Mark T. Small explains in the liner notes to Smokin' Blues that he's "a live player, not a studio guy." His intent with this release was to replicate the experience of hearing him perform in an intimate setting, with the connection between performer and listener very much a part of proceedings.
Small has been a performing musician for over forty years. Initially a fan of 'old time music' - folk and ragtime and, yes, the blues - he started out playing 'newgrass,' a catch-all name for adventurous music that expands upon traditional bluegrass. Delving deeper into the blues, he subsequently spent some dozen or so years leading a fluid Chicago-style blues band before eventually striking out as a solo artist.
Small obviously knows his stuff. His fretwork on Smokin' Blues, his fourth outing overall, is dazzling, with lots of variety - the playlist, all traditional, varies from hard-core blues to jaunty, ragtime inflected Americana, culminating with "America Medley," an absolutely delightful stroll through a handful of familiar chestnuts. Along the way are tunes from the likes of Blind Boy Fuller (the classic "Step It Up And Go"), Tampa Red, John Lee Hooker, a pair from Reverend Gary Davis, and Charlie Patton.
Small is a performer, though, and while acoustic guitar aficionados will be delighted by his intricacy and attack, he's not out to impress but to entertain. The material may be worthy of a museum, but Small knows the key is to engage an audience. His isn't a reverential approach - he's determined to bring these tunes to life, and his grooves have a palpable and undeniable urgency.
Small's vocals may not quite match the intensity of his instrumental work, but he's always convincing. He may lack the organic authority and imposing menace of Hooker or the Wolf, but he manages to set his own mood without the need for imitation.
The only guests are Small's old friends Shor'ty Billups (at 81 years young, surprisingly spry on "Walkin' The Dog") and Walter Woods, who contributes some fine acoustic harmonica on Howlin' Wolf's "Moanin' At Midnight." Elsewhere, though, it's just Small's voice, guitars, and foot beating out time ... old school, to be sure, but in the hands of an artist of Small's calibre, a lively and relevant testament to the enduring power of timeless music and an affirmation of the sheer validity of an intimate, one-to-one connection between performer and listener. This is good stuff!