Hard-edged, electric blues blow through Keystone | SummitDaily.com
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Hard-edged, electric blues blow through Keystone

Kimberly Nicoletti

KEYSTONE – Chris “Hammer” Smith didn’t sing the blues for long before Michael Jackson called him to play harmonica on his “Off the Wall” album.

“I didn’t even have a car that worked,” Smith said, recalling when Jackson left a message on his machine. “I went to the recording studio on a friend’s moped.”

The break jump-started his solo career, which had been floundering for a year. Before that, he played with Hot Lips and Fingertips, where he gained a strong local following that began when Smith picked up a hitchhiker on his way to a Santa Cruz, Calif., club audition.

“The hitchhiker turned out to be a DJ and said, “How’d you like to be on the radio?’ We drove to the station, went on a half-hour later, and I called the club and said, “Turn on your radio. This is your audition.’ After that, the phone started ringing.”

Calls led to playing on Sammy Hagar’s debut album, on Paul McCartney’s hit “Say, Say Say” and with other artists, such as Smokey Robinson, Dolly Parton, Julio Iglesias and Gary Wright. Smith has also recorded soundtracks for hit television series such as “Murphy Brown” and “Dukes of Hazard,” motion pictures such as “Major League” and “The Outfit,” and television commercials. He has opened for Bonnie Raitt, Albert King, B.B. King, Johnny Winter and Bonnie Bramlett.

“There’s always been somebody who would give me a little bit of encouragement, and I’d always follow up on that,” he said.

He stumbled upon his passion for harp-playing at age 17, when he picked up a harmonica in his friend’s car during a surfing trip.

“I totally got into it,” he said. “It felt like it was second nature to me.” He played along with records eight hours a day, until a blues band he heard inspired him to start his own band.

“It’s been an interesting road,” he said. “My music has evolved from being wildly eclectic to more subtly eclectic – into my own style that’s recognizable and mostly danceable. I use simple chord changes that I can wail on the harp. It’s more modern blues with overtones of jazz and rock, and some of it has some country vibes to it.”

Though Smith has toured worldwide, he avoided Colorado for about seven years after crashing his bicycle on Swan Mountain Road. An avid cyclist, Smith woke up in a Denver emergency room in 1990 without the ability to move his left arm. He remained in the hospital for five days, but about a month later, he was back on stage, slightly pausing to use his right arm to move his left hand for chord changes.

Now he’s back with almost full range of motion in Colorado, not only with his harp, but also with his bicycle. He’s touring as a trio – a drummer he has known for 25 years and a new bassist.

“J Swanson is an upright bassist. It’s real percussive and makes everything sound really bluesy. It gives a new dimension to the whole thing.”

“It’s got variety,” Swanson said. “It’s not your typical blues bar band. We play a stripped-down acoustic set and an electric set. It’s more about the music and the blues’ vibes. It’s about roots music – keeping that part of traditional American music alive.”

Chris Smith wails on the harp with Hammer Smith at 10 p.m. Wednesday, June 19, at The Goat in Keystone.

Kimberly Nicoletti can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 245 or by e-mail at knicoletti@summitdaily.com.

Hammer Smith

– When: 10 p.m. Wednesday, June 19

– Where: The Goat, Keystone


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