Bennie Smith

(Saturday night, BB's Jazz, Blues & Soups)

He's on his way to Arizona, he says. Quit his job as an editor, off to begin a new life. I'm trying to identify what's so disturbing about his demeanor: Something's simmering in there. I get the feeling that at any moment the guy might erupt: He's just as likely to put his foot through a wall as change the subject to poetry.

On stage, Bennie Smith. "I heard Bennie had a heart attack a couple of months ago," I say, making conversation. "I heard his equipment got stolen while he was in the hospital." My new acquaintance is dismissive, surly. Something's definitely pinching his nerves. Or maybe it's me. Having just come from an ultimate-fighting match, I'm sensing violence everywhere, like a bad song you can't get out of your head.

Just then a storm of inspired guitar blows through the room. The place is packed now. Not so strange, being a Saturday night, especially considering that it's Bennie Smith onstage. Photos of musicians line the walls like ghosts, even though not all of them are dead. Bennie is anything but dead. Same goes for his guitar, and his band. They fall into the next number gracefully, effortlessly: Ben E. King's "Stand By Me." It jumps, does tricks, buys you a drink. Bennie's face is serene, Buddha-like. The music pacifies my irascible new friend and me, at least temporarily.

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