Release date: April 23, 2021
Fat Bank Music
By Linda Cain
Photo: Steve Jessmore
Pat Smillie is a one-man Blues, Soul and Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival. Sweat, soul and passion ooze out of every pore each time the Detroit native performs – which is not surprising given that Smillie spent his formative years in Chicago where he paid his dues in rough joints like the Checkerboard Lounge learning from the masters.
He moved to Chicago in 1992 to attend grad school at Loyola University, but after three years his studies “derailed” in favor of the lessons he was taught in the South and West Side blues clubs, where he religiously attended shows by Magic Slim, Big James & The Chicago Playboys, Vance Kelly & the Backstreet Blues Band, Melvina Allen, Chick Rodgers and more.
Vance Kelly nurtured the budding singer/songwriter/performer by letting him sit in every night for 2 1/2 years at the Checkerboard Lounge. “Vance was very generous with his stage time and offered me great advice about working the stage. He always made sure the band played my songs as well as his own,” Smillie recalls fondly. This led to a Wednesday night residency in 1996 for Smillie’s own band at the club which lasted 1 ½ years. Robert Plant and Arny Granat of Jam Productions attended one of Smillie’s shows there and were hugely impressed. Jam Productions booked Smillie to open for acts like Dan Aykroyd & Jim Belushi, Robert Cray and Bob Seger (at a sold out show of 18,000 at the All-State Arena in Rosemont, IL).
Smillie’s affiliation with Kelly exposed him to Soul Blues royalty Tyrone Davis and Otis Clay, who saw him perform and were also impressed. “They were VERY gracious and supportive of my efforts,” Smillie notes. Tyrone booked Smillie’s band at his club in late 1995 and Otis called him up to sing on stage at Rosa’s Lounge where he was spotted by festival promoters. Smillie and his band played Chicago Blues Festival in 2003 and 2005; they also went on tour across Eastern Europe in 2011. “It was a dream come true,” he reminisced.
After 23 years in Chicago, Smillie reevaluated his career and made the decision to move back to Detroit in 2015, where he was immediately hired by former Motown Records Funk Brother Dennis Coffey to sing at his weekly club residency. Smillie also hooked up with legendary Detroit guitarist Jim McCarty (founding member of Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels and Cactus), and began performing and recording with him.
In 2019 Smillie released an acclaimed six-song EP titled Lonesome For A Long Time, featuring some of Detroit’s finest joining him in the studio.
Smillie spent the 2020 Covid lockdown composing new songs; he and the session band hit the recording studio to create Last Chance, a sparkling new eight-song album that’s as shiny and revved-up as a Mustang just off the Motor City assembly line.
Smillie’s vocals are as powerful as a Ford pickup truck engine and so are the well-crafted original tunes. Smillie and Motor City Josh (a.k.a. Josh Ford) collaborated on the songwriting and production, which are top notch and a pleasure for the ears. Josh also contributes guitar and he is joined by many of the same players from the Lonesome sessions including: horn arranger and sax man Keith Kaminski, trumpeter Walter White, Evan Mercer on keys, guitarist Johnny Rhoades, backing vocalists Ashley Stevenson and Tina Howell, drummer/percussionist Todd Glass, and bassist Chris Smith. Guitarists Brendon Linsley and Jason Bone contribute to a couple tracks as well.
Last Chance kicks off with the Memphis soul overdrive of “Heart in a Headlock,” featuring a blazing horn section and an incessant beat that will get bodies movin’ and groovin’ on the dance floor. Smillie sings his heart out about a love he just can’t break away from.
“Something on My Heart” finds the horn players blowing smooth and mellow on this mid-tempo Al Green/Otis Clay style ballad. Smillie sings solemnly about heartaches that you know he’s lived through, as the “sweet soul sisters” comfort him with their harmonies. A groovy duet between pianist Mercer and guitarist Rhoades adds a special jazzy touch to this poetic tune.
Guitar great Jim McCarty makes a guest appearance to play lead on “Broke Down Chevy #2,” a reprise of Smillie’s signature song that he previously recorded on a 2006 release, Down By The River, from his days in Chicago. “I was a broke down Chevy/ Until she loved me like a Cadillac”; Smillie sings it with gravel in his voice and redemption in his soul, backed by McCarty’s tough, gritty guitar and a backbeat that’s so funky you can smell it (to borrow a phrase from Buddy Guy).
Smillie and crew take us down to New Orleans for the title track “Last Chance,” featuring hip-shakin’ Big Easy beats and Sonny Landreth-worthy slide guitar by Motor City Josh. “Tonight’s your last chance/ To fall in love with me” is the final plea to a longtime lover who is now giving him the cold shoulder.
“Josephine” has a cinematic, dreamy quality that recalls a misty bayou shrouded in mystery. Smillie weaves a tale about a duplicitous woman that is reminiscent of Levon Helm and The Band.
“Drinkin’ & Druggin’ ” is high octane rock ‘n’ roll about Smillie’s former hard livin’ lifestyle that was fun while it lasted, but nearly killed him. Having to spend “30 days locked up in Cook County” was the wakeup call that led to his sobriety.
Pat Smillie is a survivor; he’s been buried in the blues and lived to tell about it in his music. As a tunesmith, he is an expert storyteller who writes about personal, yet universal, truths that come straight from the heart. And with every word he sings, Smillie gives us a little piece of his heart. The musicians he has aligned with in Motor City are the perfect fit for this talented artist’s songs that can move both your body and your soul.
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