, even though the bandleader has been absent from the Studio 8H stage for over 10 years.

He is as inseparable from the lexicon as announcer Don Pardo — front and center at each and every station break, his square jaw set apart from his blonde pony tail, fingers frantically plucking the strings of an electric guitar.

During his tenure as the show’s musical director, the rocker and blues musician played with some of the greatest acts on earth: Eddie Van Halen, Keith Richards, Aerosmith, Al Green, Paul Simon, Nirvana, Tom Petty, and Eric Clapton to name a few among countless others.

At the request of Mike Myers, he was ultimately responsible for the excellent party time that was the platinum-selling ‘‘Wayne’s World” theme, and in the midst of that madness, toured for four years with none other than Bob Dylan.

Today, he heads up The G.E. Smith Band, and with his wife, singer and playwright Taylor Barton, operates his own record label, Green Mirror Music.

On Saturday, he will return to Frederick for the annual Blues Festival, closing out the night’s set from 8:30 to 10 p.m. It’s not quite late night, but Smith promises the show will most certainly be live.

Come to think of it - the part of the Rockefeller Center that housed Studio 8H? It’s called the GE Building. Still.

G.E. — Bringing goodthings to life

‘‘When I was four years old, I was in the basement of our house in Stroudsburg, Pa. You know the kind of basement in an old house where all of this stuff is just hanging on the wall? I saw something, and I asked my mom, ‘What’s that?’ And she said, ‘A guitar.’ I said, ‘Can I play with it?’ It was some cheap acoustic guitar from the 1930s. ... I remember I went out in the back yard and laid it flat on the ground, and I slapped the low E string and watched it vibrate. Have you ever watched a string vibrate on a guitar? I was only four years old, and I got it. I didn’t know the words, but I understood the concept. I never looked back or sideways. That was it.”

Luck of the Irish

Smith says his career has been one series of ‘‘fantasy situations” after another - his term for being in the right place at the right time, for kismet. From the gift of his first guitar, to meeting SNL guru Lorne Michaels, and the resulting education of riches received from sharing a stage with some of the world’s finest showmen. One of the earliest examples, though, proved a true luckycharm.

‘‘When I was about 7, I started to be able to play a bit. After I put the rest of the strings on the guitar — because it only had 3 or 4 strings when I got it — I began learning chords and picking up melodies. One summer, I met this Irish girl. This was way back in ’59 or ’60. We lived in a small town in Pennsylvania, but she was there for the summer. She was maybe 13 or 14 years old – this beautiful blonde girl with freckles, and she knew a lot of traditional Irish music. She taught me how to finger-pick a guitar, which opened up so many doors for me. It was tremendous good luck.”

Beck and call

Ask G.E. Smith to single out a professional highlight, and he hesitates. He’s played with the best of the best, and to pick one over the other would seem sacrilege. When he mentions guitarist Jeff Beck, formerly of the Yardbirds, however, there’s a certain spark in his voice.

‘‘I’m a folkie first. That’s definitely my thing. But by the time the Beatles came along, I was already playing the electric guitar in a band. I mean, I liked the Beatles, but I wasn’t a huge fan. But by the time the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and the Yardbirds came along, I got it. When I first heard Jeff Beck, I said, ‘Oh, ok. I get it now.’”

‘‘...To pick one musician over another, I don’t know. But to me, Jeff Beck is amazing. The rest of us are following in his shadow. He towers over everyone else in my opinion. ... I got to play with him for a month over in England. He was with Mick Jagger’s band at the time. And every day I couldn’t believe I was standing next to him. And the stories I’d get to hear backstage! Between Mick and Jeff — it was unbelievable.”

Haulin’ Hall (& Oates)

‘‘I got a job playing lead guitar with Hall and Oates. I was also driving one of their cars. They were sort of on a downturn at the time, and they asked me to be their chauffeur. Within about a year to a year and a half ... MTV came along and they became gigantic in the 80s. They had a huge video presence. I think I did about 15-17 videos with them. We traveled constantly all over the country.”

What about Bob?

It was midway through his SNL years when Smith was given an opportunity to tour with Dylan - an experience that would last for four years.

‘‘If I hadn’t met everybody yet — I did then. When Bob plays, everybody comes out.”

Upon hearing of Dylan’s upcoming Harry Grove concert, Smith lights up.

‘‘That’s the cool thing about him. One [year that] I toured with him, all we did the whole summer was play state farms, ball parks and Indian reservations. Bob doesn’t need to play in these big opera houses to 100,000 people. Just give him a ball park with 7,500 [fans]. That’s what he likes.”

Free weekends

Smith’s Saturday Night Live gig came to a close in 1995, although he has guest-starred since, reclaiming the stage whenever he returns.

‘‘I don’t miss it. I was very lucky to be there. I was there for 10 years and it was fantastic. It was like college and grad school, being on stage with all of those professional musicians. ... Being there, playing with such high-caliber artists, I always knew how lucky I was, and I still know. I don’t discount that element in the least.”

Mr. Smith goes to Frederick

Smith is looking forward to his next Saturday night gig. He had played Frederick once, a few years back, and said he enjoys performing at more intimate venues like the Blues Festival.

‘‘They’re the best. Especially for the kind of music I like to play. ...To be right in front of the audience, to be able to give them stuff that they can understand. That’s what I like, right there.”

‘‘I’m going to have some good guys playing with me and some new material. At least, new material for those who haven’t heard me play before. And you’ll get to hear me sing. I guess a lot of people have never seen me open my mouth before.”