The Lil Smokies


January 24th, 2020 at Biltmore Cabaret

The Lil Smokies on Fire at the Biltmore Cabaret

by Peter Grainger

Good music has a way of helping wipe away the winter blues, and none better than that of nu-grass aces, The Lil Smokies. The Denver-based quintet leaves a blazing trail behind them wherever they play; no doubt they are still hosing down the dance floor at Vancouver's Biltmore Cabaret, after a fiery performance there on Friday night (January 24th).

"Something magical happens every time we cross the border into Canada", remarked fiddle player Jake Simpson from the tiny stage, "You're all so enthusiastic-- you really listen and we appreciate it so much." Half of the crowd seemed to be there to listen, while the rest were determined to dance the night away; Lil Smokies seem to have that affect on audiences, enticing folks to listen and/or move, because their music is so strongly spiced by the traditions of bluegrass, which means it is tight, lively and melodic. They don't seem to miss having a drummer, because these players play rhythms and lead lines interchangably with ease. Simpson, dobroist Andy Dunnigan and guitarist Matthew "The Rev" Rieger all sing lead vocals-- and harmonize at every turn-- while banjoist Matt Cornette and bassist Scott Parker hold it all together behind their formidable front line. All these guys are adept at soloing-- and it is one of the joys of Lil Smokies-- to witness such accomplished playing-- each member is a master at their respective instruments.

This was Lil Smokies first Vancouver show, although they have played Salmon Arms Roots & Blues Festival to great acclaim, twice; Simpson asked the crowd how many saw them there-- and the collective holler suggests many did witness the band there and were impressed enough to want to support them again. As adept as their playing is, what sets Lil Smokies apart from many bluegrass acts, is that they write so much original material. And the cover tunes they chose aren't bluegrass standards you'd expect like "Orange Blossom Special" or "Foggy Mountain Breakdown"; they favor pop tunes from the likes of The Beatles, Elton John, America-- and on this night-- ZZ Top's "Sharp-Dressed Man" and "Message In A Bottle" by The Police.

"Most of the set we've played tonight is from our new CD, which was released officially-- today!" beamed Simpson, as he explained "Tornillo" was named after the tiny Texan town where it was recorded over a ten-day break in touring last year. The new songs are so catchy and infectious, they feel as if you've heard them before; they are so instantly memorable, that many in the crowd were singing along to the choruses before each song finished. Dunnigan usually writes most songs on Lil Smokies CDs, but this time around, he's written or co-written just over half, while The Rev has upped his game with five songs and even Simpson stepped up with a pair himself. Lyrically, the complexities of love and politics seem to be dominating Lil Smokies' hearts and minds, which will help retain real staying power for this new batch of songs. Judging from the crowd reaction, chances are the next tour Lil Smokies organizes, will include at least one Vancouver date.

Set List

  • Miss Marie
  • Wheel On The Water
  • Giant
  • Fortunes
  • Life Out There
  • World's On Fire
  • True Blues
  • Cheatin'/Sharp Dressed Man
  • The City
  • Always, Now, Never
  • Carry Me
  • Blood Money
  • Message In A Bottle
  • - - -
  • Tornillo
  • California


All images copyright (c) 2018 Miles Overn


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