4 Way Street and Sky Smeed Band
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., January 6, 2003) – About two years ago, four singer-songwriters and rock frontmen in Philadelphia came together for what was supposed to be a one-shot, revue-style performance at a radio station-sponsored festival highlighting that city’s top talent. The musicians discovered an affinity for each other’s work as well as a complimentary performance style, and thus was born 4 Way Street, which performed at Club Helsinki on Sunday night.
It’s impossible to see four young men, each a singer-songwriter in his own right, sharing songwriting duties, harmonies and lead vocals, and not think of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. But the good news is that although 4 Way Street kicked off its show with a jaunty tune modeled on Neil Young’s “Helpless” and featuring CSNY-style choral harmonies, the comparison ended there. For the rest of the group’s hour-long set, they traveled all over the musical map, touching down in a lot of other classic-rock cornfields and a few modern ones as well. But more important, by the end of the evening, they established themselves as individual personalities in their own right, sharing joy in each other’s work.
Ben Arnold, who alternated between acoustic guitar and keyboards, boasted a deep, bluesy, elastic growl on songs that sat comfortably alongside the modern rock of Counting Crows and the Wallflowers. Bassist Scott Bricklin had a voice made for the sort of English white-soul that Rod Stewart made famous, and his songs, including “Countin’ on You,” stood out as potential pop hits.
Guitarist Jim Boggia’s voice stood in stark contrast – high, a little pinched, but crystal-clear, and his playing and songs had a more jazzy, Steely Dan-type feel to them. Guitarist Joseph Parsons also ably fronted the group – which was backed by a terrific drummer -- on several of his own numbers.
While most of the songs were clearly the possession of the individual singer-songwriters, the group gelled occasionally, as on “Shoot the Moon,” a bit of upbeat, “The Weight”-like folk-rock on which they passed around the vocal phrases with the deftness and camaraderie of The Band. Arguably few if any in the club had heard this group before, but they so visibly took pleasure in each other’s performance, and gave their all on song after song that boasted classic values, that listeners couldn’t help becoming fans by the end of the ensemble’s set.
It was a two-bill night, and local rock singer-songwriter Sky Smeed and his band closed out the evening with a set of Smeed’s original, heartland-style rock. A towering presence on stage, Smeed sang with a gruff authority belying his apparent youth on songs about breaking free from small-town environs.
“Main Street’s a last resort as far as I’m concerned,” sang Smeed on “Main Street,” with the lyrical directness and economy bred of the country music that informed much of his material. His songs boasted good hook lines and structural patterns, and his melodies ran naturally and effortlessly through the chord changes.
Unfortunately, Smeed’s band didn’t share his lyrical tautness or literate economy. In addition to Smeed’s own acoustic guitar, his band included two electric guitarists, a bassist and a drummer, and the group arrangements did more to get in the way of Smeed’s songs than to punctuate them. There was way too much guitar, and what there was of it didn’t say much – it was like a language that lacked any grammar or vocabulary. Smeed’s rhythm section wasn’t much help either; they failed to snap, crackle or pop, and given the relative sameness of much of Smeed’s material, the band failed to provide contrast and color, save perhaps for one number late in the set that recalled the ambling country-funk of Little Feat.
Smeed is a talented singer and songwriter, and given the right musical setting, he has as much a chance to break out of a small town as any.
[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on January 8, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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