Dressed to kill in black pants, vest and T-shirt, Josh Smith works the crowd at Cafe Tattoo like a seasoned veteran.
As he picks his Fender Stratocaster, his long, curly brown locks flow out of his trademark black Stetson. His mannerisms offer up an eerie resemblance to his late mentor, Stevie Ray Vaughan. Josh jumps off the stage to take an extended solo during Jimi Hendrix's "Machine Gun." The 16-year-old guitar phenom was in town recently with his band, the Rhino Cats, making a stop on his three-month national tour.
"The blues is all I'm used to," says Josh, whose mother, Janie, grew up in Mount Washington and attended Western High School. This show was a bit of a homecoming for the Smith family.
He is considered by some in the tightly knit brotherhood of blues guitarists to be among the next big stars. How big? Do the names Buddy Guy and T-Bone Walker ring a bell? He's even been called the heir apparent to his hero Vaughan, a bold statement about a kid whose parents only let him play gigs on weekends during the school year. "My parents will hide my guitars if I don't keep up with my schoolwork" says the honor roll student.
Josh remembers when he got his first guitar. It was the day his sister, Lindsey, who is now 13, was born. He was only 3 years old. Then one day when he was 7 he decided, "I might as well start taking lessons." Almost immediately, his talent and timing were recognized by teachers. At that time he was imitating glam guitarists like Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai. But then, according to his father, Joel, something happened that changed his life forever. "He heard Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix and freaked out." It was then that he became a student of the blues, studying the moves of Albert Collins and B.B. King.
Soon thereafter, at age 11, he began to sit in on weekly blues jams at clubs in his hometown of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., when he happened upon the Rhino Cats. After realizing the novelty of Josh's youthful presence and his guitar genius, the Rhino Cats invited him to join full-time. Since then, Josh and the Rhino Cats -- Mike Nadaoka (bass), Rick Cafaro (vocals, keyboards, guitar) and Jeff Anthony (drums) -- have released two independent albums, "Born Under a Blue Sign" and 'Woodsheddin," and there is talk of a major label's interest in their music.
Josh's parents have played an instrumental role in the development of his music career. "We believe in our son's talent very truly," says his father. "We really want to make this happen." They recently sold their Florida restaurant to help finance the tour, which Joel is booking himself.
During the Cafe Tattoo show on Belair Road, Josh's parents watch him stroll through the club and stop every few feet to grant the audience an up-close look at his guitar prowess. Although his voice lacks the soul of a gritty bluesman, his guitar skills are advanced beyond his years.
Josh meanders up to a few relatives sitting in the back and offers up a friendly "Hello" as though he forgot that he was in the middle of a fiery solo. These are the relatives who brought Josh balloons and candy. Probably not something that your typical blues musician experiences every day.
His 79-year-old great aunt, Betty Gould, is also in attendance tonight, more as a sign of her support for Josh than for his ear-tingling music. "I enjoy watching him play" she says with a smile.
There are others here tonight including Craig Brokes of Parkville, who heard the buzz about Josh through the Baltimore Blues Society, a non-profit group dedicated to the preservation of the blues. Prior to the show, Brokes was skeptical, knowing that Josh has some big shoes to fill. Brokes quickly was convinced. "He's definitely got the tools," he says. "It will come in time."
Winning the respect of your elders is one thing, but how about that of your peers? "A lot of my friends aren't into the blues," says Josh, "But they come just to see me play."
So what's next for Josh Smith and the Rhino Cats?
They continue the tour through August. Then it's back to school for Josh's senior year. In the meantime, he is keeping his options open.
College? Music school? More touring? Who knows.
But there is one sure thing in Josh Smith's life: Playing the blues. "It's always been the blues for me."
Pub Date: 7/06/96