A bluesman’s luck worked out one time for J.C. Smith, who managed to exit Russia after that country invaded Ukraine.
Smith was at the midway point of his 10th Russian tour when the United States government instructed its citizens to immediately leave the country. A 20-hour trip to a Moscow airport became tense when Smith was noticed by Russian police.
“I did get hassled when I was on the train coming back,” Smith said. “Two train officers were standing in front of my car and I had a nonalcoholic beer. So I walk back to my room on the train and they go, ‘Give me your passport,’ and they started taking down all this information. They said you can’t drink alcohol on the train. I said, ‘I’m not, it’s non-alcohol.’ He starts looking at it and starts writing down some more stuff. Then he goes, ‘Don’t drink on the train, and good luck!’ When he said good luck it sent chills up my spine. Good luck for what? I’m just sitting here on the damn train trying to get out of here. A little after that, that woman (Brittney Griner) got arrested.”
Griner has been imprisoned since Feb. 17. The American is known worldwide as a professional basketball star who played for Phoenix in the WNBA and UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia. While Smith also might be considered a public figure, the unassuming profession of blues artist might have helped him return home. Griner would be more valued in negotiations of a potential prisoner exchange between the two countries.
There was much concern for Smith, whose wife booked four airline tickets for him to get out of Russia. The first choice, Finland, was canceled, then a flight to Turkey was in doubt. Smith was able to fly to Qatar and then to San Francisco. He lives in San Jose.
Before arriving in Moscow, Smith had performed for a week on the exclusive Caribbean island Mustique, along with Joe Louis Walker and Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne. Among the wealthy island hosts was Mick Jagger, who questioned the timing of Smith’s Russia tour.
“People were saying don’t go,” Smith said. “But it was my 10th tour there and I have this great tour manager, so I just said, ‘Yeah, they’re just posturing. We’ll be OK.’ We played all of Siberia and we didn’t hear anything, but I’d get messages from home about what was going on and how it was looking scary and all. About the sixth day of my tour, we were going to go to Moscow. I went downstairs for breakfast and the keyboard player had tears in her eyes.”
Smith has played more than 200 shows in Russia and has close friendships with the native musicians who’ve backed him onstage.
“(One of the band members) said, ‘They invaded.’ And all of a sudden there was a dark cloud. They said they hate this. They are not in favor of any kind of war. And I was there (in 2014) when they invaded Crimea, too. We were driving to Moscow. By the time we got there, there were protests and those 1,700 people got arrested. We heard they were offering a 14- to 15-year sentences for anybody who speaks out against the war. It was bad.”
But Smith’s tour continued for six more days, despite his wife urging him to come home.
“When you are an American touring in Russia, you are kind of high-profile,” Smith said. “I’ve been going there a long time. There’s billboards and those long banners in front of concert halls. So, it’s pretty high profile. (Officers) asked about me one time when I was playing this one venue and I was playing with an orchestra. They said, ‘Who is this guy?’ ‘Oh, he’s just a musician whose touring through,’ and they left it at that. It could have gotten hairy and that’s why I’m not so enthused about going back unless there’s a regime change because they’re reaching and doing all this other stuff and if you seem to be high profile you could be in some trouble.”
As he arrived in Moscow, Smith received a call from a concerned Joe Louis Walker, who said that Jagger was worried, as well. Walker asked Smith to call as soon as he landed outside of Russia. He also told him a Russian ruble was now worth less than a U.S. penny. There was a long wait for the flight, and several of Smith’s Russian friends stayed with him.
“My plan was to spend every ruble that I had there,” Smith said. “I bought slabs of ribs and wine and ordered all this stuff. We had a feast for about three hours.
“It got really sad. People who I had played with started sending me videos. We played the Bee Gees song, “To Love Somebody,” and we did it Chamber Brothers style. My friends were sending me renditions of this song and it almost broke me up pretty good. It was just really, really sad.
“Low and behold, I got out of there and I don’t know when I will ever see my friends again.”
Blue notes: The J.C. Smith Band made its third Bluesdays appearance at Palisades Tahoe on Aug. 9. It played in front of perhaps the largest crowd of summer in The Village. … Smith organized a benefit concert in San Jose and it raised $8,000 for Ukraine relief. “It’s just a drop in the bucket but a lot of drops make a ripple and a ripple makes a wave.” … One of the bands that played in the benefit was led by Rome Yamilov, the Russian guitarist who played with Aki Kumar at the Aug. 2 Bluesdays show. … The J.C. Smith Band is one of three from this year’s Bluesdays lineup that also appeared in 2021, the others being Chris Cain and The Blues Monsters. Smith’s was the first band to perform in 2021 on the new stage in The Village at Palisades Tahoe. After that show, the rest of the season was canceled due to wildfires. … Smith’s band includes drummer Tim Richard, saxophonist Noel Catura, keyboardist Scott Porter and bassist Douglas Mancini. … About playing Bluesdays, Smith said, “I love it. The crowds are really enthusiastic, and they’re there for a good time. My job is to engage the audience and these guys are ready to be engaged. They are dancing and screaming and doing the things that make us feel really good and to play harder and better. … Chris Cain gave Smith guitar lessons after Smith had played drums for more than 30 years. … “I said I wanted to learn some Albert King and T-Bone Walker licks and (somebody) said, ‘Well, that’s all you need to know.’” … Smith said he learned T-Bone Walker guitar riffs from Truckee’s Mighty Mike Schermer. … Smith’s cousin was Willie “Big Eyes Smith,” the famed Chicago drummer as a bandleader and for playing with Muddy Waters. … During a swletering Rolling Stones concert at Candlestick Park in 1981, Mick Jagger tossed a bucket of water into the crowd. The bucket hit Smith in the head.
Village at Palisades
6-8:30 p.m. Tuesdays
- Aug. 9: J.C. Smith Band
- Aug. 16: Studebaker John & The Hawks
- Aug. 23: Eddie 9V
- Aug. 30: Roy Rogers & The Delta Rhythm Kings