Halfway through his show on September 21, singer-songwriter Preston Smith tilted his signature fedora sideways and put on a pair of Elvis-style shades.
“Should we get real gone for a change?” he asked the audience with a roguish grin.
“Yeah!” they hollered, not sure what to expect next.
“Fellas,” Smith said turning to his bandmates, “Let’s get real gone for a change.”
The virtuosic jazz and blues player’s live shows always feature this call and response playfulness and a slew of talented musicians, but they’re otherwise unpredictable.
On Saturday nights, patrons of Woodland Hills’ hidden gem, the Write-off Room, are treated to Smith’s masterful stylings. The lively, intimate venue is tucked away in the back corner of the Warner Plaza Shopping Center off Ventura Boulevard.
Immersed on stage in a Lynchian red glow, Smith nimbly moved between genres and instruments. Over the course of one set, he might play blues, funk, jazz, classic rock, swing, soul and rockabilly. He plays the guitar, a hands-free harmonica and an array of percussion instruments while singing through the four-hour performance. His voice is soulful and he’s especially adept at the electric guitar with his seemingly effortless improvisational riffs.
He always appears upbeat, and the fun is infectious for audience and performers alike.
It’s a party and Smith invites his most talented friends. Most nights he’s joined by Sal Alessandro on bass and Bryan Head on drums. Studio musicians come from across Los Angeles to jam with Smith and experience the world-class sound system installed at the club. There are often special surprise guests in the audience who will drop in to sing or play one of an eclectic mix of instruments—a violin one night, an accordion the next.
Tunes featured this night included Smith’s rousing rendition of “Let the Good Times Roll,” and his smoky crooning of classics,“It Had to Be You” and Elvis’ “Be-Bop-A-Lula.” He also performed a funky bass kicked-off version of Fats Domino’s “Don’t Lie to Me.”
“He’s from New Orleans,” Smith imparted before transforming into a one-man band machine. He seamlessly played the harmonica, guitar, bell, cymbals, and rattle all at once while singing. Sometimes he’d drop in a lip roll, a trumpet-like scat he calls his “lipbone,” or one of his many other vocal sound effects. In one instance, he gave a full-throated yodel. It all worked. The audience was captivated.
All the while, a small but spirited group of dancers created a makeshift dance space in the far corner sandwiched between two tables. One particularly tireless man in a white suit and matching fedora danced nonstop through both sets as if bewitched. A couple joined him for “Let the Good Times Roll” with their hands interlaced whipping back and forth. At one point, the fedora-sporting man worked his way to the center, right in front of Smith, his feet twisting in a frenzy. The audience cheered and chuckled, as did Smith. Late in the evening, Smith’s dreamy version of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” inspired one young woman to join the man for a slow dance. Others grooved and drummed out the beat from their seats to Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight,” as Smith evoked Bob Dylan with his harmonica stylings and old-school charisma.
Smith, who was born in Texas and raised in Arizona, has also written many original works. Perhaps his most famous, “Oh, I Love You So,” is the title song from the soundtrack of the film Cocktail starring Tom Cruise. He’s performed with many household names over the years and he’s most celebrated for his live concerts. The word is spreading through L.A. about these singular shows. The house tends to fill up, so be sure to get there early for the best seats.
Preston Smith can be seen at The Write-off Room every Saturday night at 8 p.m. following a one-hour comedy show starting at 7 p.m. There is no cover charge and a two-item minimum.
For the latest information: check out the calendar at thewriteoffroom.com.