There's a moment in every Sonny Smith performance when a strange hush falls over the crowd and suddenly -- when everyone's' faces are lax from laughing at some particularly funny line -- he swings at them with a depth of meaning, subtle as a left hook, that hits so hard it can only be truth. Amidst the jokes and puns, some casually insistent line sinks in with a force double what it might have if delivered straight.
Like early Tom Waits or Bob Dylan, the actual music in Smith's simple, subtle songs is not the main point. More often than not it's a pretext for his rhapsodic lyrics, overflowing with inventive rhymes, wordplay, and street lingo that's fresh and witty without ever straining to be hip. Another comparison might be Adam Sandler -- Smith's lyrics are that unabashedly funny. "1,000 Miles" begins with his assertion that "The memory muse to
use is Pabst and GPC's/ See it's working already I miss my old squeeze/ She's in NYC, don't go there, please.../ and if you go to Dallas/ Won't you look up old Alice McCraig/ She was my southern honey babe/ But she had a Chihuahua in love with my leg/ Man, I couldn't stay..." or "Baseball Player," in which he laments the loss of an old girlfriend he's shocked to learn is "seeing my sister... what's she got that I ain't got?/ Sensitivity? Understanding?/ She's with you when you fly, but what about the landing?"
Smith has always seemed most comfortable in a crowded, noisy club, strumming guitar or playing piano, and the best tracks here are those recorded live at the Rite Spot and other intimate venues, where Smith connects with the audience and draws an energy from it that's lacking on some of the other tracks. Competent studio musicians Jeff Addicott and Tom Freeman back Smith on most songs, but too often this results in a loungey feel that doesn't come close to matching the fierce life promised by the lyrics. On several numbers, however, such as "Pass the Wine," Smith relaxes and overcomes the recording limitations to deliver the song so well you feel like you're really there -- not just in a club, listening, but out on the street corner mixing with such off-beat characters as "Officer Scaletti" and "Father Eugene." Sonny Smith performs Saturday, March 4, 9 pm. at the Tip Top Inn, 3001 Mission (at 26th). Tickets are $5; call 824-6486.